Talk it out: The science behind therapy and how it can help you

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New class expectations, new living situations, and navigating newfound independence can give us all the feels—from super psyched to super stressed. Even if you’re loving your student life, dealing with all the stressors that come with college can be a lot to handle. According to experts, the best time to handle that stress is now. “If we don’t take care of our mental health, we may not be able to reach our goals, maintain good relationships, and function well in day-to-day situations,” says Dr. Chrissy Salley, a psychologist in New York who works with students of all ages. “Taking care of mental health is one of the best things someone can do.”

Now really is the time to start tuning into your mental health—the majority of mental health issues appear to begin between the ages of 14 and 24, according to a review of the World Health Organization World Mental Health surveys and other research (Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 2007). But help is available. Along with methods like mindfulness and meditation, talking to a therapist (such as a counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist) can be a super-effective way to manage any mental health issue you may be facing or just a way to get extra support during times of stress, challenge, celebration, or change.

There’s a ton of research on how effective therapy really is—a 2015 meta-analysis of 15 studies of college students with depression found that outcomes were nearly 90 percent better for those who received therapeutic treatment than for those in control groups, most of whom received no treatment (Depression and Anxiety).

One of the most common and effective therapies is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a short-term, goal-oriented therapy where a pro helps you find practical ways to deal with specific problems.

Girl with "believe in your dream" written on her hand

The goal of CBT is to help you change or reframe certain thought processes—the idea is that by changing your attitude about something, you can change your behaviors. For example, if you think something like, “I’m terrible at chemistry, so I know I’m going to fail this test—there’s no use studying,” you probably won’t ace your test. CBT can help you shift your thinking to something more like, “I know chemistry is really hard for me, but studying will help me do better.”

And it works. There’s strong evidence that this therapeutic technique can help you handle just about anything you might have going on, according to a 2012 analysis of over 200 studies on CBT published in Cognitive Therapy and Research. The researchers found that CBT was effective for people struggling with anxiety, bulimia, anger issues, stress, and a number of other mental health issues.

OK, so we know that therapy is an essential and effective tool for keeping your mental health at its peak, but making that first appointment can feel intimidating. It doesn’t have to be. Our experts break down the therapy basics so you can embrace whatever you need to feel your best. Here’s what the pros want you to know.

1 Seeing a therapist is totally common —more people are doing it than you think.

Surveys show it’s not out of the ordinary to see a therapist—55 percent of college students have used campus counseling services, according to a 2012 report from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. If you feel uncomfortable with the idea of going to see a therapist, you’re not alone—and that’s totally OK, says Zachary Alti, a licensed social worker, psychotherapist, and professor at the Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service in New York. “Few people look forward to therapy, but students should be aware that therapy exists to help them, not to judge them,” he says. The process might not always be comfortable, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. “I’d encourage students to keep an open mind and try it,” says Dr. Salley.

2 Therapy is more than talking through feelings— it’s about building skills and solving problems.

“Many [young people] tell me they’re reluctant to participate in therapy because they don’t want to talk about their feelings,” Dr. Salley says. Again, that’s totally normal. But going to therapy isn’t just about talking about how you feel; it’s also about walking away with real tools you can use in your life. “Therapy should also be action oriented—a time to learn new skills for coping and figuring out ways to solve problems,” Dr. Salley says.

3 Seeing a therapist is like going to the gym. For your brain.

“Therapy is like physical exercise,” says Alti. Just like hitting the gym is good for everyone’s physical health—not just those with diabetes or heart disease—seeing a therapist can benefit everyone’s mental health.

Student perspective “Therapy should be considered as important as going to the doctor for a regular checkup. It is a way to get in touch with yourself and to be grounded enough to deal with issues that life presents before things feel like they’re too much to handle.” —First-year graduate student, Royal Holloway University of London

4 It’s smart to see a therapist before things feel totally overwhelming.

But really, any time is a good time to go. While anxiety and depression are still the most common reasons students seek counseling, according to a 2016 annual report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, you don’t have to be in the midst of a crisis or feel like you’re nearing a breakdown to see a pro—seeing a therapist can be helpful even when things are all good. “There are a lot of pink flags before you get to red ones,” says Dr. Dana Crawford, an individual and family therapist in New York. “Keeping things from becoming extreme is always better.” In other words, don’t wait for an emergency to take care of your mental health. “When bad things do happen, mental health will protect against the impact of these unfortunate events,” adds Alti.

