How to write feedback in emails

Giving feedback to people is not only a very common task to do in business nowadays, but also a very necessary one. As modern business becomes increasingly competitive, making sure that things which are not working are changed quickly is essential.

Unfortunately, feedback can often be seen by the people receiving it as criticism (and sometimes that's exactly what it is). And it can cause people to become very defensive or even aggressive when receiving it. This can make it very difficult to give people feedback on something they've done/created or on their performance. As a consequence, people either tend to shy away from giving it or sugarcoat any feedback they give, so it is of little benefit to the person receiving it.

But giving feedback doesn't have to feel like criticism. If presented in the right way, you can reduce the likelihood of offending the person while at the same time making the person/people aware of issues and motivating them to change them (which should be the main purpose of any feedback).

To help you to be able to write a good email of feedback, I have come up with the following 9 tips:

To see an example of a feedback email, go to my online exercise for writing an email of feedback.

1. Be clear about the purposes of the email

Like with writing anything, you need to be clear before you start writing what you want to achieve and focus on that. With an email of feedback, the main purposes are to highlight to a person what isn't working and make them change or improve those things themselves.

Now that you know the main purposes, how do you achieve them when writing the email?

2. Sounds like advice

As I have already mentioned, feedback can sound like criticism (nobody likes to hear they are doing something wrong). To reduce the probability that the feedback is interpreted like this, the way in which you write it is very important.

One of the factors in writing effective feedback is your choice of writing style and vocabulary. If you are the one giving the feedback (giving your opinion), I would write in it the style you would in an email to a work colleague you know well (not very formal). Also, make it sound like you are giving advice. Don't make it sound like you're giving them orders/instructions (like a school report for example). So, instead of using 'change this' or 'this doesn't work', you should use 'if I were you, I would change this?' or 'I don't think it really works'.

If you use this style of vocabulary, people will not only respond better to the feedback, but be more willing to make the changes you recommend.

Unfortunately, if you are reporting the feedback of others (e.g. from a customer or from a meeting), the vocabulary and style you use should be more formal (because the people whose opinion/feedback you are giving may want to see what you've written). But you can still make this type of feedback effective if you express it well.

3. Start the email with the good things

Always write about the positive things (and if there isn't any, invent some) a person has done/is doing in the email before the negative things. It will put the person in a better frame of mind and make them more willing to appreciate the things they have done/are doing badly.

By doing this, it will also make them aware of things they don't have to worry about. As a result, they will be more focused on the things that they do need to change or improve.

4. Be honest

Although it is easy to tell people the things they are doing well, it's less so when telling them the things they are doing badly. For fear of upsetting people, many of us shy away from telling people about the things they are doing wrong or not so well.

If you do this, you are not helping them (or yourself if you are their manager). In fact, you are doing the opposite. So don't hold back from telling them something they may not want to hear. Most people will thank you in the long run for doing it.

5. Always give reasons

When you are giving negative feedback, you always need to give reasons or evidence (or your own experience) to support your opinions. It will make the people receiving it more willing to accept what you are saying.

6. Make them aware of the consequences of the problem

Just telling them that there is a problem may not be enough to make somebody want to change something. In order to avoid this, you can explain what the consequences of this problem are (e.g. 'The online sales form takes so long to complete that customers will leave the website without buying anything').

7. Offer solutions or recommendations

Although it may be clear to you what a person has to do to change or improve something, it may not be to them. So whenever you give negative feedback, always suggest a possible solution or recommendation (e.g. 'have you thought about making the online sales form automatically add the customers details?').

A very good way to do this, is to get the person to come up with their own solution to the problem themself (it'll make them feel better than being told). So instead of suggesting to them a solution, ask them a question which would lead the person to discover the solution themself (e.g. 'How can we make it quicker for a customer to complete the online sales form without reducing the number of fields they have to complete?').

The best way to do this, is to think of a solution yourself and then give them hints in the question you ask to them, so they naturally come to the same or a similar solution. It's a little manipulative, but very effective.

8. Show empathy

As I have mentioned, many people don't like to hear about things they aren't doing or haven't done well. Anything you can do to lessen the negative impact this has on them will help in motivating them to make the necessary changes.

One thing which helps in doing this, is to empathise with their situation. Show you understand why they did or are doing something. Give an example of a similar situation that you've been in (invent one, if you haven't).

9. Offer the opportunity to talk

Provide them with the opportunity to speak or meet with you to discuss the feedback after they have read the email. I find it is more productive to give them time to think about the feedback before you actually discuss it together. So if they call you 5 minutes after you sent the email, find an excuse to delay the conversation until later.

In conclusion:

If you use these tips when you either write an email of feedback or actually tell somebody verbally, you'll not only see how well it works with most people, but you'll feel more comfortable about giving or reporting feedback to people.

You may have noticed I have said most people above. The reason I have said this is because from my experience there are some people who respond better when they are being criticised than when they are being advised.

So, if you find that the approach I have suggested doesn't work, maybe you should resort to a more critical and direct strategy.

I recommend that you now look at my online exercise for writing an email of feedback to both see an example of one and make sure that you know what you have to do.