In comes an email. You open it up and the first thing you notice is it’s long. Real long.

Should I read it or not? You decide to read it thinking that it must be important if someone’s gone to such effort to write such a long message.

Unfortunately it turns out they haven’t gone to much effort at all. The email is complicated and unclear, and you finish reading the email wondering what on earth they are talking about. You also feel a strong sense of regret for wasting those valuable 10 minutes! You think to yourself “Why can’t these people go to the effort to write a clear message?!”.

Before I tell you this simple technique for responding to any confusing email, let me first remind you of your responsibility with this. If you want people to stop sending you confusing messages, then stop responding directly to confusing messages. Your response to these messages is telling them that it’s OK to send you these messages and waste your time.

But of course, in the working world we can’t always put our foot down and just ignore every email we get. Sometimes these bad writers are our supervisors, or our customers. Sometimes we can’t risk offending them. Yet at the same time we are left with the challenge of figuring out exactly what they expect from us in response.

And so here is my suggestion. Instead of figuring it out by yourself, ask them to tell you. Respond to this email and say “What do you need from me?”.

When people write long and confusing emails, it’s because they haven’t thought about what they need from you. And a lot of the time all they need to do is take the time to think more about that.

You can use this question in a rude way, or a polite way, depending on your goal in responding to this person. You can say “Your email was really unclear, what exactly do you need?”. Or you can say “Thank you very much for your email. In order to help you as much as I can, please could you clarify what exactly you need from me?”.

So the next time you receive a long, confusing or unclear email, instead of taking the time to figure out what they need from you, just ask them. You’ll save a lot of time this way!