The Three Words You Should Never Use in a Work Email—And What to Say Instead
There are plenty of ways to stop being so passive-aggressive.
You're waiting to hear back from a colleague, a boss, a prospect, a client, a potential employer.
It's been a while. You've checked your junk folder. Nothing in there.
Are they avoiding you on purpose? Did they forget? Is it a no? Do they hate the idea you pitched? Do they hate you? All you know for sure is that you want an answer, but you don't want to come across as pushy.
So you drop them a note with those three deadly words: Just checking in.
"Just checking in to see if you got my invoice."
"Just checking in to see if you've completed that report I asked for."
"Just checking in to make sure you're coming to the meeting."
"Just checking in — did you get this, and are you able to meet with me?"
When we say "just checking in," we're trying to soften the real message: "Don't ignore me. I need an answer, already!"
While it's meant to be gentle, "just checking in" comes across as disingenuous. "Just" is a word we habitually use to minimize what we have to say. And "checking in" has a casual, "no biggie" undertone. Together, the phrase rings false when you clearly want something.
So how can you follow up without being a passive-aggressive nag? Here are the steps to crafting the perfect follow-up email.
Put yourself in the other person's shoes.
How many items are in your own inbox waiting for a reply? Everyone's busy. Things fall through the cracks. Remember that this person's attention is split a zillion different ways, and they probably won't mind a kind reminder from you.
My friend, a journalist—we'll call her Lisa—recently found this perspective shift helpful. She was discouraged because she'd scheduled a meeting with a top magazine editor, and the editor had cancelled three times.
Lisa was still waiting to hear back from her last two emails asking to reschedule and was wondering how she could follow up a third time without coming across like a psycho. "First of all," I told Lisa, "Let's assume that the editor, rather than deciding that you aren't worth meeting with, is simply human."
Being human indicates that you are:
- Addicted to checking your emails, many of which you open while in line at the grocery store and usually flag as unread but sometimes forget to even do that, especially when you realize the cashier is yelling "next customer" and it's you. Even if you meant to answer that email when you got back to your desk, it's now buried beneath new ones.
- Overwhelmed by all the things.
- Grateful, rather than annoyed, when someone reminds you—in a guilt-free way—that they're waiting for an answer.
"That makes me feel better," Lisa said. "So should I say something like, ‘Hey, just checking in?"
I wrote something for Lisa that I think is way more effective:
It worked! Lisa heard back from the editor, and scored a meeting.
Be direct but understanding.
Rather than saying, "Just checking in," here are some options that feel more authentic. Each one does the crucial job of reminding without chastising. Some are more buttoned up, some more familiar. Choose one based on your relationship with the recipient.
- I'm circling back to see if you've had a chance to think about this.
- I'm floating this back to the top of your inbox.
- I know how much you have on your plate, so I'm putting this in front of you again and would love your take.
- I wanted to touch base with you about this [idea, issue, project, event].
- At the risk of being [overeager, a nag, a nudge], I'm popping into your inbox again to see if we can move this forward.
- I hope this is an appropriate time to circle back with you.
- I hope this is a good time to pick this conversation back up.
- Hi! I'm here to bug you about this again.
Offer an easy answer, an out, or an alternative.
Often, people don't answer an email because it requires a lengthy, thoughtful answer. Make their response as simple as possible with one of these options.
- If an in-person meeting is tough to schedule right now, would it be easier to hop on the phone for [10, 20, 30] minutes?
- If now isn't a good time, I'll gladly follow up again next week. If that works for you, simply hit me back with a "Yes, next week" and I'll check back with you then.
- If I don't hear back this week, I'll assume it's a pass for now.
- If there's someone else I should direct this to, please shoot me a name and I'll gladly take it up with them (I promise to leave you out of the back-and-forth).
These phrases have helped me both on the sending and receiving end of follow-up emails related to my copywriting business.
If you're still stuck, fill in these blanks.
You probably have an email you need to follow up with right now, so here's a template you can use to clear it off your to-do list.
Balance persistence with patience.
It's always fine to follow up, especially if you indicated you would. But before you do, consider the question: Is it truly urgent to get an answer now, or do you just want one? It's helpful to check in with yourself.
Just don't say "just checking in."