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Responsive (1): In good time

The way we respond to people – family, colleagues, strangers – carries a lot of information.

Any response at all suggests that someone matters – whether because we like them or they’re otherwise important to us, or because they’re somehow in our way.

The speed of our responses to people speaks volumes, and can send mixed messages. A fast response suggests some combination of:

  • This is a priority for me;
  • You are a priority to me;
  • I am (my organisation is) well organised, efficient and on-the-ball;
  • This response didn’t require much thought;
  • I don’t have enough to do / am procrastinating;
  • You got lucky.

A slow response suggests a combination of opposite ideas:

  • I am indifferent to this subject;
  • You are not important to me;
  • I (my organisation is) disorganised, inefficient and semi-competent;
  • This is a weighty matter;
  • I’m an important person who is busy doing important things;
  • You got lost.

The catch in all this is that the appropriate response time for a given message is determined by the relationship, the medium, and the culture we’re operating in. “Spouse in the room” generally demands a faster response than “Friend in messaging app,” who might expect a different cadence of communication than “Colleague via email.”

Because of this (and because no-one can be fast and thoughtful all the time), it’s probably more helpful to think in terms of a “good” rather than a “fast” response time for particular people in particular settings.

“Good” response time might mean meeting or exceeding a someone’s expectations – showing them what you’re like and that you care, setting an example – or it might mean defying expectations: that their expectations are not reasonable, that this is not the way you work, that there is a queue. Whichever you choose, it’s worth asking what a “good” response time looks like with the different people in your life, and to talk about these expectations when things seem to be going wrong.

The time it takes you to respond is the first part of your reply – so what do you want to say?

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...