Using a tactful tone helps you maintain a good relationship with your reader, which should always be a goal of communication.

Most messages have a dual purpose: to convey information and to retain goodwill with the reader or listener. When you can craft the message in a way that doesn’t alienate the audience, you strengthen your credibility.

Here is how one senior manager opened a message:

Peter,

We really cannot send this to the client as it is. You didn’t use the input I gave you. The format is incorrect, and the details we discussed are not included. At this point, there is too much that needs fixing for me to edit it and for you to finish it tonight.

An alternative opening might have had a different impact on the reader.

Peter,

The email to the client still needs a few changes. Let’s plan to meet tomorrow to put together a new draft.

In a case such as this, the real reason you are writing is not to reprimand the reader; you are writing because you want a better performance from Peter. The more you can sound neutral (leave out the emotion) and collaborative, the more likely you are to achieve the desired result. Being harshly critical is both discouraging and embarrassing for the reader, which can damage your relationship.

When you need to write a message in which you are complaining, disagreeing, or delivering other news that the reader will not be pleased to read, keep a few things in mind:

Use a professional tone

  • Be tactful – Be sensitive to what is appropriate to say and not say when dealing with colleagues or customers. Express observations and suggestions constructively.
  • Show empathy – If the person made a mistake, remember that we all do. We’re human. Help the reader find “a way out” that will avoid embarrassment.
  • Don’t exaggerate – Once you stretch the truth on one point, the reader will be suspicious of everything else you say.
  • Avoid you statementsYou and your can sound accusatory, and they will resonate unfavorably in a reader or listener’s mind. Instead of saying, “You should have talked to me before deciding,” it’s better to say, “I would like to be included in the discussion next time.”
  • Know the difference between a complaint and a criticism – A complaint is about an action that didn’t occur according to plan. A criticism is aimed at the individual, and thus is taken personally.
  • Sound authentic – A polite, friendly tone sounds personal and sincere, which is what people want.

Communicating unpleasant news is rarely easy, but being candid, maintaining a professional, respectful tone, and sounding encouraging whenever possible will boost your credibility and strengthen your long-term relationship with the reader or listener.