Assertive business emails

How to be assertive without being blunt

(AKA how not to sound like a bitch in an email)

Can I tell you how long I angsted over whether to write bitch or dick in that subtitle?

One’s offensive to women, the other to men. So then I considered fuckwit…(please laugh).

Anyway, bitch is what you get. Deal with it.

So let me set the scene:

You need to write a tricky email.

You need to push back, or say no, or deliver bad news, or correct someone.

You’re quite comfortable delivering this message, but you have been told you’ve got a tendency to be a bit blunt. Or abrasive. Or downright rude and offensive.

Or maybe you’re completely uncomfortable delivering this message because you’re worried about sounding bitchy.

And after all, you still have to keep working with these people, right?

Here’s what you need to accomplish:

  1. Humanity
  2. Clarity
  3. Just the right amount of info – not too little, not too much

1. Humanity

The way to balance out an assertive message is to make sure you’re being an actual human. Don’t write like a professional robot.

Use the words that feel true to you – sorry instead of apologies. Can’t instead of cannot. Happen instead of occur – you get the picture.

Greet the person as a human. Say Hi instead of Hello or Good morning or Dear.

And then connect in a human way:

  • Hey, thanks for explaining that
  • I’m so sorry, that’s not quite right
  • I see things a bit differently
  • Bad news, I’m afraid

DO NOT have an overly friendly, happy-sounding first line if you’re about to say no or get tough or deliver bad news.  It’s the worst thing you can do.

The way you connect with your reader has to be 2 things:

  1. Authentic to who you are (ie, don’t be fake)
  2. Congruent with the message (ie, happy email = positive greeting. Push back or bad news email = friendly but real and honest greeting.)

Above all, don’t fall into the trap that digital communications allow us to so often: don’t let the digital and physical distance between you and your reader lull you into feeling safe to say things you’d never say face to face.

Be a good human – in person and by email.

2. Clarity

The trick with clarity is using FEWER WORDS. Your message needs to be clear. Unambiguous. And the more words you use (usually to soften, or mitigate your fears about sounding rude or abrupt), the muddier the message.

You CAN make a clear, succinct statement of the bad news/hard message because you’ve already connected as humans in a very authentic and empathetic way. 

You really WON’T sound blunt if you’ve done that part right!

So, if you’re writing to say no, make sure the no is in a simple clear statement, like:

  • No, I’m sorry we can’t do that
  • We won’t be able to do it quite like that (but here are some options of what we can do…)
  • Unfortunately, the answer is no.

Pushbacks are one of my favourites!

You can pushback in a very friendly assertive way:

  • Yes, I can do that for you once you’ve done XYZ
  • Yes, I can do that – I’ll be able to start [date/time-next week, next month, next decade (just kidding, don’t do that!)]
  • I can do X part of this, who can do Y and Z?
  • I can do ABC once I receive XYZ

Do you notice how every one of my examples is very short?

The main message MUST be concise. You can elaborate afterwards.

3. Just the right amount of info – not too little, not too much

Here’s the trick – giving just the right amount of info AFTER your very succinct, clear message.

You probably can’t get away with:

Because that’s simply not enough information. By the same token, though, you also shouldn’t write 3-5 paragraphs when your reader really just wants the yes or no plus a reason why.

So the way to figure out how much information to give is to get over yourself.

Rude, aye?

What I mean is, it’s not about you – it’s about them.

The way to figure out how much info to give your reader is purely based on WHAT THEY NEED TO KNOW, and NOT what YOU WANT THEM TO KNOW.

Those things are vastly different!!

It’s called being reader-centric, or empathetic. Putting yourself in your reader’s shoes.

So let’s look at how that works:

So all of those parts work well.

Now we need to figure out how much info our reader needs.

We do this by putting ourselves in their shoes, reading the clear, succinct message as if we were them, and then asking ourselves “What would I want to know now?”

A vast amount of the time, it’s “Why?”

So, in a new paragraph (or even better, in a bullet list), explain why!

And then ask yourself again, “What would I want to know now?”

This is where there’s a huge amount of scope depending on the context. It might be a timeframe. It might be a next-step. It might be other options. It might be an apology.

As long as you’re writing with a clear perspective of your reader’s experience, you’ll do this well.

If you truly put yourself in the position of someone getting a no answer when they were hoping for a yes, this is the best way you could hope to receive bad news. 

It’s not overly formal (which can easily offend – AKA sound bitchy).

It’s not too blunt (because we’ve provided enough info).

It’s not fluffy and wordy (which is just irritating because you have to work hard to get the key messages).

So there you go, good humans!

You CAN deliver the hard messages, be assertive, and NOT sound like a [insert your preferred insult here – don’t get me started. I have an impressive profanity vocab]!

_____________________________________

Psst!

If you’re really looking to end the email torture forever, I can help!

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And it uses: – neuroscience to influence how the reader processes your message, and psychology to leverage on how we know readers behave at work. 

What if I said you could sit down right now for ONE HOUR and learn how to use it and never look back? Less-chasing. Fewer games of email tennis. Significant amounts of time saved. Significant increases in productivity.

