While no one ever wants to be the bearer of bad news, there are times when we must compose a difficult or even “harsh” email. Whether it be sharing honest feedback, a differing opinion, or informing a colleague of a mistake; these instances which may not quite warrant a phone call or personal meeting, are still worthy of a properly written message.
Often, however, even the most harmless words can be misinterpreted in written form, so naturally those conveying criticism of any kind have the potential to create more unnecessary tension between you and the recipient.
Preventing fallout is the goal when sending a hard email, yet fortunately, Sara McCord, professional advisor, writer, and career contributor, has offered some valuable guidelines for composing those difficult emails.
Line one: Start with a friendly opener.
McCord states, “When you’re writing the opening line (after the salutation that is), it can be helpful to imagine it’s a conversation. If someone walked up to you and dove right into their point, you’d be put off.” Often it’s something as simple and obvious as “Hope you enjoyed your weekend” or “How are you today?” that can get the message off to a good start.
Line two: Thank your recipient.
When appropriate, recognize your reader’s efforts. In short, always acknowledge the positive before the negative. Thanking your recipient for their efforts, time, work or thoughts on the issue at hand, can help to soften the impact of the rest of your message.
Line three: Show that you understand your reader’s perspective.
Of course, you don’t want to waste too much time before getting to the main idea, but pointing out a possible strength within the recipient’s work, standpoint, or input, will help them keep an open mind to the actual point you are trying to make. As an example, McCord suggests, “…you might tell a direct report that you can see how the strategy they implemented would help the team operate better [or] you might tell a colleague they did a great job addressing the client’s main concern”. However, what is important here is to keep your comments honest and sincere, as most people notice when they’re being “softened up” for something negative. Also, be sure to keep the praise related to the issue at hand, and don’t overdo it to the point where your main message becomes muddled in the process.
Main body of email: Provide structured explanation.
While you may feel that your recipient does not particularly care to read the details of why you are heading in a different direction, in actuality, it shows your reader that you have enough respect for their input and intelligence when you do provide ample explanation. Nevertheless, you do want to avoid over-elaborating on the problem, so try to keep your sentences as clear and concise as possible. McCord suggests the examples, “We decided to go a different direction because we needed a strategy that prioritized cost-effectiveness, due to budget constraints”; or perhaps, “… I’d love to see [these] changes carried through other aspects of the presentation because we’d like them to be consistent”. If you are offering multiple changes, McCord advises the use of bullet points to clearly delineate your ideas. However, the key is to include the reasons for your change in each sentence. In this case, budget constraints and/or consistency throughout a presentation are the desired results.
Concluding line: Offer your assistance.
McCord advises that, as the writer, you should “[always] end by asking if you could clarify anything or answer any questions”. While it’s commonplace to remind the reader to contact you with any questions, there is an important purpose for including those words. Ending your email simply with your critique provides a very one-sided approach to the subject. Offering your help, not only shows your concern with the reader’s response, but also upholds a collaborative spirit wherein you convey the message that you plan to solve the issue together.
Of course, the sign-off consisting of a simple “thank you”, “best”, or “sincerely”, is all you need for a closing.
Subject Line: Choose words carefully
While the subject line is reliant upon the content of the email, you should still keep the tone non-confrontational and constructive. Some even suggest that for emails of this type, avoiding words like “urgent” is a good idea. Also, be sure not to offer too much information directly from the body of the message in the subject line.
Integrating these tips the next time you must compose a difficult or potentially negative email may just make the experience less uncomfortable for both you and your recipient.
Further reading: The Importance of Skilled Business Writing
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