5 Strategies for Responding to a Harsh Email Without Ruining Your Career

Interpersonal and Communication Skills - © Performance Management Consultants

Have you ever been on the receiving end of a less-than-friendly email? It’s pretty safe to assume we can all attest to that unpleasantness. Even if you pride yourself on having an exceptionally thick skin, chances are you’ve found yourself at least mildly annoyed after receiving some sort of negativity in an email. For the rest of us thinner-skinned folk, receiving unwanted (and sometimes undue) criticism, rudeness, or negativity in a work email can flat out ruin our day.

First, there’s the initial response – which is usually some level of anger. Then comes the ruminating over the contents of the email. And finally, the agony over how and when to respond, or even whether to respond at all.

It’s important to note here that often times, a phone call can solve the problem much better than an email. So, before you continue, first ask yourself is a phone call would be more appropriate. If not, and you really want to respond via email, read on.

In these unprecedented times, we are using our email more than ever as a major line of communication. It can be difficult to gauge tone through email, thus making it even harder to engage in more difficult topics.

Keep mind that many people offer constructive feedback via email. As difficult as it can be to absorb well-meaning and respectfully delivered feedback, that’s not the type of email we’re referring to in this article. We’re talking about receiving an email in which the sender comes across as harsh, mean, angry, or negative in an unhelpful and antagonistic way. There is no mistaking this type of email when you receive it. It can throw you for a loop and you may find yourself questioning what to do next in order to remain professional without allowing yourself to be treated unfairly. Fear not – we’ve got five top tier strategies for responding to negative emails, so that you can effectively manage the situation with minimal damage to you and your career.

1. Take some space.

Responding immediately to a harsh email means you will be on the defensive, and that’s hardly going to abate an unpleasant situation. Negativity begets negativity, and when you respond without gathering your composure, your raw emotions will come through. This will only serve to stir the pot, exacerbating the situation and putting the sender further on edge, which will create an unnecessary verbal ping-pong match, instead of finding resolution and peace. This is not to suggest that you shouldn’t stand up for yourself, or that you should run and hide, but taking time to allow your emotions to subside will serve you well in this situation. You want to be the bigger person here, and it’s much easier to maintain professionalism in the face of negativity when you’re calm, cool, and collected.So as tempting as it may be to send a rapid-fire response, hold off. Step away from the screen and do something to distract yourself for a while as you mull your response over. If you feel like you absolutely must express yourself right away, it can be helpful to write a response that you won’t actually send. Expressing your anger or frustration can help get those nasty feelings out of the way before you respond, even if the expression goes straight to the trash bin. To make sure you don’t accidentally send an angry email, write your response in a Word document, and just don’t save it. It can be cathartic to get those words out. Then, after you take your space, you’ll feel more able to craft a diplomatic and effective reply.

2. Begin with gratitude.

Yes, believe it or not, you read that right. If someone’s tone is aggressive, attacking or unkind, they may be looking for a fight, and you’re not going to give them one. Beginning your reply with a thank you can immediately disarm the other party and will help set a precedent for how the rest of the conversation will go. You could write, “Thanks for your email”, “Thank you for your input” or some variation thereof. Simply including the phrase “thank you” is a powerful tool. It will let the other party know that you’re open to dialogue, you’re not petty, that you’re not going to stoop to their level, and that you have a higher standard of communication.You teach people how to communicate with you via how you communicate with them, and your opener is very important because it sets the tone. The sender of the original email is not likely to be expecting you to express gratitude and it may even cause them to examine their own style of communication. But don’t attach yourself to that outcome, because you can’t control others. Instead, focus again on coming out of the situation as the better communicator, and as a professional who refuses to engage in unnecessarily negative correspondence.

3. Be matter of fact.

Don’t get caught up in emotional language, because you don’t want this issue to rage on. Point out what you agree with (start with that, because you’ll once again be disarming the sender and putting a positive spin on the correspondence), and what you don’t agree with. Try phrases like, “I see your point about _____, and I think we could work on that. However, when it comes to ______, I don’t share your viewpoint. Here’s how I see it, _____”. Whatever you do, find a balance between healthy expression and too much expression. Remove as many adjectives as possible. You don’t need to say you’re “extremely upset”, just say that you’re upset. Keep it as free from emotion as you can while maintaining your point and not being a pushover. Remember, this is a work email, not an argument with your sibling or your best friend, and it needs to be handled as such, even if the other party doesn’t seem to understand that concept.

4. Keep it concise.

Avoid repeating the same point over and over and stay away from run-on sentences or overly wordy replies. You want to engage this person minimally while addressing any points that need to be addressed. Giving them a novel to read is not the way to do it. Say only what absolutely must be said, and say it in as few words as possible. This is a case where self-editing really comes in handy. Examine your first draft and ask yourself what can be taken out. Could you cut the length in half? Look at each sentence and ask yourself how you can say it in fewer words. Then do it again. Keep going until you’re sure you’ve said only what’s necessary, avoiding redundancy and babble.

5. Consider the context and reply accordingly.

Did you make a mistake? Is the sender somewhat in the right to be frustrated, or are they out of line? Regardless, bullying behaviour, aggressive language and verbal attacks are not acceptable. However, acknowledging your role in the situation can help diffuse it. If you’ve done wrong, own up to it. Don’t grovel to avoid further attacks, but don’t shy away either. If you’ve messed up, say so, and offer some solutions. For example, if the other party is upset because they didn’t like how you presented something in a meeting, you could say “No problem, next time I’ll make sure to send you my notes with ample time before the meeting so we can get on the same page.”

That being said, if this person is truly coming out of left field and their harshness is inappropriate, say so. You could try saying something like, “I can see that you’re upset by this, and while I respect your right to express yourself, I feel that your tone is disproportionate to the situation.” Assessing the content and context and really getting a sense of the why and how will help you navigate the best possible response and hopefully avoid receiving a harshly worded email from this person in the future.

We hope these tips have helped you feel more comfortable and confident about responding to a harsh email. (It’s worth reiterating that it is often better to address the situation with a phone call rather than an email, but these same tips are applicable in helping you prepare for the conversation.)

Keep in mind that if the sender has gone too far, or they continue to email you in a manner you deem inappropriate, you should certainly ask them to flat out stop. If they continue this line of communication, ask for help from someone who can mediate. You’ll always have to deal with difficult people, but bullying and harassment in the workplace crosses a line and should never be tolerated.

Need more help with handling difficult conversations? PMC Training has a workshop for that! Assertiveness and Conflict Resolution will provide you with techniques and tools to improve your assertiveness and conflict resolution skills.

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