Before You Send That Angry E-mail

Over the course of my career, I have fired off my share of angry letters and e-mail. However, I cannot think of a single time when these communiques had a positive effect. Usually, they only served to escalate the conflict and alienate the recipient.

A Man Punching His Fist Through His Laptop Computer - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/clintspencer, Image #3237600

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/clintspencer

Several years ago, I wrote a fourteen-page diatribe to a business associate. I skewered him. I was right. He was wrong. And I had the proof.

I laid it out in meticulous detail. I prosecuted my case like a lawyer before the bar. I sent it off with fire in my eyes and a healthy dose of self-satisfaction in my heart. That’ll show him, I thought.

I eagerly waited for his response. After a few weeks, I still hadn’t heard a word. So I re-read the letter and was embarrassed. My response was way out of proportion to the stimulus that provoked it. While I was technically right, I was relationally wrong. I never should have sent the letter. I regretted that I had acted so childishly.

Thankfully, the recipient never did respond to the letter—ever. The next time I saw him (several months later), he embraced me and acted like nothing had ever happened. That day, I got a little taste of grace. I also purposed that I would never send another letter like that. I had dodged a bullet.

In any relationship, you are going to experience times when you feel angry. It happens at home, at work, at church, and in countless other situations.

Next time it happens to you, I suggest you do the following:

  1. Cool down. Put some space between the stimulus and the response. Little offenses look much bigger the closer you are to them. If you let a little time pass, you will see them in their proper context and respond appropriately. This is what makes you different from the animals. You have the choice—the freedom—to chose how you will respond.
  2. Talk it out. I have a lot of close business associates and friends whom I trust. They are committed to saving me from myself. My wife, Gail, is, of course, the best. She helps me regain my perspective and gently asks, “Now, what are you really trying to accomplish here?” This is a great question which helps me consider the bigger picture.
  3. Write a response. If you want to write an angry e-mail, do it. Just don’t send it. I often do this, and it helps me process my feelings. It also helps me get a grip on reality. One word of caution: don’t fill in the “To:” field in the e-mail. I have seen people accidentally hit the “Send” button and regret it. Instead, write it and save it as a draft. After you have cooled down, you can delete it.
  4. Do your homework. Sometimes you think you are right, but upon further investigation, you may discover that you contributed to the problem or aggravated the situation. The question I increasingly like to ask is this: What was it in my leadership that contributed to this outcome? This helps me move from being the victim to being an active participant in finding a solution.
  5. Schedule a meeting. I recently heard John Eldredge make the point that it’s easy to be brave when you are sitting in the safety of your own office. You can hurl digital spears at your adversaries without the risk of a real, live encounter. But confronting people face-to-face—or even over the telephone—is a different matter. That takes real guts. But it can also lead to real solutions. The real question is whether we want to merely make a point or solve the problem.
  6. Admit your mistakes. If you slip up and send off an angry e-mail or letter, then acknowledge it. I will never forget getting an angry e-mail from one of our authors. He lambasted one of our VPs, going into great detail about how he had screwed up an important project. Unfortunately, he unintentionally copied the VP in the e-mail. Oops. Once he realized it, he was mortified. With great humility, he called the VP, admitted that he was way out of line, and then asked his forgiveness. Then he sent a formal apology to each of us. We took the time to rebuild the relationships and, in the process, further endeared himself to us.

As long as we have to deal with people, we are going to be disappointed, get frustrated, and react in anger. But we have to know how to channel these emotions in productive ways. Sending an e-mail or writing a letter is almost never the appropriate or most effective way. If you get angry, resist the temptation to respond in anger.

Question: What experiences have you had with either sending or receiving angry email messages? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Steve Curran

    Great process for dealing with anger in the workplace.  But I think the most insightful part of this post for me is the reaction of your colleague to your angry letter.  Refusing to respond and escalate a situation is an awesome approach to building peace and collegiality in the workplace.  Choosing to extend grace to our coworkers is definitely something I can take and chew on.  Thanks.

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  • John Harvey

    I agree with this, which is why I tend to use angry FB status updates instead of angry emails. :)

  • Susan

    I don’t think I’d ever had an angry email conversation till yesterday.  Providential timing!  I was  frustrated by my friend’s repeated mistranslations of what I was saying.  She seemed to keep twisting my words into something negative when my intent was to be supportive and positive.  Every time I corrected her, thinking it would defuse things it only got worse.  Finally my frustration level was more than I could stand and I became angered at the repeated shock of her replies.  At the end of that final email I said, “This isn’t going to be resolved now unless we talk on the phone.”  She called.  What a difference that made!  We talked for about five minutes, in which time we achieved peaceful, caring understanding of one another.  Being able to hear tone of voice changed everything.  I told her I was going to delete the entire email conversation.  After we hung up I thought of how much time was wasted trying to reach mutual understanding through repeated emails and how quickly that was achieved by phone.  As one psychologist told me,  “Email-only is no way to carry on a friendship.”
    Sometimes words alone can appear harsh in such a situation.  We read in tone without even realizing it.  I think there have been a number of times when I would have been better off waiting a day and rereading an email before sending.
    Thanks for the good word!

