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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  • Eshantis

    One of the ways I buffer the process is to write it out by hand first. Something about that pen-to-paper contact allows the emotion to drain out.  With the next few steps (typing it out in a doc, letting it “cool,” and then editing before posting into the email) emotions are further removed to promote the objectivity of what needs to be said.

    • Jim Martin

      Eshantis, I have never thought of first writing such a letter by hand.  Thank you for the suggestion.

      • Eshantis

        You’re welcome. I hope it helps you as much as it helps me :)

  • http://twitter.com/perryperrett Perry Perrett

    Personally, I write the email in a Word document, let it
    rest for at least 24 hours, then if I feel I need to address the issue, I seek
    out a face to face sit-down with the other person(s).  If I can’t speak face to face, then I make a
    phone call. I don’t put something into writing that I would not publish in the
    local paper (or blog). Twenty years in ministry taught me to be careful what I
    give to someone in writing. Our age of technology has given us the ability to
    remove the personal relationship.

  • http://www.lincolnparks.com Lincoln Parks

    I wish I would have seen this post last year sometime. Boy, its too late now. I’ve since been blacklisted by the person I blasted out. Thanks for sharing and directing us.

  • Amanda Padgett

    You are so, so right!! I made the same mistake you made when I was in early 20′s and unfortunately they did receive it. I have learned to cool down and wait a day or two before handling any possibly volatile issues via email.

    I so love about everything you write and have shared your blog with so many people. Thank you, Michael, for doing what you do!!

  • Perry

    wonder what it is that makes us write angry emails, and if becoming the kind of person who isnt inclined to to do so is possible.

  • Susan McHugh

    Another suggestion is to deal with small issues as they arise, and not let things fester to the point where runaway emotions may do more harm than good. 

  • http://cherionethingivelearned.blogspot.com/ Cheri Gregory

    Over the last three years, I’ve learned that digital communication is not the route to take when I need to communicate something important and potentially “touchy” with my daughter. We got into so many misunderstandings over text messages and e-mails because we were reading in the other’s tone of voice and filling in meanings that we couldn’t confirm. 

    We now halt digital communication that starts either of our hackles rising and schedule a Skype “date” (or wait ’til she’s home for a visit.) We need to hear each other’s voices, watch each other’s faces, and use gestures and body language as part of our communication. Committing to f-2-f for the “tough stuff” has saved us a ton of unnecessary drama and its resulting damage control!

  • http://twitter.com/MattMcWilliams2 Matt McWilliams

    I follow Tim Sanders advice. No bad news over email.

    Never, ever, ever send an angry email.

    One thing I learned with a former company. We had a few people who just loved to spout off angry emails (and copy others…another no-no).  They acted so childish.

    I simply ignored that email. Pretended it did not exist. Thus, the next email from me to them was on a different topic and was 100% professional and nice…usually even nicer than normal.

    The unintended consequence of this was sometimes initially it really ticked them off. They intended to light a fire in me, but it went nowhere. Then they usually got called out by someone else higher than me. I looked great and they really softened up.

    The other result was they apologized profusely and I noticed became more of a helper afterwards. It was almost as if I could say “I accept, and by the way, can you do this newsletter for me this afternoon, I am slammed.” 

    If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;    if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.22 In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head,    and the Lord will reward you. (Proverbs 25:21-22)

  • http://www.alslead.com/ Dave Anderson

    Face to face confrontation is the best policy.  Even after receiving an angry email it is best to ask for a meeting.  To me an angry email is a great way to be sure you get to say what you want to say without being challenged.  That is cowardice.

    Be brave.  Ask for a face to face meeting and resolve the issue.

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  • Joe D

    I am very grateful for these nuggets of wisdom and challenge each day, thank you!

    I enjoyed the point of how this person apparently extended grace…what a great model.

    Michael, you stated “I dodged a bullet that day.” I assume, based on the constant integrity and humilty I read in your posts, that you discussed with him your failure to communicate correctly.

