Have you ever written something only to have the recipient completely misunderstand your intent? Or been accused of abruptness when you thought you were being businesslike and efficient? There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to communicating effectively, but among the most important is tone.
I’ve spent nearly two decades in the online trenches in roles ranging from business owner to forum moderator to PR email writer extraordinaire—a true virtual diplomat. Here’s my best advice for writing about negative issues in a way that sounds positive and productive.
1 Present solutions instead of problems.
It’s better to talk about what you can do rather than what you can’t. Formulate a solution or alternate plan and present that instead.
2 State what you want, not what you don’t.
Why focus on preventing a negative outcome when you can encourage a positive one? Instead of beginning requests with “don’t,” try stating what you do want.
3 Keep hyperbole in check.
Sometimes exaggerated language is used to great effect (particularly by advertisers) to promote something or speak to positive issues, but when you use it in a negative context it can evoke bad feelings. Watch out for words like always and never. They’re more likely to mean sometimes than either of those extremes.
4 Try “I statements.”
When you’re tackling a difficult issue, statements that begin with “you” (and especially “you always” and “you never”—see the previous tip about hyperbole) tend to sound like accusations. And accusations, of course, raise a person’s defenses.
When you’re bringing up something negative, keep the focus on how the situation makes you feel rather than what the other person did.
5 “I’m sorry, but . . .” means you’re not sorry.
When I was a kid, and I’d apologize for some heinous act of childhood treachery, I’d often apologize with, “I’m sorry, but—” My mom would cut me off in my tracks, saying, “Any time you add a ‘but’ it means you’re not sorry, you’re just defending yourself.”
When you’re sorry, be sorry. Excuses and other defenses render apologies useless.
Here are a couple of things to consider before you send an email, write a social media post, or address anything negative in writing.
- Do an empathy check. Read what you’ve written as though you’re the recipient. How would you feel if someone sent this to you? Is there anything you can change to make the message more positive, or to focus on solutions instead of problems?
- Sit on it. Have you ever fired off a scathing missive and almost immediately regretted it? Give texts about negative issues a cooling off period before you send or post them. Chances are, you’ll be able to rewrite with a more positive mindset once you’ve had some time to process.
It’s not always appropriate to be upbeat and enthusiastic. A realtor, for example, wouldn’t want to sound chipper when she’s writing to tell a client that the value of their home has dropped significantly due to a downturn in the market. But maintaining a positive, solution-focused tone can make things like bad news or criticism less devastating.