  • http://www.liveitforward.com/ Kent Julian

    If I’m about to explode, I usually go for a run. For one, I love running. Two, it calms me down and allows stress to phase out of my body. Three, I think best while running.

  • http://www.eyinginvisibilities.wordpress.com Denette

    Even what a writer considers a neutral email may be read in an angry “voice” by its receiver. Tone can be difficult to read. As a teacher who assigns grades to children, I have received my share of angry emails. However, I believe many emails are simply desiring information, but the attitudes are hard to interpret.  Try reading a statement like, “I don’t get why Elle failed your science test; we studied for three days,” in confused, disappointed, frustrated, or angry tones. It could be any of the above.  I try to read with grace, but I also give this example to parents at the beginning of each school year. I  encourage them to call or come see me about issues so we can talk them over, and I commit to do the same.

  • http://twitter.com/Ceronomas steven sarff

    I have not so much experience with ‘sending’ an angry email but “wanting” to is another matter. Writing a blog post about it is also a distinct possibility in today’s world. Your post is right on in relation to the step about cooling down. 
    I need more than two hands to count the times I was positive that I was right, justified, and innocent only to find out that I was not. I did not intend to be “guilty” but when the light of truth was shined on the situation, there was my blame to be seen by all.  (pass the fork please, I have humble pie to eat)

    Couldn’t agree more and it is even true when you ARE right!

  • Psychofan

    This is really good advice….Thanks!

  • http://www.2knowmyself.com/ Farouk

    hahaha
    i can relate to that picture
    i remember that my tone changed a lot after a waited few minutes before i sent the email i intended to send
    thanks for the post : )

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  • http://twitter.com/Joel_Schmidt Joel Schmidt

    Great post Michael. There are a lot of ways to send the wrong message to the wrong recipient: send vs. save, reply vs. fwd, auto-fill recipient, etc. I’ve done most of these. Acting on a tip from a good manger/mentor, I now start EVERY draft email by entering “DO NOT SEND” into the “To:” field.  Hasn’t failed me, yet.

  • La

    it’s true. don’t say anything bad when we are indignant. best to do is pray.it could help  us feel better.. hatred lessens…

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  • http://twitter.com/SteveBorek Business Coach Steve

    Michael, can I re-post this post on my blog page with a link back to you?

  • http://twitter.com/SteveBorek Business Coach Steve

    Michael, I’d like permission to re-post this post in it’s entirety with a link back to you. Let me know. Thanks.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Actually, I don’t allow that. Google will penalize us both, because the content is duplicated. You can see my permissions policy here.

      • http://twitter.com/SteveBorek Business Coach Steve

        OK. Your permissions policy said:

        You must have my express written consent to do any of the following:Re-post one of my posts in its entirety anywhere else on the Internet.

        • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

          Good point. I have just updated the policy. Thanks.

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  • http://christopherbattles.net/ Christopher Battles

    Thank you Michael.
    Good step by step and reminder.

    K, bye 

  • TomM

    Sometimes it can be difficult to receive an angry, hostile message from someone, but the approach I always take is to get up and take a 5-10 minute walk outside before I even contemplate my course of action.  Last fall I received an angry letter from an upset graduate student who claimed that, “We will get the project done in spite of your participation.”  She copied five other people, even someone in the senior administration.  I decided not to reply to her as I think that was the best response.

  • http://johnmarkharris.net/ John Mark Harris

    Save your anger for blog comments (you jerk!)

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  • Alena Store

    ))) angry… Yes, it is human nature to be angry – ) once I was so furious that wanted to destroy all on my way!!! But very soon I regretted about my dids. In film “Wall-street wolfs” pack leader teachs young broker Jeff : ” you can be very angry but you must control your emotion, because you can kill…” So I prefer to put myself on other person place to understand why she or he did it…. And forgive. To forgive is mean to understand) it is golden rule of life) Alena

  • Scott Johnson

    This is a lesson I seem to have to repeat over and over. I always tell myself, after a situation like this occurs, that I’m going to be more careful next time and cool off before I send that angry email. I seem to never actually heed my own advice, though, which is a problem for certain.

    On the other hand, I also make situations worse by allowing myself to get goaded into situations like this. When someone sends me an angry email, but CC’s a bunch of others on the email, I often feel as though I need to defend myself to the group. So, often, in the heat of the moment, I craft an angry response and then immediately hit send. This isn’t the right way to approach things, as it simply puts you in the same muck that your colleague/friend/neighbor/etc… put you into. Now it escalates even more.

    Some of the folks on this comment thread have responded about having the discipline to write angry emails into another document type, and then sleep on it, or at least wait until you’ve cooled down before sending it. One thing that I’ve found that negates this, though, is when you sit down to write an email, not intending for it to be negative and angry, and then it somehow goes awry as you are writing it. I guess my question is – How did you develop this discipline when you are writing emails in the first place? I would assume you don’t wait to send EVERY email until you’ve slept, and sometimes it’s easy to tell what’s going to be inflammatory and what isn’t, but I find that sometimes it’s not so easy…