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Communication

How can I diplomatically and constructively criticize someone in an email?

All too often in our daily lives, we find that we need to complain about something. When buying something, we may need to put in a complaint about poor customer service, rude staff, low quality products, and hidden costs. At work, we may need to criticize a colleague for a poorly executed task or for not getting something done on time. We may also have to remark on the bad behavior or poor decisions of family and friends. And of course, you may be on the receiving end of criticism: any of you who have had dealings with editors of scientific journals will certainly have received what you consider to be unwarranted criticisms from the reviewers of your manuscripts.

It is very tempting to deal with such issues by writing an angry email – the fact that we are writing gives us a feeling of distance and protection, and we don’t have to confront the person face to face.

Such situations can be difficult to manage in one’s own language, and ‘damage control’ is even harder when writing in a foreign language – English. Here at TextRanch, we are sometimes asked to correct emails with content we would consider a little rude or too direct. Today’s post aims to help you write emails of complaint and criticism to people you already know or have had some contact with in a way that: i) will not offend the recipient, and ii) will achieve your objective.


What if you were at the receiving end?

The key to writing an email, of whatever type, is to imagine that you are the recipient (rather than the writer) of your email. How would you react? Would you accept the criticisms and complaints outlined in the email, or might you actually be angry to the extent that you would simply ignore the email, or worse write back an aggressive email. It also helps to picture your recipient, where they are, what they are doing, how they might be feeling.


Collaboration gone wrong

Let’s imagine a work situation. You are collaborating with a colleague (from another office) to write a report for your boss. You have both decided that your colleague will write the first draft, then you will read it and comment on it.

Your colleague does their draft, emails it you, you open it and … it’s a disaster! They haven’t formatted it correctly, it’s full of spelling mistakes, there’s no introduction or conclusion, and the tables are unreadable. So you’re left with a lot of work to do on the document. You’re angry. You write the following email:

I received the document and noticed that you:

– haven’t formatted it (why not?)
– forgot to write the introduction and conclusion (the boss specifically asked us to do that)
– messed up the tables; I can’t even read them
– left typos and other mistakes throughout the document

Given the boss wants the document for tomorrow, you have left me with a lot of work to do. I can’t believe it.

(Example of work email)

You hit the send button and it’s gone.
How do you think your colleague will react?

The problem is you have decided that your colleague must be wholly incompetent, rather than thinking that there might be a logical explanation for the four points you have highlighted. There is a chance that:

  • your colleague had inadvertently sent you the wrong file, i.e., any earlier version they had saved
  • your colleague had other issues that required their urgent attention, simply didn’t have the time to complete the document and assumed you would be able to do it
  • you had forgotten that it was your job to do the formatting or organize the tables or write the intro and conclusion


What to do instead

A much better solution is to imagine your recipient is someone just like you, i.e., not devoid of any experience, but a highly competent person. So, here’s an alternative version:

Dear _

Thanks very much for sending me the document. The sections you have written are all really clear and precise, exactly like the boss asked. The graphs look great too.

Just a couple of things: I seem to remember that the boss asked for an introduction and a conclusion – or were you expecting me to write those? I also think we need to work on making the tables a bit clearer. With regard to formatting, did you want me to do that? I can also do the final spelling check too.

Hope you are having a good day – are you working from home these days?

(Alternative version of email to colleague)


The first email will certainly make your recipient angry, making them very reluctant to make the changes you requested. The tone adopted also sounds like you are the boss, rather than a colleague who is supposed to be collaborating on a project.

The second email adopts a very different approach. It begins with a positive (but sincere) statement, and the recipient will feel pleased just seeing the words “thanks very much” and adjectives such as “clear”, “precise” and “great”. This constructive start means your recipient will be much more amenable to any criticisms that follow.

The second paragraph contains the criticisms, but they are introduced very softly. Rather than four bullet points, each containing a criticism (as in the first email), the use of just a couple of things is typical English style to reduce any negative impact of what is about to be said. The adverb, “just”, is often used as a softener – “I was just wondering.” or “I just wanted to say.” sounds less strong or dramatic than the same phrase without “just”.

The tone in the second paragraph is diplomatic. No accusations are made. Instead, it is clear that this is a collaboration (we need to…) and offers are made (did you want me to? … I can do …).

The email ends as it began – in a positive way. This means that the recipient will be left feeling good.

Balance is key

In summary, particularly with colleagues, friends and family members, begin your emails by showing appreciation and give them the benefit of the doubt (i.e., there might be a perfectly good reason why they have done something that you consider wrong). Try to show you are in overall agreement with them (even if there are points to be clarified), identify your concerns in a non-confrontational way, offer further help, and always finish by saying something nice (but it must be sincere – otherwise, it could be interpreted as sarcasm).

To email or not to email?

Finally, think about whether email is actually the best way to handle this particular problem. If it is, in any case, wait a few hours before hitting the send button – when you re-read it later, you may realize you have been a bit aggressive. Also, consider whether a phone call might be more effective or even a face-to-face discussion.