Student perspective

“Being able to just have someone to really listen has promoted a lot of self-discovery. I trust my therapist with everything and I feel like he genuinely cares about what I have to say. He asks me questions that make me think about why I feel and do the things that I do. Once I know where something comes from, I can change it. It’s easier said than done, but it’s not something I think I could do on my own.”
—Second-year undergraduate student, University of Alabama

5 Therapists can help you handle change.

Real talk: College is full of huge life changes. “Even positive changes can be stressful,” says Dr. Salley. Luckily, therapists are particularly skilled at helping their clients deal with these transitions. “Having someone to talk to can be helpful, especially as you encounter new situations and people,” she says. While you’re dealing with a new set of responsibilities and expectations (everything from picking the right major to sorting through awkward roommate issues), a therapist can help you pinpoint how all the changes are impacting you and sort through the onslaught of emotions that everyone feels during this time.

6 Finding the right therapist is like finding the right pair of jeans.

Therapists aren’t one-size-fits-all—sometimes you have to try a few before you find the right fit. Don’t get turned off if your first therapy appointment isn’t super helpful—if something feels uncomfortable, listen to your gut, but don’t give up, says Dr. Crawford. “You would never go to the store, try on a pair of jeans, and say, ‘Oh, those don’t fit, I guess I won’t wear jeans.’ You would keep trying jeans until you found the right fit,” says Dr. Crawford. Same goes for therapists.

Finding that fit with a therapist is just as important for the outcome as the actual therapeutic technique, according to findings presented in Psychotherapy Relationships That Work (Oxford University Press, 2004). The research analysis found that three key things had a measurable positive impact on the outcome of individual therapy: 1) the strength of your collaborative relationship with your therapist—aka are you on the same page and making goals for your treatment together?; 2) your therapist’s ability to empathize or see where you’re coming from; and 3) the degree to which you and your therapist outline goals and reevaluate them together.

In other words, to get the most out of a therapy session, take the time to find someone you feel like you’re on the same page with, who gets you, and who’s willing to listen to your goals for therapy and help you develop them.

  • What types of therapy are you trained in?
  • What issues do you specialize in?
  • What populations do you specialize in? (While all therapists take on different types of clients, some specialize in specific groups such as working with LGBTQ+ people, people of color, or those who’ve been marginalized in some way.)
  • How do you invite all aspects of your client into the room? (It’s important to know how your therapist will address all aspects of your culture, says Dr. Crawford. “You want to know that you can talk to your therapist about all parts of who you are.”)
  • What are your beliefs about how people change?
  • What’s your goal for ending therapy? (Some therapists believe therapy is an ongoing thing that you never really graduate from, while others see it as a tool to resolve a specific challenge. Make sure their goals line up with yours, and if not, ask if you can redefine them together.)

To find a therapist, start on campus—most schools offer a certain number of free counseling sessions through their counseling or psychological services.

Check with your insurance provider to see whether you need a referral to see a psychologist or counselor. If so, you may need to make an appointment with your primary care provider or the student counseling center to ask for one. Once you have the referral (if needed), you can seek out a therapist in a number of ways:

  • Ask friends and family members if they have a therapist they recommend.
  • Find out if your school counseling center has a list of recommended providers.
  • Use the American Psychological Association’s online search tool.
  • Call your insurance company or use their online services to find a list of therapists who are covered by your plan. If you get a personal recommendation from someone, you’ll also need to check that they’re covered under your insurance plan.

Once you have a name or a list of names and you’ve checked that the providers are covered by your insurance plan, call each therapist and leave a message to ask if they’re accepting new patients and to call you back with their available hours. When you hear back from the therapist, you may want to discuss what you’re looking to get out of treatment, what days and times you’re available to meet, and what their fees are—confirm that they take your insurance (it never hurts to double check this)—and ask about their training and make sure they’re licensed. Sometimes it can take a few tries to find someone whose schedule works with yours, but don’t let that deter you.

