Bearer of Bad News: Planning Tips for Writing Difficult Emails

By - March 31, 2017

We’ve all had that day at work where we have to deliver some bad news, provide some critical feedback, or handle a tough situation over email. Nobody looks forward to that, and for good reason! The situation’s probably delicate and people may be upset by what you say. You’re stuck in the role of the bearer of bad news, and that’s never fun. Also, you have to figure out what to write and how.

Writing difficult emails will never be fun or easy, but with the right approach, you can prepare yourself for it. Let’s talk about three tips you can use to prepare yourself for writing difficult communications.

Tip 1: Toss the False Hope

Let’s accept a hard truth right now: You can’t dictate how other people will react to your email. In this moment, your responsibility is to the message that you’re sending and how you convey it.

This is easier said than done, so ask yourself a few questions that will help keep things in perspective:

  • Who will receive this email?
  • Are they likely to be upset about the contents?
  • How will they probably react?
  • How can you plan for that?

Tip 2: Plan it Out

Before you start writing, make three lists that you can refer to later.

First, make a blunt list all of the major points that you must communicate. You’re not going to use this list when you write your email, so don’t worry about your language choice; it’s just a good way to check in later and make sure you’re keeping the intent in mind.

In the second list, write down some phrases and words that will help get your point across in the best way possible. For example, do you need to communicate that a project “failed” or that a project was “unsuccessful”? Do you need to tell a peer that they are “difficult to work with” or that there were “challenges with communication”? It’s all about how you choose to phrase things. Aim for a balance of tact and honesty.

In the third list, write down the things you need to avoid. Tap into your understanding of your organization, peers, and work environment, and tread carefully. Some good general areas to avoid are:

  • Blame
  • Complaints
  • Ultimatums
  • Tangents

Tip 3: Plan Your Call to Action

When you’re writing these emails, it’s easy to get lost in the details of the email itself and lose sight of why you’re writing. Sure, it contains details the reader needs to know, but what are they supposed to do with those details? Should you suggest a strategy meeting? A new procedure? A follow-up with a client? Think about the wider purpose, and make sure to end your email with actionable steps that will serve that purpose.

Next month, we’ll look at tips for writing those difficult emails!

by Daneice Rainville for RSM


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Receive Posts by Email

Subscribe to the Management Consulting blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.