This is the third post in my Write to Get Results blog series about professional writing, written by contributor and series co-editor Christa Evans. To receive notifications of each monthly post in this series, sign up here.
By Christa Evans
Dealing with problems, conflicts, volatile personalities, and other difficult situations at work is challenging; addressing these situations in writing via email can add another layer to the challenge. However, for any number of reasons—geographic location, the need for a written documentation trail—it may be necessary.
To compose messages that help you successfully navigate and resolve challenging issues, it’s essential to have a set of best practices to guide you in addition to strategies for writing effective everyday business emails. By applying the following best practices (and some extra finesse) you can move toward a resolution without fanning the flames.
Draft First, Send Later
Consider building in time to write an initial draft of your message and let it sit before editing and refining in a separate pass later—especially if you have reservations about your tone or approach. If possible, sleep on it so you can review the draft with fresh eyes the next day, or at the very least, set it aside for 10 or 15 minutes. Even if the matter is time-sensitive, a few extra minutes at this stage might save you much more time later if you have to backpedal or do damage control.
If you are writing a response, consider opening a new blank email without recipients and drafting it there instead of choosing “Reply” to the original message to avoid a misfire (even if that rarely happens, you don’t want this to be the one time it does). When you’ve finalized the draft, cut and paste it into the reply.
Especially if you are trusted for your input, don’t beat around the bush when bringing up or responding to a difficult topic just because it is uncomfortable. Address the issue head-on in a professional, diplomatic manner, and stay on point.
Don’t Avoid the Issue
Especially if you are trusted for your input, don’t beat around the bush when bringing up or responding to a difficult topic just because it is uncomfortable. Address the issue head-on in a professional, diplomatic manner, and stay on point. In most cases, less is more, so be concise; avoid the inclination to digress, ramble, overexplain, or use emoticons to soften a difficult message. This can not only come across as a lack of confidence but also may introduce confusion or distractions when you want to do exactly the opposite. You can always follow up with clarification or additional details later.
Removing emotional bias and adopting an objective mindset is one of the most effective strategies you can use to diffuse a situation or deal with a difficult personality—and keep it professional. Following are two ways to take an objective approach.
Provide Evidence. Concentrate on the facts: gather all evidence that directly supports your claim and outline it specifically and concisely by referring to dates, times, occurrences, and references to other correspondence as necessary. Simply put, it’s much more difficult to dispute or dismiss facts than opinions. By placing emphasis on what actually happened (or not), you’ll come across as focused on actions—not perceptions or feelings.
Avoid Assumptive or “You” Statements. Even if you have a justifiable reason to feel upset or frustrated, framing statements with “you” and stating assumptions about someone else’s actions or intentions as fact can trigger a defensive reaction, turning a potentially productive exchange into a finger-pointing match. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes and consider what language, tone, or approach is likely to compel—or provoke—them. When a mistake has been made, you can still indicate where responsibility lies; just spin it so it comes across as an observation instead of an accusation.
Refocus assumptive or “you” statements by either rewriting them in a neutral/third-person perspective, or describe the situation from your perspective, e.g., “I was surprised at your reaction to…” versus “Your reaction was completely out of line.” Consider these two examples:
“You” perspective: The numbers that I pulled from your spreadsheet for the client’s report were wrong—the client caught the mistake and pointed it out to me. Apparently you didn’t double-check your work. Send correct numbers to me as soon as possible.
Neutral/“I” perspective: The client let me know that the numbers in last week’s report were incorrect. I pulled them from the spreadsheet you sent to me. Can you review them to let me know what happened and provide a revised spreadsheet?
Propose Solutions and Offer Constructive Criticism
Whenever possible, offer a solution (or state your interest in working toward one) when bringing up a problem. If you don’t have the solution, suggest a step toward getting there (such as scheduling a post-mortem meeting of a project that didn’t go well).
After pointing out someone’s error, focus on what the expectation is going forward. When applicable, comment on a positive aspect or something that did go well to indicate the mistake isn’t all that was noticed. This can provide a boost of confidence and motivation to help the person quickly recover from the misstep and remedy the issue.
Admit Fault When Appropriate
No one likes to eat crow, but when the occasion calls for it, admit your error and take ownership of it, then pivot to resolving or fixing the issue at hand. Outside of the email, take stock of the situation and consider what you can do differently moving forward to ensure you don’t make the same mistake again.
When addressing difficult situations or personalities via email, keep your message on point by asking yourself, “What goal do I ultimately want to accomplish?” In the moment, it might feel satisfying to prove that you’re right (or someone else isn’t), but that won’t necessarily move you toward a resolution or cultivate productive relationships. If you focus on being professional and objective, and minimizing distractions, you’ll save time, foster collaboration, and promote solutions.
About Christa Evans
Christa Evans has worked in the publishing industry for nearly 20 years and specializes in proofreading, copyediting, writing, and project management. She holds a degree in English and was previously employed at two publishing services companies and Duke University Press. Currently, Christa works as an editorial freelancer and project manager; she is experienced with a wide range of content including textbooks, online courses, blogs, scholarly journals, and professional, technical, and reference books. Christa is also the project manager and editor for the Career Path Writing Solutions blog, newsletters, and other branded content.