How should you respond when you receive an email that feels like a slap in the face?
Don’t respond immediately.
The immediate instinct is to lash back at the person who hurt us, either hurling insults at them or angrily defending our position. This is usually a mistake. An email written in anger will linger forever on your company’s server, waiting to be called forth in a lawsuit or grievance. The email can be forwarded to anyone, making you look bad. Moreover, responding in anger only escalates the conflict.
- Put the email aside and do something else. If possible, sleep on it before responding.
Consider responding by phone or in person.
If the other person is genuinely upset with you, email might not be the best way to respond. Let time pass. Then pick up the phone or ask for an in-person meeting. Remember, email lacks the nuance that a personal conversation can provide.
- If you genuinely want to clear the air, speak to the person directly.
Take the moral high ground.
Perhaps the other person is being unfair, insulting, rude, or insensitive. That is their problem. Don’t make it your problem. If you respond in kind, you have descended to that person’s level and will have to fight it out from there. If you refuse to engage in the conflict and stay calm and courteous, you will outclass your opponent and defuse the situation.
- Don’t descend to the other person’s level.
Think of the big picture.
The person who sent you the email is probably someone with whom you will have interact tomorrow and the next day. Before responding in anger, think of the big picture: What kind of relationship do you want to have with this person next week? Next month?
In the Worktalk writing trainings, we talk about the Three Ps: purpose, person, and point. Think of these principles when you are reeling from that email:
- What is the purpose of my relationship with this person? What result do I hope to achieve from responding to this person? What do I hope to accomplish?
- What kind of person am I dealing with? Is that person over-sensitive? Does that person already feel badly for having written the email? Is this person likely to over-react and escalate the conflict? What kind of language would get through to this individual?
- What is my point? Note: “You are a jerk” is not a valid point. Make a rational, constructive point. If there is no such point, don’t send the email. Vent your feelings and then delete without sending. In the example above, the assistant’s point was that she understood his frustration and that IT was working on the problem.
Keep your cool.
Maybe the person who wrote you the email is going through a personal crisis, or just having a really bad day. Whatever the reason, you don’t have to let his bad day ruin yours. Take ten deep breaths. Wait before responding. Be the better person. Focus on your end game, which is to maintain your reputation as a person who acts with grace under pressure and who maintains working relationships with all kinds of people.
Responding to upsetting emails is challenging, but it is a challenge you can overcome.
© 2014 Elizabeth Danziger All rights reserved
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