7 A therapist can help you identify—and crush—your goals.

“Therapy can be useful by helping people acquire a better understanding of themselves and develop healthy habits,” says Dr. Salley. For example, if you have trouble getting up in time to make that optional early-morning lecture, but then you beat yourself up about missing it, a therapist can help you identify what you really value and then help you make decisions based on that. “It can be helpful to talk to someone who’s objective and not a friend to bounce your experiences and feelings off of,” says Dr. Crawford. “A therapist’s only investment is for you to be your best self.”

Once you’ve identified what’s really important to you, a therapist can help give you the tools to make your value-driven goals a reality. “Problems that are unaddressed remain problems,” says Dr. Crawford. “When you’re ready for something different in your life, it can change. Therapy can help you create the future you want.”

Student perspective: “The part of the therapy that was magical was that my psychologist didn’t provide me the solutions to the issues that I had, but she made me see things very clearly so that I can find solutions myself. This way, I’m able to make good decisions and have a balanced everyday life.” —Second-year graduate student, Saint Louis University

8 What happens in therapy stays in therapy.

You may be worried that all that talking might get out or that your therapist might tell your advisor or RA about what you’re struggling with. “A therapist isn’t allowed to do this unless the student poses a threat to themselves or others,” says Alti. “A therapist’s effectiveness is dependent on maintaining trust.” Bottom line: Unless they believe you’re in imminent danger (e.g., at risk of being seriously harmed or harming yourself or others), they can’t share what you say.

In short, everyone can benefit from talking to a therapist. “In the same way that everyone can benefit from going to the dentist, sometimes therapy is just a routine cleaning,” says Dr. Crawford. “Sometimes it’s just a time to reflect on where you are and where you want to go.” Whether you’re wrestling with anxiety and depression or mildly stressed about finding a summer internship, seeing a therapist can help—even if it’s just for a few sessions. (According to the CCMH report, the average student who uses campus psychology services attends between four and five sessions.)

Student perspective

“Therapy was a good way to talk through anything weighing on my mind. My therapist was very understanding, kind, and, of course, confidential. I’d recommend going to counseling services to everyone.”
—Third-year undergraduate student, Elizabethtown College, Pennsylvania

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Article sources

Zachary Alti, LMSW, clinical professor, Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service; psychotherapist in New York City.

Dana Crawford, PhD, individual and family therapist, New York.

Chrissy Salley, PhD, pediatric psychologist, New York.

American Psychological Association. (2017). How to find help through seeing a psychologist. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/therapy.aspx

American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Protecting your privacy: Understanding confidentiality. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/confidentiality.aspx

APA Practice Organization. (2017). Psychologist locator. Retrieved from https://locator.apa.org/

Brown, H. (2013, March 25). Looking for evidence that therapy works. New York Times. Retrieved from https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/25/looking-for-evidence-that-therapy-works/

Center for Collegiate Mental Health. (2017, January). 2016 Annual Report. (Publication No. STA 17-74). Retrieved from https://sites.psu.edu/ccmh/files/2017/01/2016-Annual-Report-FINAL_2016_01_09-1gc2hj6.pdf

Cuijpers, P., Cristea, I. A., Ebert, D. D., Koot, H. M., et al. (2016). Psychological treatment of depression in college students: A meta-analysis. Depression and Anxiety33(5), 400–414. doi: 10.1002/da.22461

Hofmann, S. G., Asnaani, A., Vonk, I. J. J., Sawyer, A. T., et al. (2012). The efficacy of cognitive behavioral therapy: A review of meta-analyses. Cognitive Therapy and Research36(5), 427–440. doi: 10.1007/s10608-012-9476-1

Kessler, R. C., Amminger, G. P., Aguilar-Gaxiola, S., Alonso, J. et al. (2007). Age of onset of mental disorders: A review of recent literature. Current Opinions in Psychiatry, 20(4), 359–364. doi: 10.1097/YCO.0b013e32816ebc8c