    I bring this up because I too have failed in this area, and one of the most difficult of these confrontations ended in a very good yet humbling experience that brought the two of us to an exponentially greater relationship that continues to grow today.

    Again, not assuming you dodged the conflict in this story, but there is a lesson for me in that humbly pushing into the conflict that I created for the purpose of owning my mistake, however painful, can result in great relationship fruit!

    I’m curious how this particular relationship in your story has developed after this incident?

  • R2boise

    I wrote an angry email once complete with the “fire from my eyes”.  I then called a third party not related to the situation and read it aloud to him.  He asked if I really wanted to send it, but by then I had already realized I should not.  I deleted it.

    • Jim Martin

      R2boise, I have written letters like this and read them to my wife.  I am always glad I did this before sending such a note.

  • http://www.workyouenjoy.com Adam Rico

    I was once corrected by someone older and more mature than me for something I said. I took that opportunity to practice humility and thank him for correcting me or I went home and hammered out a scathing email to him to give him a piece of my mind. It was one of those two, I can’t quite remember. ;)

    Actually, after writing the email I never sent it. (an unusual display of wisdom for that season of my life) Then as I reread the email I realized how wrong I really was. Looking back on it now, I can see just how gracious that person was in how they communicated my error to me. 

    So I can definitely testify to the effectiveness of a cooling off period before sending angry emails.

    • pc

      thank God i read this. made me think i matured even just a little by not sending an angry email made out of frustration. 

  • Wayne Joubert

    …for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.  James 1:20

    Like so many truths in Scripture, I’ve learned this one the hard way. In fact, I’ve found that the more angry one gets, the less accurate his or her assessment of the situation becomes. I am grateful that most of time, this verse now pops up when I am ready to fire off a letter…but it took practice and some very humbling experiences for it to sink in.

  • http://www.faughnfamily.com/ Adam Faughn

    I have often been frustrated and sent an email to either no one (just addressed to no one) or even to myself! I have found that, when I read what was going through my mind in anger, I am glad that I was the only one who read those words. It has helped me learn to be more calm when I must communicate something that really is “heated.”

  • http://www.danapittman.com Dana Pittman

    Yes, to both. As a result I have very clear “rules” on how I am to respond. These types of exchanges can go downhill fast! 

  • Christopher Long

    Brilliant advice indeed! Thanks.

  • Pmpope68

    On any important e-mails, regardless of whether I’m angry or not, I don’t fill in the To: field until after I’ve proofread my message for grammar, spelling, facts, wording, inclusion of all the right detail, etc.  It also gives me a chance to think about who else I might want to include on e-mail.  

  • Cabinart

    I’ve heard angry letters and emails referred to as “nasty-grams”. Indeed!
    Love the wisdom of positives via email, negatives in person.

    Been the recipient of angry emails. Kind of stabs me in the heart, and certainly makes it difficult to see the sender in person. It takes strength to not respond in kind, and courage to pick up the phone.

    I’m thankful I could learn by being the recipient and not the sender!

  • http://www.crazyaboutchurch.com/ Charles Specht

    I think almost everyone has done this, more often than they even realize it.

    IN FACT, WE CAN SEND OFF ANGRY EMAILS SIMPLY BY CHANGING THE FONT, THE FONT SIZE, MAKING THE TEXT IN CAPS, AND PUTTING EXCLAMATION MARKS AT THE END!!!!!!!!!

    See, doesn’t that come across as angry, even when I’m so sweet?  LOL.

  • http://twitter.com/Woodchic Jennifer J Woodward

    As someone who, unfortunately, cries when she is angry I have often taken the written way out. As justified as I can feel in my anger I know that I won’t get more than a few sentences out before I start bawling…. so I learned to write tactful, direct letters / emails and follow up in person if necessary after the emotion as been removed.
    However, I have learned in recent years that I rarely, if ever, have cause to be truly angry. I believe most people are doing the best they can at that moment so I try to exchange anger for compassion and see how we can work it out together… saves the tears and the letters.  Still a work in progress… But it’s where I’m trying to keep my thoughts.

