If you write to customers, clients, employees, or almost anyone on the job, you have times when you need to assert yourself. You have to disagree, delegate, instruct, remind, and say no—in each situation coming across as clear and forceful without pushing into rudeness. The tips below can help in situations when you need to be firm yet courteous.
1. Use good manners. Extending the typical courtesies will save you from coming across as pushy. Begin with a greeting such as “Hello Edward,” “Good morning, Zoya,” or “Dear Max.” When asking for action, always use “please”—even if you are the boss. “Please” does not make you a pushover or mean you are pleading. It says you are polite and professional.
Note: You do not need to repeat “Please” in a series of steps or requested actions. Although “please” is polite, it can take the focus away from the necessary actions when repeated and can come across as mechanical rather than sincere. With a list of tasks, use “Please” just once in an introductory sentence, even with customers. Example:
Please take the steps below to move forward on filling the open position:
- Accept the meeting invitation from Nicole Squire to go over the requirements. (Nicole will then write the job description for your approval.)
- Determine the salary with advice from your compensation specialist.
- [And so on.]
Finish by expressing your appreciation. Use more than a brief “Thanks” or “Thank you” to avoid sounding curt. Examples:
• Thanks for your help with the project.
• We appreciate your cooperation.
• I will be grateful for your prompt response.
2. Say enough that your readers will be able to understand your meaning and accept it. Too often brevity comes across as bluntness in denials, directives, and other sensitive messages. In the pairs of sentences below, notice how giving more information softens the message without diluting it.
- We can’t make that change now.
- At this point in the project, we can't make the change without having to push back the launch date.
- The deck damage isn’t covered.
- The plan does not cover your deck. Here is the paragraph from your policy that states exclusions:
- Get this done by noon.
- I need this by noon so we can incorporate the figures into the final report for the board.
- Your proposal will not work.
- I have concerns about parts of the proposal, and I would like to meet with you to get your reactions to them.
3. Share your feelings briefly if it will help you convey the message. Sometimes you may struggle with communicating clearly and forcefully because you hate the message you have to convey. It might be to say no, repeat a request, or require action. Acknowledging your feelings can help both you and your reader. Examples:
- Dr. Ward, I hate to nag, but I have to have your patient notes before the conference tomorrow afternoon.
- I am sorry to have to ask for your assistance again. Another situation has arisen that requires your expert advice.
- Terry, I wish I could accommodate your request. Unfortunately, your email went to my spam folder. Now all the tickets have been spoken for.
- Regrettably, we cannot agree to your request. The contract requires that a $400 fee be assessed in these situations.
Note: Despite your feelings, it is wrong to unite with your reader to criticize your policies. That behavior can undermine people’s view of your organization.
- Wrong: I agree that our company policy is outdated. I don’t know why we haven’t changed it.
- Instead: Thank you for your honest feedback on the policy. I have shared it with our directors. At this time, I must apply the terms of the policy as it stands.
4. If you are uncomfortable giving your reader a deadline, try conveying it in a separate sentence. Sometimes writers feel awkward assigning readers a due date, especially readers who are clients or who hold positions of authority. Including a deadline in a separate sentence can be the solution. Examples:
- I look forward to receiving your final changes. If you send them this week, I will be able to incorporate them over the weekend and get them to the printer on Monday.
- Would you please let us know your availability to meet with the final candidates? These meetings must take place before the end of the month.
- Please let me know whether you prefer the first or the second approach. Can you let me know this week so that I can move ahead with the project?
5. Avoid blaming the reader. Sometimes writers get tangled up in tone problems because the situation is the reader’s fault. But blaming the reader using language such as “you should have” and “you forgot” is not assertive—it’s rude. These examples show how to state your message without blame:
- I am sorry that I cannot include the chapter now. I needed it by January 15 to incorporate it.
- When I made the schedule, I didn’t have your vacation dates. Please give me your future requests at least two weeks in advance, and I will do my best to accommodate you.
- I have to have this information by 2 p.m. I have attached my original request from February 28 with all the details.
- We wish we had known about your needs. Unfortunately, we require at least a day’s notice to supply a _______ [fill in the blank].
Applying those five suggestions will make it easier for you to come across clearly and diplomatically in most sensitive situations. If your situations go beyond these suggestions, get my book, Business Writing With Heart: How to Build Great Work Relationships One Message at a Time. It includes complete chapters on sharing bad news, saying no, disagreeing, reminding, and other challenging topics. Review the table of contents and get information to buy it from me. Or buy it from Amazon or your favorite bookseller.
Do you have tricks or techniques for asserting yourself without being pushy in writing? Please share them!
If you would like to tune up your writing and get expert feedback on it, enroll in my online course Business Writing Tune-Up.
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