Martin, B. (2016, May 17). In-depth: Cognitive behavioral therapy. Psych Central. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/lib/in-depth-cognitive-behavioral-therapy/

National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2012). College students speak: A survey report on mental health. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/About-NAMI/Publications-Reports/Survey-Reports/College-Students-Speak_A-Survey-Report-on-Mental-H.pdf

National Alliance on Mental Illness. (n.d.). Mental health facts: Children and teens. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/getattachment/Learn-More/Mental-Health-by-the-Numbers/childrenmhfacts.pdf

Norcross, J. C., & Hill, C. E. (2004). Empirically supported therapy relationships. Psychotherapy Relationships That Work, 57(3), 19–23.

UC Davis. (n.d.). Community referrals. Retrieved from https://shcs.ucdavis.edu/services/community-referrals

Bystander intervention goes professional: 4 tips for stepping in on the job

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Here’s something most of us know, and the research backs up: Small actions make a big difference, especially when it comes to preventing sexual harassment and assault. If we see something that doesn’t feel right, we can act. This is bystander intervention: stepping in to reinforce our community values and prevent harm when we see something that looks like disrespect or pressure. Many of us already do this, like when we disrupt a conversation that seems uncomfortable or speak up when people make hurtful comments.

Often, when we think about sexual misconduct and bystander intervention, we’re thinking about intervening in social situations, such as on the dance floor, at a party, or in a relationship. But what happens when you see this happening at your internship, on the job, or at your workplace?

While we might know that it’s equally important to take action in the workplace, we might not exactly know how to do it, especially if we’re dealing with uneven power dynamics—like a boss who’s making crude comments to an employee or an established colleague taking advantage of a new intern. The good news? The basics, which you already know, work here too.

“The skills and strategies that work in social contexts can often be applied to other settings, including professional contexts such as a summer internship or other job,” says Laura Santacrose, assistant director of the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives at Cornell University in New York, who developed Cornell’s “Intervene” project, a bystander intervention initiative for students. The knowledge and confidence that we’ve gained from intervening in other contexts make a difference. Knowing we have the skills to step in makes us more likely to do so, according to a 2014 study of college students in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.

Besides reinforcing your own personal values, you’re also setting the bar high for the rest of the organization. And that’s important. “Employers hope to create an environment that is welcoming and inclusive for all employees. A safe and inclusive environment fosters teamwork among colleagues, greater workplace satisfaction, and higher levels of innovation and creativity on the job. Employees who are able to facilitate such an environment are highly valued by both their employers and by their clients,” says Jeanine Dames, director of the Office of Career Strategy at Yale University in Connecticut.

Happy professional girl

So how do you do it?

Before you start, consider risk

Whenever we intervene, it’s critical to consider the potential risks involved and to make a safe plan. The power dynamics between supervisors and employees may make it difficult to intervene directly, so consider subtle or indirect actions. “There may be additional supports in a professional setting that will make an intervention easier [than in a social situation], including support from a human resources department,” says Santacrose.

Start here: Stepping in on the job

1. Pay attention to what’s happening

  • Overhear a sexist comment about the new hire’s cleavage? See a colleague’s uncomfortable face when he interacts with his overly handsy boss? Pay attention to the patterns.
  • Ask yourself: How might this situation impact the individuals involved? The department or team? The broader community of the organization or company?

2. Decide: Should someone step in? And who should that someone be?

  • Trust your instincts. It’s OK to decide to do something even if you aren’t sure there’s a problem.
  • Remember that “doing something” might be shooting a quick email to human resources (HR) or chatting briefly with your coworkers to see if they’re noticing it too. Ask your fellow employees or supervisors what they’re seeing or how they might deal with the situation. HR representatives may be particularly helpful. It’s their job to make sure that the workplace is safe and respectful, so they want to know when something seems off.

3. Make a plan

  • There are usually multiple ways to intervene. Play to your strengths. Not sure what those are? Take our bystander quiz here to learn more about your stepping-in style. Remember that interventions don’t have to be dramatic to be effective.
  • Pay attention to power dynamics. If you are worried about the consequences of intervening, consider confidentially reporting the problem to HR.

