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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.