There are few greater mood-killers than seeing a nasty email hit your inbox. Unpleasant email communications can deplete both your time and your energy, but are something we are all forced to deal with (hopefully only) on occasion.
So, knowing that you can’t change the behavior of others, but are in control of how you react, consider the following nine tips to manage negative emails to ensure that they don’t take up more of your mental space than absolutely necessary.
1. Walk away.
Literally. Go get a glass of water, read an article, whatever. Leave the scene for a moment to give yourself a chance to disconnect from your emotional response to the email and your actual written response to the email.
2. Know it’s not always about 'you.'
Put aside your likely very warranted immediate desire to scream at either the individual or your screen. Then consider: Maybe the sender was up all night with a terrible migraine. Maybe he was under the gun from his boss to meet a crazy deadline.
Know that although she is sending this email, its tone and mood may not really be (and most likely isn’t) about you. Know as well that this doesn’t make it right -- that there is never an excuse for someone to exhibit poor behavior or take out his frustration on the nearest inbox. Then remind yourself that that frustration does make the email's seeming hostility a lot less personal.
3. Hit “reply”; then immediately delete the sender's email address.
Right when you’re really settling into a nice, unedited rant will come your discovery of a new, quick key for “send email.” But don't pull that trigger. Instead, save yourself from yourself, and keep the "to" field blank until right before you’re really ready to send your reply.
4. Re-frame things.
Think of a friend or colleague you get along with really well. Then, re-read the email, pretending it came from that person. Emails from people you don’t like, or people who have a history of sending less-than-pleasant communications, can be re-painted with that brush.
Before you let yourself judge this particular instance based on that history, re-frame it for just a moment: What if someone you liked had sent that email? Read it again as if it were from that friend, and see if there’s a difference.
5. Reply not to what was said, but to what is needed.
Use the classic negotiation technique of separating positions and interests. To cite a professional example, the sender's position might be, “All work has stalled, and you’re obviously not trying very hard to deliver by the deadline." But this person's interest is actually to find out where a project is currently at.
Ignore the emotional clutter that's been added in, because it just distracts from the point. Instead, focus on and reply only to what the sender is really asking about.
6. Find a point of agreement.
Once you’ve figured out what the real substance of the email is, ask yourself, is there anything in there you can find that you’re on the same page with? Including or even opening with a point of agreement, in your reply, can be extremely disarming. Is the project running longer than you expected, as well? Express that you too were hoping for things to be further along. Establishing common ground is a great way to turn the tone of the entire email thread around.
7. Edit for absolutes.
None of us “always” do anything. Avoid words like “never,” “definitely.” “best” and others in that vein, because they distract the reader from your point and weaken your credibility: You are unlikely to be correct using them. Rather, you should be trying to disarm and resolve, and absolute words just add fuel to the fire.
8. Finish, then delete at least half.
Complete your reply only after focusing on the substance of the sender's ask and not the distracting negativity. Once you’re done, go back and delete at least half of your email.
Don’t explain, where no explanation has been requested. Don’t go into details that aren’t strictly necessary to answer the question at hand. If you force yourself to follow these directives, you’ll end up removing what would have been your own emotional content. Never be curt or short; just bear in mind that brevity always wins in these situations.
9. Sleep on it.
If you have the luxury of time, save your draft, and come back to it in the morning. Nearly every time I’ve done this, I've reworked or generally taken a fair bit out of my response. This time and space offers valuable clarity.
I once had a colleague who was dealing with a nasty email, fighting the urge to blast back. The colleague sought me out for advice, asking, “When is the right time where I can really just say what I want -- when can I just tell them off?”
My very unsatisfying response, for her, was "never." Business circles are small. How will you remember that person who consistently sends you nasty emails? No matter what other great things he or she did, that is what will stand out for you.
So, don’t let that be how others remember you. Those things may well come back to bite you, at some point. Following these nine steps now, while less satisfying in the moment, will serve you far better in the end.