Sometimes you have to write harsh emails.
You need to share feedback with someone in a different office, or disagree with a stakeholder, or tell someone they messed up—and setting up a call or in-person meeting would be an overreaction (and risk making the situation an even bigger deal).
That said, when the most benign notes can be misinterpreted, the stakes are even higher when you have something critical to say.
As someone who works remotely—I’m constantly emailing people with feedback. And even though I’ve done it hundreds of time, I still get a little pit in my stomach when I’m writing that someone’s work needs a lot of changes.
But people often respond much more positively than I would’ve imagined. I credit a formula I use that makes harsh emails come off as kind and helpful as possible.
Here’s how it breaks down:
Line 1: Say Something Friendly
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.
That’s why a line like How was your weekend? or I hope this note finds you well, as superfluous as it may seem, helps kick things off on the right note.
Line 2: Thank Him or Her
If applicable, it’s nice to note the other person’s efforts. You don’t want to dive right into what they did wrong without acknowledging the time they spent on whatever they sent over.
It’s as easy as: Thanks so much for your [work/thoughts/efforts/time] on this.
Line 3: Point out Something Positive
No one wants to feel like an idiot (or like you think they’re stupid). So, while you don’t want to beat around the bush, it’s important to take the time to point to one strength of the other person’s work.
Try, I can see where [whatever positive thing they did] would lead to [positive effect.] For example, 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 that they did a great job addressing the client’s main concern.
Of course, it’s important to keep this comment honest. You should mention something that’s actually beneficial, and you shouldn’t lavish praise so extensively that the rest of your message totally blindsides the recipient.
Body of The Email: Walk Through Changes (and Results)
Believe it or not: People appreciate knowing why you chose to do things differently. It’s counter-intuitive (because who wants to hear how they messed up in detail?), but in actuality, it shows that you have a high opinion of them.
It demonstrates that you wouldn’t disagree with them just for the sake of it. Beyond that, it shows you think they’re smart enough to learn from feedback and deliver on your expectations moving forward.
To avoid overly elaborating on what went wrong, limit yourself to sentences that follow the format of [change made]… [reason or result]. And if you have more than one change, use bullets.
It looks like this:
We decided to go a different direction, because we needed a strategy that prioritized cost-effectiveness, due to budget constraints.
- You'll see that we made some changes to the pitch deck, based on feedback from the leadership team.
- Along those lines, I'd love to see those changes carried through other aspects of the presentation, because we'd like them to be consistent.
Always end by asking if you could clarify anything or answer any questions.
While Please let me know if I can answer any questions, might seem obvious, it serves a purpose. It makes the whole spirit of your email more collaborative.
Suddenly, it goes from, saying “here are changes—period” to “here are changes—would you let me know if any of them don’t make sense?” It shows you still value the other person’s opinion.
Then, all you have left is a sign-off—any standard sign off (best, sincerely, thanks!) will do.
Putting it All Together
How is your week going?
Thanks again for your [thoughts/ work on] [project/ the attached].
You definitely got the heart of [assignment]./ It’s off to a great start./ I particularly like [one thing].
I made some changes/ took things in a new direction, which I’d like to explain.
- Example of change and how it will yield a positive result
- If applicable: example of change two and how it will yield a positive result
- If applicable: example of change three and how it will yield a positive result
Please let me know if you have any questions!
All the best,
Now that you’ve composed truly constructive feedback, take a minute to think about your subject line. Maybe all you need is to hit reply, but it could be that a small change affects the whole tone. (Did you know that “today” is preferable to “urgent”? More on that—and other words to avoid—here.)
Not every message you send is going to be chock full of praise—and that’s OK. If you take the time to write it thoughtfully that’ll go a long way.