Let's face it, email can be very useful. It's convenient, (potentially) saves time, and creates a record when needed.

For all the advantages of email, however, we're all aware of its limits. Written messages often cause misunderstandings and confusion, which then require time to clear up. In business, deals are lost, relationships broken, and opportunities ignored because of writing when we should have spoken in person (or at least, on the phone).

One of the areas in which you should avoid email (and other written messaging services) whenever possible:

When there's a need to provide negative feedback.

Jocelyn K. Glei is the author of Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done. She addressed this problem in a recent article for the Harvard Business Review.

Why to Avoid Email When Providing Negative Feedback

None of us enjoy getting negative feedback. That's why if you've been tasked with this, it's important that you deliver your criticism constructively, and in a manner that will get the desired results.

But it's very challenging to do this through email. Why?

"At the core of the problem is a lack of social cues," explains Glei. "Normally when we communicate with someone in person or even on the phone, we are picking up on things like facial expressions, physical gestures, and vocal tone and deciding what to do next based on those cues. When we communicate through email, however, that social feedback loop is absent."

That's why, as much as possible, negative feedback should be delivered in person--especially when it's not tied to a specific task or project. (More tips on how to deliver negative feedback that's emotionally intelligent here.)

Nonetheless, as jobs are increasingly carried out remotely, it is sometimes necessary to deliver project-related feedback or criticism through email or other written messaging platforms.

When this is the case, the following suggestions are helpful:

1. Begin with appreciation.

I normally don't recommend the feedback sandwich, as it often results in both commendation and negative feedback getting lost in the mix.

However, written communication is a different animal.

"No one likes a blast of unmitigated negativity in their inbox," explains Glei. She suggests beginning the email with a small note of appreciation for what the recipient has already done. "You don't have to go overboard, it could be something as simple as: Thanks for the quick turnaround on this! Or This provides a great starting point for our discussion."

2. Provide direction that's specific, positive and actionable.

Criticism is received best when it's truly constructive. That's why rather than concentrating on what the person did wrong, you should focus on how to improve.

For example, as opposed to "This presentation is way too long," Glei recommends: "This presentation is headed in the right direction, and if we can pare it down to 10 slides we'll be in great shape."

Now, instead of focusing on the recipient, you're trying to be helpful.

3. Avoid authoritative commands.

"People like to feel they have agency in their work, and imperative phrasing--do this, go there, finish that--turns them into peons following orders," says Glei.

Instead, using phrases like could you and would you subtly shifts perspective and restores control to the other person.

I wanted to emphasize these three suggestions, but Glei's full post provides more advice and is definitely worth a read. (And if you're looking for more email advice, check out 6 Stupid Written Communication Mistakes That Emotionally Intelligent People Avoid.)

Putting It into Practice

In the modern work environment, the value of the written word will only increase.

Learn to see your communication through the other person's eyes and take their feelings into account, and you're no longer the clueless boss that doesn't get your employees; you're the one who's looking out for them.

Published on: Oct 11, 2016
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