The Perfect “I’m Frustrated” Email

What Not to Do

This past week, my wife and I got the following email from the person who oversees our yard crew:

First of all, he didn’t mention the problem to us last week, when it first came up. Second, his tone, attitude, and overall demeanor here seem to be on the attack.

Unfortunately, we’ve all received emails like this one. Or even texts. They’re short, on the offensive, personally attacking, and just plain rude.

They’re the kind of communication that mostly just serve to make the receiver (or, more accurately, the accused) feel weird and confused. They create a mix of shame in us and anger toward the person who sent it. The thing that seems most baffling to me, though, is that writing an email like this doesn’t tend to help forward its author’s agenda. It doesn’t inspire us to do better; if anything, it just makes us not want to engage with him any longer. Case in point? He’s not going to have to worry about our yard and its poop (or lack thereof) anymore because we’re going to find a new person to work with.

 

Modeling Great Behavior

This interaction is exactly why I’ve been searching for the perfect “I’m Frustrated” email as a better example. Thankfully, just when I needed it, one came my way recently and it was from our own team. Keevin sent this to Dani and me a little over a week ago and, in it, he refers back to a recurring meeting we have on the last Friday of every month. During these meetings, the entire company sits in a room and collectively digs into one issue—truly, anything anyone wants to brainstorm around or work through. As you’ll see, our last meeting didn’t go so well and Keevin had some thoughts to share about that. Here’s what it said:

 

 

You can probably already see why this email was so good—meaning, it was actually constructive criticism—but I want to highlight exactly what I think it worked and why I think it should serve as a model for all of us:

1) The timing of the email.
Our meeting ended at 1:00pm, and look what time the email came to us—just 29 minutes after the meeting was over. It meant the feedback was immediate. Not only did he not let his frustration sit and fester, but he made sure to share feedback when it was top-of-mind for all of us.

2) Who he wrote it to.
He didn’t “Reply All.” Meaning, he didn’t send his feedback to the entire team. He wrote it to his two superiors. In fact, if I hadn’t led the meeting, he probably would have just written the note to Dani, his direct supervisor. But he had the emotional intelligence to know that an open note to everyone could have felt like a passive attack on the meeting’s facilitator (in this case, me), openly sharing how something I did might have sucked. He wasn’t just trying to get everyone on his side. He sent it just to us, the people who can directly do something about it, and helped us feel safe in discussing something that might not have been done as well as we hoped.

3) His intentions were clear—and they weren’t about him.
Look at his first sentence. He stated exactly what his intentions were and they were all about making the company better. Specifically, he was going to let us know how he thought we could improve our Fruition Friday meetings. His intentions weren’t about him. Or him looking like he’s smart. Or how he wanted us to know that he thinks these meetings are a waste of time. Instead, he wanted us to know that he thinks we can make the company even better by improving our Fruition Friday gatherings and he did it in a way that de-escalated any immediate emotional response we might have to hearing that he was frustrated.

4) He shared his feelings.
It’s easy to hide behind an email and not share exactly what we’re thinking and feeling. But his second sentence dug immediately into what he was feeling—frustrated. This matters so much because it helps me know, immediately, that something happened that caused an emotional reaction for someone on the team. When I know that, I know that it’s an important email—one I need to pay attention to.

5) He concisely shared exactly why he was feeling that way.
The “chaotic” nature of the meeting made him frustrated. I know exactly what he meant and now I want to figure out how to fix it.

6) The disclaimer.
But before he gives an answer to how to fix it, look at what he does. He shares that these are “his opinions.” They’re just “suggestions.” When he says that, it helps me to know that he’s not addressing something that would cause him to leave the company if we don’t implement his changes. It’s not a crisis. But even if it were a crisis situation, this is still a great way to bring it up.

7) The example (at a high-level).
Speaking of, he immediately offered a solution. He didn’t just complain and tell us how terrible the meeting was for him. He offered an idea that could help fix it. Not only that, but his solution is one, from experience, he has seen work in the past. It’s a real-life story (actually, two…) of how his suggested solution has helped to improve company culture at one of his previous jobs.

8) Giving reasons why the example worked.
He didn’t dig into the example in detail immediately. He first shared why it worked in his past experience—people were heard, everyone’s time was used well, and everyone knew the best way to move forward.

9) The example (detailed).
After selling us on the idea, he scripted out exactly how to make it work in incredible detail. This is so helpful as one of his superiors because I don’t need to think or brainstorm how to make this idea come to life. He did it for me, which makes a) my job easier, and b) implementing his suggestion super easy.

10) He brought it back to his original intentions.
He’s just trying to help the business grow. He wants things to be better. And he’s being honest. Even though his tone seemed incredibly clear throughout, this final note makes extra sure that I don’t walk away from reading it feeling either confused or just more frustrated. It ends on a note that reassures, again, that he’s focused on the business and how we can improve.

Needless to say, I forwarded the note to our team and told them that we’re going to change how we conduct Frution Friday meetings moving forward. All because Keevin not only modeled a great way to make suggestions for improvement but because he helped us know exactly what steps we can take to do it.