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.

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



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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.

5 comments on “How to Write When You Can’t Change Things”

  • Great tips, Lynn! I spent all of today responding to feedback on boundary changes and used all of these techniques.

  • Hi Tina,

    I am guessing the boundary changes had to do with the Seattle School District. A very touchy issue. Thank you for letting me know you used the techniques.


  • 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!


  • 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.

  • 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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