4. Make your move: Intervene and follow up

  • After you’ve intervened, follow up with the person being targeted or your colleagues.
  • Think about what the organization could do to make positive outcomes more likely in the future. What structural changes would help? Can you review company policies and suggest updates? Are there employee training options that can help set community standards? Make suggestions and be willing to help put them into place if it’s an option.

How would you respond?

Now that you know the basics, or at least can refer back to them, let’s get into some examples. Use the following scenarios to think about possible intervention strategies. What strategies would you choose?

Scenario 1: Inappropriate jokes

Imagine that you share an office space with several other summer interns. One of the interns, Taylor, often makes sexual jokes and suggestive comments. You and the other interns find the jokes annoying, but one of the interns, Sam, looks upset and starts to avoid the space.

  • Taylor is distracting everyone from work.
  • Sam might worry that others think Taylor’s jokes are OK.
  • Sam’s job performance could suffer.
  • Other interns’ job performance could suffer.
  • Taylor might continue this behavior in other workplaces, which could continue to hurt people—and damage Taylor’s job prospects.

  • Don’t laugh at the jokes. An awkward silence can speak volumes.
  • Privately check in with Taylor. “You probably mean well, but those jokes make you seem unprofessional.”
  • Privately check in with Sam. “You seemed a little bit uncomfortable with Taylor’s jokes. Are you OK?”
  • Talk to a supervisor. Suggest that supervisors discuss appropriate workplace conduct with new interns now and in the future.
  • Consider structural changes that can prevent this problem from happening again. Proactively start positive, professional conversations in the shared workspace. This sets a good example and minimizes chances for inappropriate conversations to begin.
  • Student story: “I politely interrupted the situation by asking a work-related question to cause a distraction and interruption. Then I privately talked to my co-worker at a later time.”
    Rebecca B., fourth-year undergraduate, Rochester Community and Technical College, Minnesota

Scenario 2: Unfair treatment

Imagine that you have a part-time campus job in a lab. The professor in charge of the lab chooses a graduate student, Riley, to lead a project. A few weeks ago, Riley asked one of your coworkers, Casey, out on a date. Casey said no. Since then, Riley seems to be treating Casey differently from the other lab members. Riley often dismisses Casey’s comments in meetings and assigns all the menial jobs to Casey.

  • The professor might think that Casey is not a good employee.
  • The rest of the lab members are missing out on Casey’s contributions.
  • Other lab members might feel like they must always agree with Riley or face retaliation.
  • Riley is behaving unprofessionally, which could hurt Riley’s future job prospects.

  • Validate Casey’s contributions. If Riley dismisses one of Casey’s comments, say, “I actually thought that was a really good point.” Similarly, volunteer to do the menial jobs yourself.
  • Check in with Casey. Tell Casey that you’ve noticed the problem and are available to help. Providing emotional support after an incident of harassment is the most common kind of workplace bystander intervention, according to a 2016 study in the International Journal of Human Resources Management.
  • Express your concerns with the professor supervising the lab.
  • Consider reaching out to an official such as a Title IX coordinator or HR representative.
  • Propose structural changes to ensure everyone’s voices are heard and menial jobs are fairly distributed. For example, you could suggest that everyone takes turns performing the less-desirable tasks using a chart that’s visible in the lab.
  • Student story: “I told my manager right away. The manager handled it from there.”
    Kassandra J., first-year graduate student, Texas Woman’s University

Scenario 3: Callouts on appearance

Imagine that you have a part-time job. Your supervisor makes small talk with employees as you arrive in the morning. Topics range from sports to the weather, but on several occasions, your supervisor has made comments about the appearance of one employee, Kai, such as, “You look gorgeous today!” and “That shirt looks great on you!” Your supervisor does not comment on other employees’ appearances.

  • This behavior creates a workplace that emphasizes people’s appearance, perhaps implying that their looks matter more than their ideas.
  • Kai may feel uncomfortable at work and worry about what the manager expects.
  • Other employees might worry that they will be treated differently based on appearance too.

