How to write difficult emails

Although academia is, by industry standards, a pretty relaxed environment, certain situations may require you to write formal emails at times of high stress and deep frustration. This can be a daunting task with high stakes, so here are some tips to help you communicate your message most effectively. 

1. DO NOT reply immediately

A stressful situation can leave us wanting to pour our frustration down onto an email - you may be very eager to clarify an annoying misunderstanding.

Now, it can be very cathartic to write that email, so feel free to do so, but do not send it before you’ve had time to cool down, reflect, and gather your thoughts. Even if you feel like your reply is perfect, there is no harm in saving it as a draft and coming back to it in a while (after considering my next tips * wink *)

I know this can be difficult. I still sometimes fail to follow my own advice and I regret it every time - so please, just wait.

2. Identify the core message you want to get across

Difficult situations can leave all parties emotional, or feeling quite personally about the issue at hand. This can lead us to focus on details which, although not necessarily unimportant, can distract from the main point that needs to get across. Taking time to consider the big picture and identify what message(s) your reply has to emphasise when crafting your email. 

3. Write as if your favourite mentor was going to read it

Some issues are private, or even confidential, but always write as if your manager or mentor were going to read it eventually. How would your reply reflect on you? Does it show-case your best professional self? If not, why? 

Here is a checklist to help you proof-read:

  • Have you managed to address the concerns of the other party (if they had any)?

  • Do you need to fact-check any of your statements?

  • Are there any passive-aggressive turns of phrase that need to be removed?

  • Have you proof-read for typos?

4. If you can, get a third party to read your email

If the issue is not confidential, it can be a good idea to get a friend to read over your email so they can tell you how it comes across, and potentially help you smooth things out (say, if any passive aggressive memo slipped through the cracks).

I would particularly recommend that if there is a language barrier or cultural differences between you and the person you are corresponding with: for example, as a French person I have learnt a lot from getting my British friends to read certain emails. There are subtleties they just don’t teach you in school. 


5. Once it’s sent - leave it.

I know I’m not alone in overthinking every sensitive conversation and emails - e.g. re-reading what I sent occasionally wondering if I did anything wrong. I know you do it too, I see you. Well, people, we gotta stop torturing ourselves. Once we’ve carefully crafted an email and sent it, we just have to be patient and give it time.

So leave it.

Take care of yourself, get your mind off things, spend time with your friends or try to get back to work. I know it’s easier said than done, but this wouldn’t be the internet if I didn’t give you one piece of advice I can’t follow ;)

I hope you found these tips useful! If you’ve got some advice please share it in the comments below ;)

Good Luck!