Business Writing Essentials

Diplomacy Etiquette

Diplomacy is not just about graciousness or compromise. Under the worst circumstances—when someone is attacking you—diplomacy is about how your behavior reflects your employer's ideals and affects your employer's reputation. Don't go into situations planning to "wing it" if things happen to get ugly. Be prepared, by studying the examples of diplomatic writing. It'll only take a few minutes.

Uh oh! You just received one of those emails at work. Let's be kind and call it heated.

What do you do? And how do you do it in a way that protects you and your employer?

There are three ways you can reply to heated email:
   Earth - firmly address
   Wind - gently redirect
   Fire - angrily react

The Earth approach (firmly address) is appropriate when you have to deal with an in-house bully. It uses three steps:

Mindset: Be the Wall.

No one has the right to insult me.

I am going to let him know this is not okay.

I'm going to hold him accountable so he doesn't do this again.

Actions: Do the You.

Use the word you to identify behavior that is out of line.

Use the word you to suggest a correction to that behavior.

Details: Don't overdo.

Be brief when explaining your rationale.

The Wind approach (gently redirect) is appropriate when you have to deal with a complaining customer.

Mindset: Be no One.

I am an impartial conduit between this person and my organization.

My boss and everyone else in my organization are supportively standing by.

My words will be viewed not as mine, but as the words of anyone in my organization.

Actions: Say it as they see it.

Write with empathy about his situation.

React to what he means, not to what he says.

Details: Map it out.

Put things into perspective by frankly presenting options.

The Fire approach (angrily react) is never appropriate at work. Fire destroys, and flaming emails wound. Make mom proud: avoid playing with fire.

Use your words.

Words to use with the Earth approach:

Normal reaction: Why doesn't he appreciate that I worked hard on that job instead of just criticizing me?
Do the You:
We could probably have better results if you pitched in to get the job done.

Normal reaction: I may not be a brilliant analyst, but I did the best I could.
Do the You:
If you're trying to make me feel bad, it's not going to work.

Normal reaction: I hate it when he does that. Why does he have to be so mean?
Do the You:
It's time for you to cut that out. Keep those kinds of remarks to yourself.

Normal reaction: I've had enough. I don't like to be insulted about my opinions.
Do the You:
You have gone too far. Your insults aren't going to change my mind.

Normal reaction: I'm not comfortable being rushed.
Do the You:
You'll get the report tomorrow.

Words to use with the Wind approach:

Normal reaction: Should we call this guy's mommy to give him a time out?
Say it as they see it:
I certainly don't blame you for being upset. I'd be upset, too. But we'll work this out.

Normal reaction: What a paranoid thing to claim! I had no idea he was supposed to attend the meeting.
Say it as they see it:
Let me be sure I understand what you're saying: You're feeling angry because you believe I purposely omitted you from the meeting.

Normal reaction: It's not my fault.
Say it as they see it:
Believe me, sir, I understand the frustration of having that happen.

Normal reaction: I wish he would calm down and be reasonable.
Say it as they see it:
Give me something more to work with, and I'll see what I can do to fix the problem.

Normal reaction: It's just a purchase order. Why is he screaming?
Say it as they see it:
I'm confident we can resolve the problem with your purchase order.

Example: reply to the following email using the Earth approach.


From: Dick Peterson

Subject: your useless software

Rosslyn —
Just curious, but do you have any programming skills at all? I guess it's too much to ask for the pricing database on our website to be usable during daylite hours.
I'm trying to make a sale yesterday and I'm locked out. Why the #@%#! would you launch this thing if you can't make it usable? It boggles the mind why Poindexters like you IT people stay employed.
Reset my password, now. And simplify the stupid login process, if that's not too difficult for you.
Fix this stuff pronto, or I'll come gunning for your bosses budget. I have an important sales meeting coming up. You have 3 days. Tick tock.


   -  You are responsible for the software and for replying.
   -  All salespeople received training with the database. They all entered their own passwords as well as backup personal questions and answers.
   -  Web server logs show that the Dick tried to log in multiple times and also failed to correctly answer his own personal questions when trying to retrieve his password.

Suggested solution using the Earth approach:

To: Dick Peterson

From: Alex Rosslyn

Subject: accessing the sales database

Dear Mr. Peterson:
It is unacceptable for you to attack me like this and berate my colleagues. That kind of abuse has no place in our company.
You will have better success with the database if you remember your password, or, failing that, you call us and politely request a new password.
Respectfully yours,
Alex Rosslyn


   -  This is one way to frankly and firmly deal with a bully. You should have the support of your boss to respond in this fashion.
   -  This is also a way to openly record (in the email archives) when a person was being a bully. Your employer's attorneys should not have a problem with you identifying bad behavior.
   -  If you or your boss find this approach too confrontational, you have a backup: the Wind approach.

Example: reply to the following email using the Wind approach.

To: Jordan Dove

From: Duke Brazen

Subject: somebody wake up and fix this

RE: # 78573937663
Two months ago I paid the balanse on my OmnusCard. But STILL it doesn't show as paid, and STILL your charging me interest.
Is their anybody THERE? I called the 800 number an got nothing but hand waving from customer service peons.
Do I have to sue you people for 20 millon dollars before I get your attention?


   -  You are responsible for investigating and replying to customer complaints.
   -  This message has been forwarded to you from the company's website. Lucky you.
   -  You checked and double-checked, and concluded that your company never received the check that this customer claimed to have sent.

Suggested solution using the Wind approach:

To: Duke Brazen

From: Jordan Dove

Subject: fixing your account balance

Dear Mr. Brazen,
You have my attention. I see it has been frustrating, but you can trust that we will get it solved.
Unfortunately, the check that was in the mail seems to have stayed there. The fastest way to set things right is to send another check, using certified mail.
Jordan Dove

You didn't think a lesson on diplomatic writing would be so focused on how to deal with difficult people, did you? Sorry. But the truth is, you may on occasion be judged on how well you deal with those who seem intent on behaving badly. Having tried the Earth and the Wind, you now have techniques in the back of your mind, ready to use if necessary.

Few people have "dealing effectively with jerks on a daily basis" in their job description. If things get really bad, keep in mind that the ultimate responsibility for how your employer responds is the job of its supervisors and its attorneys. Don't be afraid to tell them. It's their job to take your emails seriously.

Lesson: Diplomacy Etiquette
Module: Email
Course: Business Writing Essentials