  • http://www.scwinks.blogspot.com Shannon W.

    I’ve been twisted in knots since yesterday afternoon as I discovered that a colleague and someone I consider a friend did something that, in my mind, is disrespectful and underhanded. I waver between sending the angry email – that would of course include a litany of previous offenses I’ve never brought up, and giving it the weekend so I can see a way to use this to strengthen our relationship. I will choose the latter. Thank you for this post – I stumbled up on it at precisely the right time. 

  • http://sparkvoice.wordpress.com/ DS

    Wow.  Entertaining post and comments.

    When it doubt – delete it out.   Listen to the voice in your head.  Its just not worth the risk to me.  If I could just master my mouth the same way – that would be great!

    Reminds me of a Building Champions telecon I listened to.  Email is almost permanent.

  • KeithFerrin

    My rule for email: Never process ANY difficult emotional situations over email. (anger, frustration, confusion, etc.) When the emotion is anything but fully positive, the other person – and you – almost always assumes the worst…not the best. Email is for INFORMATION and ENCOURAGEMENT.

    Interestingly, just yesterday a friend who knows my position on this emailed me asking for prayer because she had received an angry email and was heading into a meeting with the person to clear the air. Fortunately, an apology was offered and relationship was restored.

    I will be forwarding her a link to this post!

    • Jim Martin

      Keith, your rule is a good one.  Though I have never worded it as clearly as you, I basically follow the same rule.  When the emotion is intense and highly charged, it is too easy to misinterpret one’s intent.

  • http://darensirbough.com/ Daren Sirbough

    I’ve been close to sending an angry email a couple of times. I followed these steps and it ended up being a much better outcome!

  • http://talesofwork.com/ kimanzi constable

    I’ve never had a good experience with angry letters or angry emails, there’s already too much of this in the world today. I will definitely use these points next time I feel angry! Great post Michael.

  • http://twitter.com/ACUPress ACU Press

    When I write an email in the midst of an emotionally charged situation, I usually write exactly what I want to say in a Word document, that way there is no risk of accidentally hitting “send”. And I agree with Dave about sleeping on it in order to return to them with a clearer head. When I do feel that I’m in a better place to send an actual response, I can then rewrite the letter and copy/paste it into an email.

    Getting a colleague to read important emails to check for tone usually helps, too.

  • http://twitter.com/KristaFrancis Krista OgburnFrancis

    When I get an especially upsetting email, I’ve found it helpful to go out for a short walk or take my lunch break before responding. 

    I also like your advice to talk rather than respond by email. I once sent an email that was not angry and was intended to be very neutral. However, when I got a response, it was clear she had taken it in a very different light and she was feeling hurt and defensive. Rather than trying to fix it in yet another email, I immediately went to talk with her and we cleared it all up with no hard feelings.

    • Jim Martin

      Krista, I also liked Michael’s advice suggesting that one talk to the other person rather than respond by e-mail.  I first became aware of the importance of this a number of years ago when I was reading an intense e-mail exchange between six or seven people.  Several were writing with an edge and sarcasm that I had never hear in their conversations.  I was convinced they would never talked that way to one another in person.

  • http://www.jmlalonde.com Joe Lalonde

    I haven’t had much trouble with it. Many times I’ll write an email or create a response only to realize it’s not appropriate. That I need to either edit it significantly or not send it at all. When that happens, it goes into the trash.

  • Chriscoussens

    I often write angry emails… before I realize they are angry. There are a lot of degrees of anger, adn even a righteous dispute can really be an angry email. I have realized how to spot them however. First, if they are long and not analytical, they are pretty much always angry. People over-explain when they are angry. They want to justify themselves. Once I realize I’ve been writing angry, I start to edit the item. I try to understand their perspective and the long term implications of the email. I edit and edit and usually end up picking up the phone.

