5 tips for writing effective diplomatic business emails
Updated: Sep 23
Do you sometimes struggle with writing diplomatic emails? Do people sometimes tell you, you come across as too direct, rude or not very empathetic? In this article, I'm going to share why being diplomatic matters and my top 5 tips for writing emails using diplomatic language.
It's so easy to become emotionally invested in the work we do. That's why it's so hard sometimes to take a step back when we have to express disappointment or to ask someone to do something that isn't very comfortable.
In my career as a landscape architect, I've had to learn how to improve my diplomatic email writing to deal with situations such as:
When a client isn't happy or doesn't understand the design process or the design;
To ask a contractor to re-do work that wasn't up to standard; or
To express my opinion, especially when I didn't agree with someone.
These are just some examples, and even for experienced professionals, they aren't always comfortable. Then, to add more complexity to the mix, to try and write diplomatic emails when English is your second language can add another layer of complexity and stress to the situation. Your own culture and experiences can shape and influence how you deal with these situations.
It's important to know because the language we use and the meaning it has behind it can have a significant impact on the relationships we build with our colleagues and collaborators.
There is no right or wrong way to do it, and you will develop your way of dealing with challenging situations. I know this can be really tough for some people when English is their second language; however, there are ways to overcome this challenge. When I went through the process to become a registered landscape architect, I learnt a lot about writing diplomatic emails from an excellent mentor. I'm going to share some of the things I learnt from him and throughout my professional career. These tips have been the most effective for me, my colleagues and my current students.
But first - what is diplomatic language?
Diplomatic work emails are polite and strive to ensure that recipients don't misunderstand or misinterpret the information. We can't always control misunderstandings, but we can reduce them. The goal is to use tactful language that relays important messages without making the recipient feel bad. Often, diplomatic language uses more modal verbs such as may, might, could and would to sound more polite.
Set the diplomatic tone upfront - in the first few lines of your email show you're a human being who is capable of showing empathy and always acknowledge the other person. I don't enjoy receiving emails that don't even attempt to acknowledge me, such as:
I need you to complete this task by the end of the day. Boss not happy.
If you want to be diplomatic, choose the language that attempts to put the recipient at ease first.
Eg. I know this project has been demanding, so I asked Ben to assist with some of the design drafting. Could you organise a time to meet with him and explain the project at the start of next week?
Eg. Thanks for meeting with me this morning. As we discussed, please see attached a list of the defects which were agreed upon by both parties. Could you please get back to me by the end of the week with a timeline?
Keep it professional and avoid talking about feelings.
Even if you're not happy, really angry or disappointed with someone's work, it's best to try and avoid attacking the person. Don't get caught up in emotion. Save this for face to face conversations if it is necessary so the other person can read your body language and also has a chance to respond. In an email instead of saying
"I'm not happy with the work you have done, and it needs rectifying"
instead, try something like:
"The standard of work is not as expected. Could we discuss how you will rectify it?"
Choose your words wisely
Try to focus on using an 'I statement' rather than using 'you statements' when addressing issues and explain what you mean, so recipients gain a clear understanding of your goals and intentions.
For example, if you want to send an email to your team about the importance of meeting a particular design deadline, instead of saying:
"It's disappointing that you think we can't meet this deadline. It's important that you understand that you need to keep this client happy."
"It has been my understanding that we can achieve this deadline, as I'm determined to maintain a strong relationship with this client.
Be direct, specific and concise
If you paid close attention to tip number 1, you have already set the diplomatic tone at the beginning so now you can move on to be direct, specific and concise.
Eg. Hi David,
I hope you're well. I'm organising the agenda for tomorrows meeting. Before our workshop tomorrow could you please complete the following:
Review the attached document
Follow up with the Engineer
Write down any other suggestions to bring to the meeting.
Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow
In this example, I set the tone upfront, then I provide David with a list of specific 'call to actions', and he hopefully has a clear understanding of what he needs to do before the meeting. The dot points help the call to actions stand out, and David doesn't need to search for the information.
5. Try Grammarly's tone detector
The Grammarly tone detector is something I use with everything I write, including emails, articles and proposals.
With the tone detector, I can be confident I'm hitting the right tone but also getting my message across clearly. Some of my students find Grammarly useful but still have some challenges with knowing how to use it effectively, as it does require some intuition and understanding of context. Using Grammarly effectively is something I help my students to navigate so they can get the most out of the tool.