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How I Left Out Negative Feelings

This week I received a frustrating email. It was from a professional organization telling me that my proposal to present a program had been rejected.

Usually such messages carry no emotion for me. As part of doing business, they are as neutral as oatmeal.

But this message did frustrate me: The organization had accepted the same proposal last summer. Since then, its representatives had exchanged several meaty phone calls and long strings of emails with me about choosing a day, time, place, and price for the program. Because the organization had volunteer turnover, I was introduced to a new contact twice, and both times I needed to explain the proposal. Then, this week, an email informed me that the organization’s programming was going in a new direction that my proposal did not match.

Aaargh! (I’m not sure of the spelling, but those letters communicate my feelings.)

It was not a bad email. In fact, the email shone with politeness and professionalism. What irked me was the entire time-wasting experience.

Do you sometimes receive emails whose news exasperates you?

I had to reply because the message needed acknowledgment. And I wanted to express my frustration about having my time wasted for months.

But I decided to follow the advice I give business writing students all the time: I thought about my purpose in writing.


Was my purpose to lash out at the person who sent the email? No, that would be silly and immature. Besides, it was a well-written message.

Was my purpose to express my frustration? No, what good would that do?

Was my purpose to acknowledge the message? Yes.

Was my purpose to present myself as a professional? Yes.

Here’s what I wrote, disguised slightly:

Hi Chris,

Thanks for your message. I regret not being able to present, especially since I received enthusiastic approvals of the program from the association last year. But if the program doesn’t match current programming, I agree that dropping it makes sense.

Best wishes for your continued success,


You can see that I left out my frustration and touched only slightly on my disappointment.

One of my friends doesn’t see the benefit of leaving out the negative stuff. She would say, “If you feel that they treated you badly, why not tell them so? Don’t they need to hear it?” But I always go back to the question, What is my purpose? If I want to complain, I can yell at my computer.

Do you think I communicated appropriately? What would you have done? How do you handle irritating news that arrives in your email inbox? Feel free to rant here–as long as you do it politely and professionally. (Smile.)


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

18 comments on “How I Left Out Negative Feelings”

  • You did really well. I think about your earlier post about sensitive emails, and realize the frustration and disappointment you felt would be best conveyed in a phone call or face-to-face conversation. Your reply could have been really snarky or bitter, but where would that get you? Definitely off their roster for eternity!

  • I enthusiastically agree with you on not using your response as a way to express your frustration with the association’s about-face. It would serve no useful purpose to you (making them feel guilty or coming across as vindictive would not cause them to reinstate your program) and could possibly be harmful to you by resulting in negative word of mouth or loss of a future contract. Polite, professional communication is rarely a choice one will regret.

  • Your response is the best reflection of what over the years you have been trying to impart us i.e politeness in written communication.


  • This is the smart approach, certainly. If they changed their minds once, they can do so again, and an angry or bitter response may have become a barrier to a future invitation.

  • The downside of this approach is that you’ve learned nothing about why you weren’t selected. In this particular case, maybe that’s okay, but in others (e.g., a job) it can be a key learning experience.

    Your email is effective but there may be those situations where a follow up phone call or face-to-face to learn more would be warranted and useful.

  • Hi Jen,

    You and I agree that striking back with a snarky reply would be pointless. As you suggest, I may bring up the subject in person if the right occasion arises. I need to think about whether that approach would help anyone.

    Thanks for commenting.


  • Bill, thanks for making that good point.

    In my situation, the rejection message mentioned the kinds of programs the association wanted to promote this year. I did not need more information.

    Yes, there are situations where follow-up makes sense. One has to recognize when there is something to learn, and when it is time to move on.


  • And who knows, you might be right for them next year. Or one of the people you’ve been dealing with might move on from there to another organisation where your services are the right fit. Responding angrily could be cutting off your nose to spite your face, so you did the right thing.

  • How frustrating for you!
    Maybe you could have mentioned something more about the amount of time that both you and this organization spent hammering out details; this may be feedback that they need to improve their internal program review or volunteer education processes.
    I don’t think that something along the lines of “…last year and spent several (weeks/months) confirming the details with both (Volunteer 1) and (Volunteer 2).” would have been inappropriate.

  • Alicia, that’s an intriguing point. If I could have communicated that without my frustration creeping into the communication, I probably could have written a helpful message.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.


  • Your written response was excellent, but I suggest using the old sales letter technique of putting the “ask” in a postscript.

    Best wishes for your continued success,


    P.S. I’ve joined your newsletter mailing list to keep up to date, and will contact you a bit earlier next year with some ideas for a possible presentation.

    This way, you remain “in the driver’s seat”, have a reason to stay within the circle of influence, and so forth. Additionally, not every single aspect of this situation need be addressed in one letter, and you could always invite a couple of decision-makers out for coffee later in the year…

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