How to Write When You Can’t Change Things

I led a class for a group of writers who respond to citizen complaints about airplane noise. The writers cannot make the planes quieter, and they can't make them go away. What can they do?

They can respond in ways that help citizens feel heard and helped.

When you can't give readers what they want, it's easy to feel discouraged about writing to them. But even though you cannot change their situation or do what they want, you can do many things to help them feel better. Experiment with these tips:

1. Start with a positive mindset. Recognize that your goal is to help the reader feel heard, valued, and helped even though you cannot change the situation. Mentally shift from responding to a "complaint" to replying to a "concern" from a valued customer, constituent, or employee.

2. Begin your message on a positive note. Use sentences such as "Thank you for writing to us about your concern," "Thank you for letting me know," and "Thank you for the opportunity to share information about . . ." Those sentiments establish your message as caring and helpful.

3. Individualize the message. Especially when using a template, greet the reader by name (not "Dear Homeowner"). Respond to your reader's specific concern, and review the template carefully to be sure the language matches your reader's situation.

4. Provide information about anything your reader can do to improve the situation. Consider these examples:

  • If your reader lives near the airport, explain how to apply for the airport's sound insulation program. 
  • If your reader does not qualify for flood insurance, share information about protecting his or her property in heavy rain, along with specific links and apps to track the weather.
  • If an employee benefit is no longer offered, share information about how the employee can access the coverage, scholarship, etc., independently.
  • If your reader wants a printed owner's manual but your company supplies only electronic versions, provide a printable file and suggest ways to have the manual printed.
  • If the customer's equipment is no longer under warranty, supply a list of highly rated repair shops in the customer's vicinity. 

5. Be sure any resources you offer are tailored to your reader's situation. Do the work of ensuring that any links you provide lead directly to relevant information–not to a general website. If you provide a list of repair shops, customize the list to your reader's location. If you offer a phone number, be sure the number connects directly to the right resource whenever possible–not to a lengthy Press 1 . . . Press 2 . . . Press 9 recording.

6. Use language that communicates empathy. Consider including statements such as "We understand and regret," "We are sorry about the situation," "I understand that this response is not what you had hoped for," and "I wish I could provide . . ." Remember that an apology does not make you responsible for a situation; it means you are sorry that the situation exists.

7. Avoid any language that characterizes your reader as a complainer. Even if the individual uses the words complaint or complain, do not include those words in your response. Instead, use neutral terms such as letterconcern, inquiry, and situation.

8. Refrain from blame. Even if the situation is the reader's fault, do not blame the individual. Avoid wording such as "If you had purchased marine insurance." Instead, write, "Unfortunately, the boat is not listed in your policy." Do not write, "You should have told me earlier that you wanted to attend." Instead, say, "I am sorry that all the seats are filled."

9. Offer yourself or another person on your team as a contact. Even if there is nothing you can do, giving follow-up contact information helps the reader feel connected rather than isolated. Close your message with a sentence like one of these: "If you need further information, please call me at __________ or email __________" and "Please feel free to call the Customer Hotline 24 hours a day at _________." Yes, certain individuals may abuse that information, but most will simply be grateful to know you are available.

Even though you cannot change the situation, you can write a message that helps your reader feel recognized, heard, and helped.

What do you do when you can't fix the reader's situation? Please share your examples. 

Do you have to write in challenging situations? If you want tips on how to say no or to communicate bad news, get my book Business Writing With Heart: How to Build Great Work Relationships One Message at a Time. Buy it from Syntax Training (with a laminated bookmark and a personal message from me), Amazon, or your favorite bookseller (ISBN 978-0-9778679-0-5). 

Would you like to take a writing course? Check out my Business Writing Tune-Up

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  1. I have a hard time with advising others to offer alternatives to corporate policies, unless they’re within the boundaries of such policy. Offering to help someone print something that is only available via e-mail may not be within your job function to do.

    By using words like “unfortunately,” you could inadvertently cause a customer to feel that the company rep wishes their corporate policies were different, which can actually work against that person delivering the message to the customer. A bit more caution is advised on situations like these.

  2. Hi Miranda,

    Excellent points! Thank you for the caution about using the word “unfortunately.” It’s important that the word not be used in the context of one’s own corporate policy. I noticed that I used it in an insurance context: “Unfortunately, the boat is not listed in your policy.” I believe that use is effective–unless it is the insurance agent’s fault for not covering the boat in the policy.

    I agree with your point about not suggesting something that is outside corporate policy. If someone were to print a manual and send it to the customer, that would no doubt be against corporate policy. After all, the company does not want to provide printed manuals. I believe that’s different from emailing a customer a file to print, along with advice on how to have it printed.

    I had the experience recently of a visually impaired person wanting a special file of my book. It was against our own policy to offer such a file (and we had to take steps to acquire the file ourselves), but providing it for a person who is visually impaired made sense.

    Thanks for the chance to think more about the tips!


  3. This is excellent information, Lynn! I especially love this statement:
    “An apology does not make you responsible for a situation; it means you are sorry that the situation exists.”

    Thank you!


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