Writing tip: Responding to difficult emails

The majority of my projects are with companies that market to a global audience about their products or services in English. Many of the people at these companies are using English as a second language (ESL). I’m usually hired as a copywriter, but at times I work as a writing coach and editor, helping business professionals to improve the style and fluency of their daily business communications.

A common challenge for non-native speakers of English is how to reply to a complicated request or topic. This posting explains how to respond assertively but diplomatically to a difficult email. It could be useful for anyone, regardless of their fluency level, who wants to apply a ‘smart but simple’ approach to their communications.

End of the Day Surprise

You’re ready to leave the office but check your emails one more time and discover an email from a sales colleague in your company’s US office and he’s upset…

From: Daniel Lynch  
cc: (4 other people at your company)

Subject: POC – Jannel

Nathalie, I was very surprised to learn that you are working on a Proof of Concept for Jannel Corporation. I’ve been in close contact with Paul Simmons, Head of Purchasing at Jannel here in California, since December 2017. I’d like a detailed briefing asap on what you’ve done so far and most importantly – why you are involved in this?   Dan – Sent from my iPhone

Stay cool and think before you write

Avoid sending an instant reply if you’re upset, this is a sure-fire way to create an even bigger communication problem. You can respond to the email promptly but plan a more detailed follow-up later.

Option B: We assume that it’s necessary to resolve a problem in writing. But sometimes it’s even better to schedule a call with a person to clarify a hot topic and avoid a long email exchange. In your email, you could offer to discuss the issue further in a phone call.

What is Dan asking for?

  • Consider his perspective and address points of agreement or resistance, without admitting any wrongdoing on your side.  
  • He wants a briefing. But before you send anything to Dan, you may want to discuss this first with your supervisor and/or involve him or her. Address this point diplomatically in the email.
  • Affirm that you and Dan are ‘on the same page’ (in agreement).
  • Write a short acknowledgement of his email (cc: reply to All). Offer to schedule a phone call.

Resist the urge to over-explain

Have you ever received an email reply that says ‘thanks for the detailed explanation’? My feeling is that the person is not grateful. You might have overloaded him or her with information, and considering the staggering volume of emails received every day, no one wants to read a ‘book’.

Sample response

Dan, I received your email at the end of the day, but I want to acknowledge your message. I agree that the Jannel account is important and requires good collaboration. To get on the same page, I’d like to schedule a conf call with you and Fabrice Lucent, our sales manager. Fabrice and I can brief you then. We’ve been in contact with Jannel’s European HQ since last summer.  Best – Nathalie

Notice that each sentence addresses Dan’s concerns in a proactive way, but doesn’t imply that you’ve done anything ‘wrong’ or are refusing to cooperate. The offer of a phone call moves the issue forward, without an endless chain of emails, or involving people who may or may not need to be cc: ed.

As a follow-up, write a second reply within the next few days, only to Dan (drop those previously cc: ed unless it’s truly necessary). Think about your desired outcome from that email. Create a call to action. This might be a suggestion to share correspondence on the Jannel account, to schedule a joint conf call, etc.

Using the think before you write strategy helps keep emails brief and focused; your reader will appreciate it and this saves you writing time.