Business English


Language of diplomacy - intermediate

Your choice of language can have a powerful effect on the outcome of a negotiation. Compare the following:

We reject your offer.> I'm afraid at this point we would be unable to accept your offer.

The use of softeners (I'm afraid), restrictive phrases (at this point), modal verbs (would) and rephrased negatives (nable to accept) in the second sentence make the rejection sound more acceptable.

Look at the following ways of making what you say in a negotiation more diplomatic:

1.    Modals: would, could, may, might

·        This is a problem.>This would be a problem.
·        Of course, there's a disadvantage to this.> Of course, there could be a disadvantage to this.
In both examples above the speaker sounds less direct, but in the first example the basic message don't change. This would be a problem still means it is a problem! But it sounds better.

  1. Qualifiers: slight, a bit, rather, a few, etc.

·        There may be a delay.> There may be a slight delay.
·        We're disappointed with the discount on offer.> We're rather disappointed with the discount offer.
Qualifiers soften the impact of bad news, but don't actually change it.

  1. Rephrased negatives 1: not very, totally, completely + positive adjective

·        We're unhappy with this arrangement.>We're not very happy with this arrangement.
·        I'm unconvinced.> I'm not totally convinced.
Using positive adjectives makes you sound more positive-even when you use them in the negative!

  1. Rephrased negatives 2: unable, not able, not in a position to

·         We can't go any higher than 7% .> We're unable to go any higher than 7%.
·        We won't accept anything less.>We're not in a position to accept anything less.
Try to avoid using can't and won't. They make you sound powerless and obstructive.

  1. Negative question forms: shouldn't we.............?, wouldn't you............?etc.

·        We should be working together on this.> Shouldn't we be working together on this?
·        You'd be taking an enormous risk.> Wouldn't you be taking an enormous risk?
Negative question forms are incredibly powerful in negotiations. Questions sound more tentative than statements and also more persuasive. Use them to make suggestions and give warnings.

  1. Comparatives: -er, more, less

·        We're looking for something cheap.> We're looking for something cheaper.
·        Would you be prepared to consider this?> Would you be more prepared to consider this?
To use comparatives makes what you say sound more negotiable.

  1. Softeners: unfortunately, I'm afraid, to be honest, with resect,etc.

·        This doesn't meet our needs.> Unfortunately, this doesn't meet our needs.
·        You don't quite understand .> With respect, you don't quite understand.
Softeners at the beginning of a statement signal bad news. With respect is a particularly bad sign!

  1. Restrictive phrases: at the moment, at this stage, so far, etc.

·        That's our position.> That's our position at the moment.
·        I don't think we can go any further.> I don't think we can go any further at this stage.
     Using a restrictive phrase does not exclude the possibility of future movement.

  1. The passive: it was understood, it was assumed, etc.

·        You said you were ready to sign.> It was understood you were ready to sign.
·        We thought you had accepted these terms.> It was assumed you had accepted these terms.
By avoiding the use of statements beginning You said... and We thought... and using passive forms instead, you depersonalise the situation and reduce the amount of personal responsibility or blame.

10.   The –ing form: were aiming, had been hoping
·    We aimed to reach agreement today.> We were aiming to reach agreement today.
·    We had hoped to see some movement on price.> We had been hoping to see some movement on price.
Using the Past Continuous kees your options open-you were aiming to reach agreement and still are. The Past Perfect Continuous closes the door a little more-you've stopped hoping, but could be persuaded to hope again.



At some point in life, you’re almost certainly going to have to write a reference letter for someone. It might be a former employee or student, or even a family friend. Here’s what you need to know about the purpose of reference letters and how to write the most effective letter possible.
Note: I will be using “candidate” to refer to the person who the reference letter is about, “you” to refer to the person writing the reference letter, and “recipient” to refer to the person receiving the letter. I’ll emphasise here, though, that reference letters are not only for job or academic “candidates”, it’s just a handy term to use to keep this article straightforward!

What is a reference letter and when are they used?

A reference letter is usually written to testify to a person or (occasionally) a company’s skills, character and/or achievements. Sometimes a reference letter is known as a “recommendation letter”. It is a formal document, and should be typed and written in a serious and business-like style.
Reference letters are used in a wide variety of situations; there is no definitive list that covers all possible scenarios. The most common examples are:
  • When a candidate applies for a job, they may need a reference to support their application.
  • If an interviewee is given a job offer, they may need to supply a reference letter before the contract can be signed.
  • A student applying for an academic course often requires a reference letter to support their application.
  • A student applying for funding will often need to supply reference letters.
  • Companies may use reference letters as testimonies to their trustworthiness and ability to carry out a job well.
  • Prospective tenants may need to provide their landlord with a reference letter, testifying to their good financial status. (This could be from a prior landlord or from a current employer.)

