Three Tips for Responding to Angry Emails

One of the most common sources of workplace stress is dealing with angry emails from customers, colleagues or even managers. These messages can be extremely annoying but there are some tricks for dealing with them effectively and painlessly. Sometimes you can even turn the situation around 180 degrees, turning an infuriated adversary into an ally. There are many proven methods you could use, but here are the three most important.

1. WAIT TILL YOU CALM DOWN. It's a natural human instinct to get steamed up when you receive a provocative message. If you reply immediately you are likely to send an equally angry response that is unproductive and escalates the situation. Wait a few hours and your perspective will change. Wait a day and the anger will often be gone completely. By this time your neo-cortex will be able to assert it's authority over the amygdala regions of the brain that are useful in an emergency when time is short, but sometimes provoke emotional responses that are inappropriate in civilized society.

2. MAKE SURE YOU READ IT CORRECTLY. Some messages are plainly as rude and offensive as a YouTube comment. Others are perhaps just misinterpreted. This is especially common when the other person is from another cultural background. What seems to you rude and provocative might actually be normal in their context. Even when sender and receiver speak the same language and have the same cultural background there can be misunderstandings. Someone once sent me an email that began "I resent the last message..."  At first I read this as resent in the sense of feeling indignation. After a puzzling exchange I finally understood that it was meant to be "re-sent" as in sent again. Another time I was annoyed by the tone of an email and almost drafted an equally vicious reply but luckily I realized at the last minute that it was not even addressed to me, I was just in copy.

3. ANSWER THE SUBSTANCE NOT THE TONE. After you have calmed down and after you have made sure you understood everything go back through the message and try to find out what the person actually wants, ignoring all the sarcasm, insults, innuendo or ridicule. Rephrase the same question or request politely in your own mind and answer that, politely and respectfully. This avoids escalation, it looks good if the thread is ever seen by management and sometimes it will make the person who sent the original angry message regret that they sent it.   

This last point is perhaps the one that is least obvious but believe me it works.  In one job I was asked to deal with an angry email from a furious customer. Reading between the lines I found that what he wanted was software drivers for another version of Windows. The rest was abuse, mostly in capitals, aimed at the company, its management and their families. I sent a very simple reply saying thank you for the request and here is a link to the driver download page.  The next day I received a very polite response apologizing for the rant and expressing admiration for the professional attitude of the company. De-escalation not only avoids aggravating a conflict it can even turn an adversary into a friend, or at least someone who doesn't hate you anymore.

Lectures, Workshops, Coaching and Writing

For lectures, workshops, coaching and writing on this and other aspects of communication you can contact me through my website, email at or by phone at 0033 6 79 61 42 81 in France and 0046 730 894 475 in Sweden.


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