My online Write Better Emails course will change your life, today!

Need this for all your staff? Email us for a deal!

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Stop shoulding on yourself

The whole day lay ahead of me.

I’d had an early meeting planned that fell through.

So instead, I mowed lawns for over an hour until I had blisters on my fingers that were threatening to pop.

Shelly mowing the lawns on Great Barrier Island

I sat down on the couch for a well-deserved cold drink and put on Netflix.

It was at that moment the little voice in my head started saying, you should…

You should do some work.

You should be productive.

You should get off your ass.

You should do the dishes. Cook. Clean windows. Drive to that place and do that thing.

You should go for a walk.

You should do those exercises the physio gave you.

What the actual fuck?

What is it that fills our heads with SHOULDs when we have the opportunity to rest, relax, recharge, have a break, take time out, practise some self-care,  or just fucking STOP for a few hours if we want to?

I don’t know about you but there’s a voice in my head, OFTEN.

Shoulding all over me.

How do I deal?

So if I have the presence of mind, I go through a set of questions:

  1. Why should I?
  2. Who says?
  3. And if I do?
  4. And if I don’t?

And after I’ve had that conversation with myself, I tell myself something like:

Now that I’ve followed those thought processes through, I choose to do X. It’s an informed decision, and I choose to do X because it’s going to get me: (now list 3 benefits of your choice).

For example:

  1. Why should I get off this couch and DO something? Because you’re wasting time.
  2. Who says I should get up off the couch? Well… No one. Someone. THEM. Ummm, people.
  3. And if I do get up off the couch and do something? I’ll be tired. My hands will be more sore and maybe get worse. I might find something enjoyable to do, but there’s nothing I HAVE to do right now.
  4. And if I don’t get up off the couch and do something?  I’ll be relaxed and rested. I’ll have an enjoyable afternoon. Because I’m on freaking holiday, and I deserve a break. It’s perfectly ok to stay here on the couch. Plus there are no people around, PLUS IDGAF what THEY think.

So, now that I’ve followed those thought processes through, I choose to stay on the couch.

It’s an informed decision.

And I choose to stay on the couch because it’s going to get me downtime, a nap, and a big finger to that little voice that keeps shoulding on me!

That’s loosely how it goes, maybe with some alterations depending on context and depending on the answers.

It’s entirely possible that conversation will end up in me realising there IS a reason that little voice is talking to me. There IS a valid reason I should do a particular thing. Either way, the conversation helps me figure it out.

And in the case of the mowed lawns and the blistered hands and the Netflix?

I’m pleased to report I wiled away the rest of that sunny day right there, on that couch, with an old woollen blanket. And there were naps involved. And tequila.

And not a fucking should in sight.

_____________________

As a rockstar business writer, trainer, and keynote speaker, I show people how to feel more powerful in their own universe, so they can have joy.

I remind big companies and government agencies drowning in corporate jargon, that plain language will get you better results – every, single, time.

I un-train!  Because it turns out that business writing is more about being courageously transparent than it is about having an impressive vocab or where the f*ck to put a semi-colon.

When we choose to operate with authenticity, integrity, and courage, both our business writing and our lives achieve the outcomes we’re craving.

Know yourself.  Love yourself.  Have power.  Find joy

Reflections are the new black

Photo by Arnold Zhou on Unsplash

I’m SO not into all the New Year’s blah blah! But, I do have reflections.

What have you been doing for a full cycle of the moon?

I woke up at 2am and got up for water.

The night was SO BRIGHT and the moon cast a full shadow. I bathed in it like the sun. I find those nights glorious.

And then I realised – I can remember doing the same thing a month ago, standing in the same place. I’ve been here in this place, doing some very specific things, for a full cycle of the moon.

Coming home

I’ve been at home on my island – the place where my ancestors lived.

Great Barrier Island

I’ve been living the life I want to have – the life I had previously been keeping over the cognitive horizon (I’ll live that way when…).

I’ve been writing every day.

I’ve been drinking a lot of water and taking care of my skin.

I’ve been expressing gratitude.

Island time with Shelly

There is power in repetition

A full cycle of the moon. I committed to all these things, and I’ve woken every day and chosen, again, to continue to do these things.

When the moon was full and bright, when it was a perfect half-circle, when it was a tiny silver sliver, when it shone and when it was hidden behind cloud and wind and rain,

I kept doing those things.

Fuck, I’m proud of that. And fuck, I feel better for it.

What have you been doing for a full cycle of the moon?

And is it time to pause and reflect and congratulate yourself for it, so you don’t take it for granted and so you can keep doing it with renewed commitment?

_____________________________

As a rockstar business writer, trainer, and keynote speaker, I show people how to feel more powerful in their own universe, so they can have joy.

I remind big companies and government agencies drowning in corporate jargon, that plain language will get you better results – every, single, time.

I un-train!  Because it turns out that business writing is more about being courageously transparent than it is about having an impressive vocab or where the f*ck to put a semi-colon.

When we choose to operate with authenticity, integrity, and courage, both our business writing and our lives achieve the outcomes we’re craving.

Know yourself.  Love yourself.  Have power.  Find joy