The seven rules of writing difficult emails

Writing about emotive subjects in an email is hard. There’s no way around it: even the best writers struggle. That’s because email doesn’t convey body language or tone of voice, and readers can skip or skim crucial sections. So conveying your meaning can be very difficult.

The one ray of hope is that email allows you to take time out to think before you communicate. This is especially useful when it comes to responding to communications from other people – it gives you a real advantage over other methods. (In conversation, for example, it’s normal to have no more than a few seconds to work out how to reply.) The key to writing difficult messages is to learn to harness that advantage, by sticking to these seven rules.

1) Figure out your goal

Work out what you want your email to achieve before you start writing it.

It’s important to be realistic at this stage. For example, if you’re responding to an angry email from the office grump, you may be unlikely to get them to apologise. But you can at least correct any factual errors in what they’ve written.

Warning: if you’re having a tough time figuring out a realistic goal, this could be a sign that you shouldn’t be sending an email.

2) Stay focused

Once you have your goal, keep it at the front of your mind. When you’re writing, or editing, remove anything that doesn’t move you closer to what you want to achieve. This will help you keep the email as brief as possible, so your reader will have less to disagree with. They’re also less likely to skip anything you write.

With emotive subjects, you may feel the urge to explain yourself at great length, but this can distract from your goal. You don’t need to explain all of your thoughts and reasoning to make your point.

3) Stay concrete

Try to be as specific as possible. A direct ‘you were late three times last week’ is much harder to dispute than ‘your behaviour is unprofessional’. (You can soften this by phrasing it as an observation eg ‘I noticed that you were late three times last week.’ David Levin explains more here.) General statements can escalate the situation, and take you further from your goal.

4) Give the benefit of the doubt

If you’re responding to an email that has upset or angered you, try taking a deep breath and re-reading it, assuming the best plausible intentions on the sender’s part.

We tend to see what we expect to see in communication. This filling-in can sometimes go into overdrive, especially when body language and intonation are absent from the equation.

So if we expect to be criticised, ‘Your report is due in on Thursday’ can read as a doubtful, nagging reminder. But if we expect only to be informed, we’re more likely to read it as an innocuous statement of fact. You may be surprised how much the meaning can change if you alter your assumptions about the sender’s intentions.

5) Ask for clarification if you need it

Sometimes, instead of trying to guess, it’s better to come straight out and ask someone what they mean. This will put both of you on a better footing for resolving your problem. Learning to use simple clarifying phrases, as this poster on FreethoughtBlogs points out, can help you avoid conflicts caused by misunderstandings.

For example:

‘It sounds to me like you’re saying ______. Am I interpreting correctly?’

‘I don’t understand what you mean by ______. Can you clarify?’

6) Ask a friend or colleague to read it

Your main priority is to figure out the reaction you want in your reader, and how to achieve it. Unfortunately, you may not be the best judge. A 2006 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people consistently overestimated their ability to convey their intended tone in emails.

An outside opinion can be extremely valuable at this stage. Ask a trusted friend or colleague to read the email (if it’s confidential, omit the recipient’s details), and make it clear that you want honest feedback.

You may be surprised at how statements you wrote without judgement can read like critical remarks to somebody else.

7) Send the email to yourself

Put yourself in the shoes of the recipient by sending the email to yourself. You’ll often see your own writing differently if you view it in your inbox. (This will also help you catch any errors in your email.)

If possible, wait until the next day before re-reading it. This is especially important if you were feeling emotional at the time of writing. You’ll find it easier to read your words effectively and objectively with a cooler head.

Calmly does it

Most of all, don’t rush. Save a link to this guide, and the next time you find yourself trying to write a delicate email, read it again. Then take a deep breath, keep calm and steady, and work your way through the seven rules. Let us know how you get on. And if you have any further email-writing tips to share, why not add them below?
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