  • Check in with Kai and express concern about the comments.
  • Subtly steer conversations back to appropriate topics.
  • Speak to another employee and ask for advice.
  • Talk to an HR representative. They may be able to take action without revealing your identity.

See? Your bystander skills just went pro. When you break it down like this, intervening becomes a little easier, which means your workplace can be just as supportive of a community as your campus is. So remember: Your bystander skills can work in any context, at any time.

Want more bystander info? Check out Cornell University’s bystander initiative, “Intervene.” This interactive training, useful for students of all kinds, offers concrete strategies for intervening in a wide range of social, academic, and professional settings.

Strategies developed by the Communication and Consent Educator program at Yale University.

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Article sources

Jeanine Dames, JD, director of office of career strategy, Yale University, Connecticut.

Laura Santacrose, MPH, assistant director, Skorton Center for Health Initiatives, Cornell University, New York.

Banyard, V. L. (2011). Who will help prevent sexual violence: Creating an ecological model of bystander intervention. Psychology of Violence1(3), 216–229.

Banyard, V. L., Plante, E. G., & Moynihan, M. M. (2004). Bystander education: Bringing a broader community perspective to sexual violence prevention. Journal of Community Psychology32(1), 61–79.

Bennett, S., Banyard, V. L., & Garnhart, L. (2014). To act or not to act, that is the question? Barriers and facilitators of bystander intervention. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 29(3), 476–496.

Bowes-Sperry, L., & O’Leary-Kelly, A. M. (2005). To act or not to act: The dilemma faced by sexual harassment observers. Academy of Management Review30(2), 288–306.

Carmody, M. (2005). Ethical erotics: Reconceptualizing anti-rape education. Sexualities8(4), 465–480.

Garcia, S. M., Weaver, K., Moskowitz, G. B., & Darley, J. M. (2002). Crowded minds: The implicit bystander effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology83(4), 843–853.

McDonald, P., Charlesworth, S., & Graham, T. (2016). Action or inaction: Bystander intervention in workplace sexual harassment. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 27(5), 548–566.

McMahon, S., & Banyard, V. L. (2012). When can I help? A conceptual framework for the prevention of sexual violence through bystander intervention. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse13(1), 3–14.

Rayner, C., & Bowes-Sperry, L. (2008, June). Mobilizing bystanders to intervene in workplace bullying. In The 6th International Conference on Workplace Bullying.

Communicate like a pro

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Professional communication skills are for everyone. Interacting with others in an internship, job, or classroom is different from hanging out with family and friends. Here are some tips to improve your professional communication. While you’re in college, find opportunities to practice: internships, part-time jobs, and interactions with mentors and professors.

Listen/observe first

You’ve heard the saying that we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak. Listening and observing can help you learn the norms of an organization. Pay attention to things like:

  • Facial expression
  • Tone of voice
  • Gestures
  • What others in the room are doing

Ask questions

Asking questions can help to clarify your understanding. It also shows that you’re paying attention. Open-ended questions tend to yield more information and prevent misinterpretation; they require more than a “yes” or “no” response. Start questions with words like who, what, when, where, why, and how. Examples include:

  • “What do you think about this project?”
  • “How do you think the clients will
    respond to our request?”
  • “Why do you expect that outcome?”
  • “How did you come to that conclusion?”

Use “I” statements

The use of “I” statements conveys what you are thinking or feeling in a nonconfrontational manner. It also conveys ideas in a clear way. Here are some examples of “I” statements:

  • “I think that I might be misunderstanding the goal.”
  • ‘I’m wondering if that’s the most direct way to do this.”
  • “When I think I’m not being heard, I think about how I’m saying it.”
  • “My concern is delays that may be outside our control.”

Learn the accepted norms in your team

Some teams have weekly check-in meetings. Some communicate only by phone or email—for others, it’s face-to-face.

In addition to the above tips, these ideas can also be helpful:

  • Use professional language. Refer to people as “Professor,” “Mr./Mrs.,” or “Colleagues.” Starting emails with “Hey” might not be smart in a professional setting.
  • Check spelling and grammar before hitting Send.
  • Make sure you spelled the person’s name correctly.

More tips to get you communicating professionally