Who should write a reference letter?

If you are approached and asked to write a reference letter for a job candidate, a student or a company, consider whether you can legitimately do so. A reference letter is a formal document, and it is crucial that you do not lie or fudge the truth in it, or there could be legal repercussions. If someone wants a reference letter from you:
  • The candidate should be someone you know reasonably well. For example, you cannot provide any authoritative comment on the academic ability of a student who’s only been attending your lectures for a week.
  • You should know the candidate in a capacity which gives you the ability to write a meaningful reference. For example, if you have worked with the person, it would be appropriate for you to write a reference letter to a prospective employer for them.
  • You should be able to provide an honest and positive reference. If you truly feel that the candidate has no good qualities for you to emphasis, or if you have had a personality clash with them in the past, you should tell them to seek a reference letter from someone else.

What goes into a reference letter?

The exact structure of a reference letter will differ slightly depending on the type of reference it is, but this is a good basic outline:
  1. Start using the business letter format: put the recipient’s name and address, if known, and address them as “Dear [name]”. If the recipient is currently unknown (this would be likely on an academic application, for instance), then use “Dear Sir/Madam” or “To whom it may concern”.
  2. It is often helpful to introduce yourself in the first couple of lines of your letter. The recipient will not need your life history: just give a brief sentence or two explaining your position and your relationship to the candidate.
  3. Your next paragraph should confirm any facts which you know the candidate will be supplying along with your letter. For example, if you are writing a reference for a job applicant, some or all of these details may be appropriate:
    • The person’s job title, and role within the company.
    • The person’s leaving salary when they were last employed by you (or your organisation).
    • The dates which the person was employed from and until.
If you are writing a reference letter for an academic course, you will need to confirm the person’s academic grades.
  1. In your third paragraph, you should provide your judgement upon the candidate’s skills and qualities. It is often appropriate to state that you would gladly re-employ them, or that their contributions to your college class were highly valued. Single out any exceptional qualities that the candidate has – perhaps their drive and enthusiasm, their attention to detail, or their ability to lead.
  2. Where possible, use your fourth paragraph to give a couple of concrete examples of times when the candidate excelled. (You may want to ask the candidate to tell you about any extra-curricular projects they’ve been involved in, or invite them to highlight anything they’d particularly like you to include in the reference letter.)
  3. Close your letter on a positive note, and if you are willing to receive further correspondence about the candidate’s application, make this clear. Include your contact details too.
  4. As with any business letter, you should end appropriately; “Yours sincerely” when you are writing to a named recipient, and “Yours faithfully” when you do not know who will be receiving the letter.
Things to avoid
Make sure that you avoid:
  • Mentioning any weaknesses the candidate has.
  • Saying anything that could be construed as libel.
  • Writing in an informal manner: keep the letter business-like. Jokes, slang and casual language are not appropriate and may harm the candidate’s chances.
  • Including personal information not relevant to the application. Mentioning the candidate’s race, political stance, religion, nationality, marital status, age or health is usually inappropriate.
  • Spelling mistakes, sloppy writing or typos: this letter is hugely important to the candidate, and you should take care to make it look professional.


Reference Letter Examples

There are a number of good templates for reference letters available on Business Balls. I’ve included one below, which would be appropriate for a general-purpose reference – if you were writing a reference in your capacity as the candidate’s former employer, you would need to include more specific details:
To whom it may concern
I confirm that I have known (name) for (number) years.
(State relationship – social, business, working together in some other capacity, club, activity, project, etc.)
At all times I have found (name/him/her) to be (state characteristics – eg, dependable, reliable, hard-working, conscientious, honest, peace-loving, courteous, etc – to be as helpful as possible think about what the reader will most prefer to see, in terms of satisfying concerns, or seeing evidence of relevant required skills or characteristics).
I’m happy to provide further information if required. (optional)
Yours faithfully, etc.
To Whom it May Concern:
I highly recommend Jane Doe as a candidate for employment. Jane was employed by Company Name as an Administrative Assistant from 2002 – 2005. Jane was responsible for office support including word processing, scheduling appointments and creating brochures, newsletters, and other office literature.
Jane has excellent communication skills. In addition, she is extremely organized, reliable and computer literate. Jane can work independently and is able to follow through to ensure that the job gets done. She is flexible and willing to work on any project that is assigned to her. Jane was quick to volunteer to assist in other areas of company operations, as well.
Jane would be a tremendous asset for your company and has my highest recommendation. If you have any further questions with regard to her background or qualifications, please do not hesitate to call me.
John Smith

