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Preserve Your Relationships, Even in Sticky Situations

If you are human, you face situations during your workday that require you to write under pressure. Maybe you have to respond to an angry employee’s email. Maybe you seriously disagree with a coworker and need to put your reasons in writing. Or you may have to share constructive feedback that might trigger a negative reaction.

When you have to write in sticky situations, don’t risk your relationships by ignoring essential truths. The communication truths below will help you achieve your goals while protecting your relationships.

1. Remembering your larger goal helps you avoid acting small.
It is easy to get caught up in frustration or other feelings brought on by circumstances. But if you do, you may later regret the way you have communicated. Try to remember your larger goal.

For instance, when you give written feedback on poor performance, your larger goal is to help the employee be successful. Recognize that goal and you will be more likely to share constructive rather than destructive feedback. When you need to say no to a customer’s unreasonable request, your larger goal is to maintain a good long-term relationship. Focus on that goal and it will be easier to avoid making the individual feel foolish for asking or angry about your decision.

2. “You statements” fuel defensiveness; “I statements” reduce it.
In tense situations, you statements (statements that use you or your with an assertion) can communicate blame or judgment of the other person, even when your intentions are good. Notice the differences in these two examples:

“Your logic doesn’t make sense” [you statement] vs. “I don’t understand the logic yet.”

“You keep putting off our meeting [you statement], so I can’t finish the project” vs. “I need to meet with you today [I statement] to complete the project.”


3. Neither person in a communication has all the information.
It’s easy to assume you have all the information you need. But that assumption can be dangerous, especially in writing, which does not allow instant two-way communication.

For example, you may not have received data from a coworker, but that fact does not mean he did not send it to you. Stating “I have not received the data” communicates more effectively than “You have not sent me the data.” (Notice those I and you statements again.) You may be disappointed with the results of a project, but it’s unwise to assume that an individual’s performance caused the mixed results. It’s better to state “Let’s get together to discuss how the project went” than to write “We need to talk about how you handled the project.”

To build business relationships every time you write, get my book Business Writing With Heart. College instructors can get a free curriculum for the course Business Writing That Builds Relationships. 

4. As the writer, you create the mood of your message.
If you use negative language, you create a negative mood. When you use suitable positive language, your message communicates positively. In the following examples, notice the mood change when the negative language is replaced by positive language:

“Company policy dictates that we are unable to divulge salary information” vs. “Because we value employee privacy, we keep salary information confidential.”

“You will not receive your certificate until you complete the practicum” vs. “As soon as you complete the practicum, you will receive your certificate.”

“You can’t open an account with such a small deposit” vs. “It takes just $100 to open an account.”

5. Straight talk is not the same as thoughtlessness.
Honesty may be the best policy, but do not equate honesty with rudeness. Edit your gut reactions. In constructive feedback, for example, instead of writing, “Your home page is a mess,” write, “I couldn’t find certain standard information on the home page.” Instead of writing “On a 10-point scale of confusion, your plan is a 12,” write “When I reviewed the plan, I got confused several times. Let’s talk about those places.”

In challenging circumstances, it is often better to meet in person or by phone than to communicate in writing. But when you must write in sticky situations, review the truths above.

Which communication truths would you add? Please share them.

Do you want to improve your business writing? Try out my online course Business Writing Tune-Up. At the end of the course, I will give you expert feedback on a piece of your writing.


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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.

12 comments on “Preserve Your Relationships, Even in Sticky Situations”

  • Lynn, this may be my favorite post of yours yet- and I have followed your blog for several years now. These tips and examples are extremely helpful and well-articulated.

    I do have one question. How would you respond to the perspective that this stuff doesn’t really matter and only “sensitive” people would care about things like “I” statements and the like? I have encountered several such people in my career who simply do not believe positive, collaborative communication is important to the success of an organization.

  • The information is very useful. Message communicated with suitable examples. Thank you..
    one can really improve their business writing skills with you suggestion.

  • Hi Lisa,

    That’s a good question. In my experience, people who get the best long-term results value relationships. It’s through relationships that they are successful. Those who just power through without regard for others may get a project done on time and on schedule, but they won’t be able to keep doing it. People will abandon the brute for other teams and opportunities.

    What have you observed in your career?

    Thanks for your positive feedback on this blog post!


  • Thank you, Lynn,
    You’re ever so timely!
    My husband and I have immediate opportunity to apply your wise suggestions…even with a brute or two.

  • Hello Lynn,

    This is actually my first time commenting, although I have found your business writing tips very useful throughout the last couple of years and have incorporated many of them in my everyday communication.

    I believe I do fairly well with writing in a positive manner, but find it takes a few rewrites to do so SOME times, especially if I feel I’ve been “attacked”. My initial reaction in responding is “defend myself”, and it’s illustrated in my initial write-up. When I read it to edit and make sure I’ve addressed every point, it is then that I observe the potential perception of harshness and seemingly lack of business professionalism, and begin the toning-down.

    I truly appreciate your posts and am happy I subscribe. Thank you for sharing your gems.

  • Donna, thanks so much for taking the time to comment. I agree that editing helps us identify tone problems.

    To use a positive tone from the start, I try to remember to begin with a thank-you. So I might start with “Thank you for your feedback on the report.” Especially if I am upset with the feedback, beginning with a thank-you helps me maintain a positive tone.


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