    Relationships are simply too valuable to risk to misinterpretations. There are vast variations of degree in tone that are expressed in any argument and all of it is lost in email. To make matters worse people seem to attach the worst possible tone to emails.

    In the reverse, I instruct my teams to read every email assuming that the writer has the best possible intentions towards you and the company. This seems to mitigate some of the tonal missunderstandings and impact of an angry email.

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      “Relationships are simply too valuable to risk misinterpretations.”   I love that Chris!  

  • rabbimoffic

    I read that Abraham Lincoln used to write a letter to person who angered him, seal the envelope and place it i his desk, never to be send or read again. 

  • http://www.brandongilliland.com/ Brandon Gilliland

    Hey Michael! Great post! You offered some great suggestions. I really appreciate you sharing your personal experience as well.

    By the way, in one of your sentences, you had the same word repeated: “You can hurl digital spears at your adversaries without without the risk of a real, live encounter”

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks for catching that. I have fixed it. Thanks.

  • Rosalynd Divinity

    Powerful message and timely as email etiquette is vital.  Often meaning is lost in translation.  Thought I was the only one writing out my angry thoughts and giving them a “cool” off period.  Thanks for posting.

    • Jim Martin

      Rosalynd, it is good to hear that others do this as well, isn’t it?  I find it helpful to hear what others do when they are angry and are tempted to fire off an angry letter.

  • http://www.liveyourwhy.net/ Terry Hadaway

    The way I’ve got it figured, the less written ammunition I provide, the less likely I am to be the mole in a game of corporate whack-a-mole. 

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      True, Terry.  Whenever sending something in writing, we must take time to think if there is anyone who we would not want to see the content and the issues that might create.  If the risk outweighs the reward, it’s better to either not send it, change our words, or use verbal communication.

  • http://twitter.com/DougPals Douglas Pals

    I can soooo appreciate this post. I suppose we all can in some way. Like you, I learned this lesson the scary way quite some time ago.

    I’ll likely get the story wrong, but I think it was Ab Lincoln that had an associate write a letter in response to an issue and then bring it to him for review. After reading it, Lincoln said something like – “there, now go write the letter we are going to send.” 

    In affect he was helping his associate vent, and create distance and gain some persecutive on the situation.

    All good advice.

    Really enjoyed Platform. It reminded me that I am a writer first and a better me when I take the time to write. Just getting started with my Platform. Thanks for the encouragement.

    DP
    http://areyouresourceful.wordpress.com/

    • Jim Martin

      Douglas, great story about Lincoln.  Thanks!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1638785807 Steven Tessler

    A lot of awesome comments!!  Love this site and what it’s doing!!

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      Ditto, Steven!

  • http://theoldadam.com/ Steve Martin

    If only I had read this yesterday.

  • Paul J Mahler

    So today one of our employees who I supervise made some disrespectful comments and stormed out of the office.  I was very tempted to start writing an email… but then thought about this post and my previous comment!  What divine timing.  I talked to my wife already and when I really have calmed down and move past my judgmental and self-righteous attitudes, I will start to process what role I played and where I may have made mistakes as a leader.  So grateful for this post today.  Thank you!

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      Wow, Paul!  That took courage.  Nice job!

  • http://intentionaltoday.com/ Ngina Otiende

    I set up a new blog this week. I
    At some point, the blog “broke”, fell apart when my Host migrated some information from the old website to the new. I thought all my work had gone down the drain (not helped by the fact that i really did not understand everything i was doing…so i did not know how to re-do it if it broke)I panicked!And shot off two mails to my hosting provider. They were more panicky than stern but after he graciously fixed everything within minutes, i was rather ashamed. I wasn’t rude or anything, but am sure my panic shone as bright as the noonday sun :(I agree with you little things loom larger the more you look at them

    • Jim Martin

      Ngina, I can relate to this experience.  I can recall times when I panicked and sent an e-mail.  The notes reflected my panic.  I also remember then getting some clarity and realizing that my panic was premature.