Technically, not every item is a question; some are statements; but all are intended to prompt you for a response.
Better questions are not those that can be answered with a "yes" or "no," but are open-ended questions that invite thoughtful response. Even if you are asked a question that can be answered with a "yes" or "no," (e.g. "Are you comfortable with the amount of travel this job involves?"), you can certainly add a word of explanation to back up your answer (e.g., "Yes. I actually look forward to the opportuntity to travel and to work with the staff members in some of the other offices.)
Best questions are those that ask you how you behaved in the past, because past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. These are referred to as behavioral interview questions; read more.
Not every interviewer will ask you every one of these questions.  However, if you are prepared to address these questions, you will leave the impression that you were prepared for your job interview, even if additional questions take you by surprise.

What are your long-range goals and objectives for the next seven to ten years?

What are your short-range goals and objectives for the next one to three years?

How do you plan to achieve your career goals?

What are the most important rewards you expect in your career?

Why did you choose the career for which you are preparing?

What are your strengths, weaknesses, and interests?

How do you think a friend or professor who knows you well would describe you?

Describe a situation in which you had to work with a difficult person (another student, co-worker, customer, supervisor, etc.). How did you handle the situation? Is there anything you would have done differently in hindsight?

What motivates you to put forth your greatest effort? Describe a situation in which you did so.

In what ways have your college experiences prepared you for a career?

How do you determine or evaluate success?

In what ways do you think you can make a contribution to our organization?

Describe a contribution you have made to a project on which you worked.

What qualities should a successful manager/leader/supervisor/etc. possess?

Was there an occasion when you disagreed with a supervisor's decision or company policy? Describe how you handled the situation.

What two or three accomplishments have given you the most satisfaction? Why?

Describe your most rewarding college experience.

What interests you about our product or service?

Why did you select your college or university?

What led you to choose your major or field of study?

What college subjects did you like best? Why?

What college subjects did you like least? Why?

If you could do so, how would you plan your academic studies differently?

Do you think your grades are a good indication of your academic achievement?

What have you learned from participation in extracurricular activities?

In what kind of work environment are you most comfortable?

How do you work under pressure?

Describe a situation in which you worked as part of a team. What role did you take on? What went well and what didn't?

In what part-time, co-op, or summer jobs have you been most interested? Why?

How would you describe the ideal job for you following graduation?

Why did you decide to seek a position with our organization?

What two or three things would be most important to you in your job?

What criteria are you using to evaluate the organization for which you hope to work?

How would you view needing to relocate for the job? Do you have any constraints on relocation?

Are you comfortable with the amount of travel this job requires?

Are you willing to spend at least six months as a trainee?

What the interview is looking for:

Interviewer says: Tell me about yourself.
Remember, this is a job interview, not a psychological or personal interview. The interviewer is interested in the information about you that relates to your qualifications for employment, such as education, work experiences and extracurricular activities.

Interviewer says: What do you expect to be doing five years from now? Ten years from now?
The interviewer is looking for evidence of career goals and ambitions rather than minutely specific descriptions. The interviewer wants to see your thought process and the criteria that are important to you. The interviewer is not looking for information about your personal life.

Interviewer says: Why should I hire you?
Stress what you have to offer the employer as relates to the position for which you are interviewing, not how nice it would be to work there or what you want from the employer. Remember that you are being compared to other candidates, and in fact more than one candidate might be a very good employee. Deliver to the employer reasons to see that you are a good fit (show you know yourself, know the field/industry, know the organization, and know the position).

Interviewer says: What are your ideas about salary?
Research salaries in your field before your interviews so that you know the current salary range for the type of position you are seeking. Read more about being prepared for questions about salary.

Interviewer says: Why do you want to work for our company/organization?
Not having an answer is a good way to get crossed off the candidate list, and is a common pet peeve of interviewers. Research the employer before your interview; attempt to find out about the organization's products, locations, clients, philosophy, goals, previous growth record and growth plans, how they value employees and customers, etc.
Unfortunately it's very common for job-seekers to directly state, "I really want to work for your company/agency/organization/firm," but then to be unable to answer the question "why?" Without the answer to "why?" the initial statement becomes meaningless.


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