Delivering Bad News: When to Write… When to Phone… When to Have Lunch

Someone once told me that you should always deliver complaints, criticism, and bad news in person. It made sense then, and it makes even more sense now that we are all firmly entrenched in email.

The main problem with email is that writing is a unilateral activity. You can’t see the other person’s eyes when he is reading what you wrote, so you can’t judge how he is interpreting your words. Speaking face to face, you can use a bit of sarcasm or irony to soften your message. But if you try that in writing, it can backfire and make you sound much harsher than you mean to be.

Writing also precludes interruption. You might think it’s to your advantage to say what you have to say without interruption, but that ain’t necessarily so. Many times, I have gone into a tirade, absolutely sure of my position, only to be interrupted by the person I’m ranting at and won over to their position in a matter of minutes.

It usually happens like this: I begin to explain my point of view. I am interrupted, politely. The other person quickly shows me that I don’t have all the information. Or points out that I misunderstood something. Or simply gives me a better idea. And, presto! Conversation over. (“Oh, I’m sorry. You are right. Let’s do it that way.”)

Can’t do that with email. Instead, you just keep digging yourself deeper into your misinformed hole.

Bottom line: When you are complaining, criticizing, or delivering bad news, the best way to do so is in person. If you can’t meet, the phone is way better than email. And if the phone is impossible (a rare thing, I’d think), go ahead and send an email. But be very careful. Here are some simple rules that will help:

  1. Assess your mood. Are you upset? Angry? If so, don’t write anything until you are no longer upset. If it takes a day or a week, take it.
  2. If you can’t wait and must vent, write the email as quickly as you can. Get all of the bad stuff out of your system. And then delete it.
  3. After you have calmed down, write the email again. But do so imagining that the person is sitting in front of you.
  4. It might help to keep a smile, or at least a gentle expression, on your face as you write. Studies have shown that smiling affects not only the voice but also the selection of words in writing.
  5. Stick with the facts. If you have suspicions, omit them. If you feel that your suspicions need to be stated, state them as questions rather than accusations.
  6. Don’t make statements you might regret and don’t use absolute words like “never.” They are unnecessary and they can get you into trouble.
  7. When you’re finished writing, reread the email and delete or change anything you think could be misunderstood.
  8. Finally, insert a positive and true statement at the beginning and a statement that has some kindness to it at the end.

Take it from someone who’s put his foot in his mouth more times than he can count. Delivering complaints, criticism, or bad news is always better in person. But if you must use email, you will never regret taking the extra time to compose your message carefully.