When it comes to delicate interactions — say, giving and receiving feedback — email seems to act like some strange form of kryptonite. How many times have you received a poorly worded critique that sent you into a fit of anger? Or sent someone else some mild feedback only to have the receiver respond with a disproportionate level of outrage? What is it about email that makes us so socially inept?
At the core of the problem is a lack of social cues. 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. This results in what psychologist Daniel Goleman calls a natural “negativity bias” toward email.
Goleman argues that if the sender feels positive about an email, then the receiver usually feels neutral. And if the sender feels neutral about the message, then the receiver typically feels negative about it. In other words, email really is like kryptonite: it’s as if every message you send gets automatically downgraded a few positivity notches by the time someone else receives it.
That means that if you’re in a job where you manage people remotely — and find yourself regularly required to deliver feedback or criticism via email — you’ll want to take special care with your wording to keep your team engaged and motivated.
A few tips on how to deliver delicate feedback with tact and humanity:
- Start with appreciation. When delivering criticism, the first step is to be kind. No one likes a blast of unmitigated negativity in their inbox. As numerous studies have shown, expressing appreciation and saying “thank you” is one of the single most sustainable ways to motivate employees in the workplace. It can also increase productivity. Try to start your email by appreciating some aspect of the work your recipient 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.
- Provide specific, actionable direction. Give your recipient clear and constructive feedback that’s focused on how you can move forward. Stay away from broadly critical statements in favor of providing specific direction as to how the work could be changed for the better. Think of it as adopting a more improv-like “yes and” approach. For example, you might say: This presentation is headed in the right direction, and if we can pare it down to 10 slides we’ll be in great shape. As opposed to: This presentation is way too long.
- Avoid using the imperative. 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. When delivering sensitive feedback, try to make a habit of using conditional phrasing — Could you? Would you? It’s a subtle shift in phrasing, but it conveys a big shift in perspective: you’re putting the ball in their court and respecting their right to make decisions about what they will do and when.
- Emphasize progress. The human brain likes to feel a sense of completion; people are always more motivated when the end is in sight. Even if you’re not near the end of a project, framing a request in terms of completing a milestone or some other small step can be helpful. The point is to put the request on a timeline and show progress so your recipient understands, If I do this, we will be moving forward.
- Use the word “yet.” Another tip for giving criticism is to use the word “yet” whenever possible. Note the difference between saying: These designs are not where I want them to be. Versus saying: These designs are not where I want them to be yet. As psychologist Carol Dweck has argued, by adding that one tiny word you put the recipient on a timeline of learning and achievement rather than making them feel like a failure.
When we take the negativity bias into account, it’s clear that emailing effectively requires us to upgrade the positivity of our language. Better outcomes will arise from being more explicit about the emotional intent of our messages and more considerate of our recipient’s feelings. Although it might not seem intuitive at first, taking the time to show empathy and encouragement in your emails can actually make you more efficient. Your clients and colleagues are much more likely to respond to your requests if they feel like you’re on their side.