Reverse Thinking

Having majored in English, I am no stranger to writing long essays (often to my displeasure). A highlight of my writing came from a technique offered by one of my professors. 

When writing, it is not uncommon for our brain to miss details that could take our writing out of context. The advice from my professor was to read my papers backward, sentence by sentence, or paragraph by paragraph. This technique enabled me to identify fragmented thoughts.

In the workplace, we often have to respond to emails. Another form of writing in reverse can improve the way we communicate.

Imagine receiving an email from your leader wanting an update on the status of a project delegated to you. You are highly capable and enthusiastic about completing the assignment but have been overwhelmed with other priorities. Fortunately, you still have time to meet the deadline. 

How do you respond?

Instinctively, we want to explain why we haven’t tackled the task to date to avoid appearing incompetent and may feel inclined to send a message similar to this:

Hello (Leader), sorry for the delay. I’ve had a lot going on and have been feeling a bit overwhelmed. I haven’t had an opportunity to dive into the task because…

We don’t want to give the impression that we are incapable of handling our workload so let’s explore crafting our message in reverse (reversing the roles of the writer (us) with the recipient (our leader).

Adopting the reverse position helps alleviate the emotions dictating our message. 

The first step is to acknowledge the initial message. Let the leader know you cannot reply immediately, helping put the leader at ease by eliminating whether you’ve seen the message or not.

Hello (Leader), thanks for the message. Unable to reply this second but will get back to you as soon as possible.

Next, write the message and save it as a draft.

Let some time pass to allow your emotions to come back into balance. Consider:

  • Am I writing too much?
  • Is the message confusing?
  • Can anything be misinterpreted?
  • Would it be better to communicate in person or by phone?

The goal is to keep the message as brief yet clear as possible.

The final response may look something like this:

Hello (Leader), thanks again for your message yesterday. I have some ideas on how to move forward. I would love to hear your suggestions as well. Please share what you have in mind, and we can discuss the next steps. We can also schedule a call if you like.

Ideally, we may receive a response similar to this:

Sounds good! Here are my suggestions. I look forward to discussing it!

The goal is to get our emotions to work for us versus against us. Writing in reverse helps us examine if we are effectively getting our point across.

Adapted from Inc./Justin Bariso