We all have them: coworkers who use email as a medium to air their frustrations. At best, this is distracting. At worst, it can be a significant source of stress, tempting recipients to respond in kind. If you do, the exchange can quickly escalate, leaving you and your colleagues feeling tense, misunderstood, and likely without recourse.
So, how should you handle emails that publicly shame or use curt or inflammatory language? It can take years of practice to perfect email diplomacy, but in the interim, this piece outlines some simple steps you can take to respond professionally—and even earn respect for your deftness.
Before you start drafting
You may already apply the 4D Time Management Method when sifting through your emails: do, delete, delegate, or defer. This framework will come in handy, as the defer option should be your go-to move when you receive an emotive message.
Although you don’t necessarily need to wait 24 hours to send a reply, you will need time to recalibrate and plan your response. Try doing something entirely unrelated to your inbox in the time between reading the message and responding. Watch a video, take a walk, or chat with a coworker—anything that de-stresses you.
Before you hit the “compose” button, consider whether email is the best channel for your response.
When you can finally open the message without wincing or feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or angry, then you’re probably ready to plan your next move.
Before you hit the “compose” button, consider whether email is the best channel for your response, and whether any response will be productive.
For instance, if you need to clear the air by providing substantial background information, talking on the phone or meeting in person might be more effective. In cases where a colleague repeatedly addresses minor issues with inflammatory language, it’s often best not to respond to one particular message; instead, try having a conversation about the general pattern.
When you do settle on an email reply, consider these four tips, which are packaged into an unambiguous reminder that no matter how you feel, your response should be calm, COOL, and collected.
How to be COOL: Connect, Offer, Omit, Limit
Connect: find common ground
Start your message with a point of agreement to make the sender feel understood right off the bat. Showing that you’re receptive to other perspectives can have a de-escalating effect when people feel tense and under pressure. In the moment, this may seem difficult or even impossible. But think of it this way: if you intend to outline where your opinion differs, highlighting common ground helps your message come across as reasoned and measured.
Ask yourself: “Does the original message contain a valid concern or useful observation?” If the answer is an emphatic “no,” keep looking. You can likely still find common ground, even if it’s not handed to you in the email body.
Think about the larger context: “Is this person under pressure from a demanding partner? Is she worried about pleasing a funder?” The stress must be coming from somewhere. Wherever possible, try to identify and acknowledge it.
Take this example: a project manager chastises you over email for delaying a deliverable. You know it was not entirely your fault; your colleague sent the data you needed a few days after the deadline.
Resist the temptation to immediately launch into a lengthy explanation or excuse yourself from all responsibility. Instead, start the message with something like: “This project is moving really quickly and has a number of important deadlines. I can only imagine it’s not easy to ask our partners for an extension under these conditions.”
Offer: suggest something actionable
Oftentimes, people just want reassurance that someone else is willing to problem solve and take initiative. As a general rule, your email should include something actionable. This can take the form of a concrete solution, direct support, or alternative perspective to help that person manage his or her stress levels.
If you have ideas or resources to share, let that person know early on in your message. If not, consider whether you can offer an alternative perspective. Reframing the situation can be an effective way to alleviate tension, but it’s important to use this tactic judiciously and only with sincerity.
For instance, imagine receiving a message that says: “We’re extremely behind and at risk of missing a critical funding opportunity. You should have set up a meeting with the funder weeks or even months ago!” If you believe the timing wasn’t actually a make-or-break situation, try responding with: “These few extra weeks gave the team more time to prepare our pitch. My sense is that this extra time will actually position us to be more successful.”
Omit: leave out trigger statements and styles
Even when the substance of your message is strong, there are certain words, phrases, and stylistic choices that can undermine the content. Avoid these to prevent your message from being read as defensive, accusatory, or passive aggressive:
- The email disregards information you already conveyed to the sender: Instead of “As I already said,” “Again,” or “I know you are well aware,” try “I have background information that may be of value. I’ll forward you my prior email to you shortly.”
- The task in question was not entirely your responsibility: Instead of “This was not my responsibility. David was supposed to be working on it,” try “David is more actively engaged than I am at this stage. Perhaps we can reach out to him for further insight.”
- You have a particularly important point to get across: Don’t use font formatting like bold, underline, capitalization, or italics. Reserve this type of styling for moments when you want people to notice a critical deadline.
- You want the sender to know that his or her tone is unacceptable. Don’t call that person out over email. This sort of feedback is best discussed in person. Over email, aim to lead by example and express your concerns through other channels.
Pro tip: Ask yourself this question before hitting “send”: “Would I want a prospective employer to read this message?”
Limit: keep it short and simple
Your response can and should be thorough and clear, but when it comes to replying to emotive messages, less is often more. Emotive emails often come through in moments of stress and when work is moving at a rapid clip. In these cases, your best bet is to aim for a simple message with a limited word count.
If you do need to provide context or supplementary information, limit it to critical information that person needs to move forward or that you want to document.
What’s your strategy for responding tactfully to emotive messages?