  • http://aparchedsoul.com/ Grayson Pope (A Parched Soul)

    I don’t type an email and save it for the next day. What I do is hold off on writing anything until the next day. If I still have something to write about, then maybe I really do need to talk to them. If not, I know it was petty and I can let it go.

  • http://inhisloveministries.blogspot.com/ Pilar Arsenec

    This post is spot on. Thank you.

  • Shilpa

    I still have a hard time with this stuff. Very recently I was stuck in a battle of angry emails. It just went on and on. I was right and the other party was wrong but instead of accusing the recepient I just politely made my point and what I got in return were harsh comments. I just forced myself to ignore these mails and never responded back. Believe me it was not easy(specially when you know the other person is wrong). And this left me emotionally weak for some days. My ego was hurt. I now realise that probably that was for best.

  • katina Vaselopulos

    Michael this is another great post!  Great advise that we should really take to heart.

    Over a year ago, one of my nieces that I loved like a daughter sent me a really angry letter on Facebook.  Everything she accused me for was not true at all and even now I don’t know where this came from. Hurt and angry, I  wrote a long letter to her, defending myself and accusing her of malice. I cried a lot that night. I cried and prayed to God not to let me send that reply.  After hours of staring my screen with my finger  ready to hit the button, I calmed down, deleted what I had written, and went to bed, thanking God that He stopped me.  When I saw her a few months later, she acted like nothing had happened and was the sweet person I always knew. Maybe she had realized by then the mistake she had made and was even grateful for my… silence. I did not say anything either, but cnnot help  sometimes still feeling the hurt.

  • Dan Erickson

    I can honestly say that I have never sent an “angry” email: concerned, a little upset, maybe.  I am always critical about my own messages, not overcritical, but I’m careful to read my emails (especially when I’m upset) before I hit that send button.  That said, I have made a couple of blunders and unhonorable mentions.  I once embarrassed a colleague by mentioning a fact I shouldn’t have shared.

    What I’ve learned over the years is that there are always ways to make your messages constructive and diplomatic even if your raving mad.  http://www.danerickson.net    

  • armansheffey

    Where was this post a couple of months ago? I learned the hard way, but the pointers in this really wouldve helped. Thanks for the post!!

  • Dan

    I discovered your blog several months ago but seldom have time to visit it.  I took a look tonight for the first time in many weeks.  Talk about perfect timing!  Must be a “God Thing.”

    I have been very angry with a co-worker for many days and I crafted a carefully worded (although still too emotional) email today to my brand new boss to warn him in advance of our very strained relationship that is hurting morale and productivity in my unit.  Fortunately, I too have learned the lesson of waiting at least 24 hours before sending, and I usually heavily edit, if not delete, such emails later.  While I still feel justified in my anger, your post (and all these comments) has me re-thinking my strategy.  I should probably just continue to attempt working through this situation and not hang the dirty laundry in front of the boss on his first day!

    Thanks for a great post!

  • Kapil Sopory

    Michael,
    You’re right. I particularly avoid harshness in emails. It is better to use verbal mode of communication for expressing “heat” or, if you need to maintain a record, to send a letter marked ” Private and Confidential” ensuring that it reaches the addressee only and the contents are not seen by anyone else. Even then, while calling a spade a spade is alright, this can be couched in a tactfully worded language which conveys but mellows down the hurt.
    Let’s treat every one humanly. No one faults deliberately every time and we should be able to smell the difference and act accordingly.
    Lord Jesus pardoned even the oppressors!
    Regards,
    Kapil Sopory

  • Richard Thomaz

    The best way I’ve heard this put is:
    Reflect and Respond don’t React and Regret

  • karin hurt

    I have never regretted picking up the phone instead of sending the email.

  • Joshua

    Great topic for discussion. One thing i do is send the angry email…to myself. That way I get a taste of how it comes across and feels. I wait a day or so after sending it to open and read it. This has really helped me get things off my chest without dumping it on others.