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Hostile E-mails

Estimated Lesson Time: 8 minutes

Back in the “old” days, before e-mail, people used to use ink filled tubes called “pens” and material made of cellulose pulp, derived mainly from wood, rags, and certain grasses (paper) to compose messages to send to others. They would use a delivery system called “the postal service” to send this “mail” which took days, not seconds, for the recipient to actually receive the letter. When one was acting on anger and composed a hostile message, he had plenty of time to clear his head before actually mailing the letter; there was the process of writing the letter, addressing the envelope, putting the letter in the envelope, affixing the postage, and placing it in the mailbox. Today, one can compose a nasty message, send it, and have the recipient reading it, all in less than a minute. Needless to say, this type of instant communication causes our emotions to get the better of us in our e-mail communication. Effective handling of hostile e-mails, and avoiding sending hostile e-mails yourself, will give you a significant boost in your pursuit of success.

You start your morning by going through the prior night’s e-mails. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, you are happy to be alive. Then, you read a hostile and somewhat vulgar e-mail from an obviously angry customer or co-worker blaming you for one thing or another. Almost instantly, your state is transformed from one of peace and contentment to one of anger and defensiveness. What do you do next? For most of us, we click the reply button and tell the sender of the disturbing e-mail how we really feel. While that may make us feel good in the short-term, the effects of an equally belligerent response to the original e-mail will only fuel the fire. Here is why:

  • The sender of the original e-mail obviously is unskilled in communication or unable to control his emotions and will not deal with a hostile and defensive response favorably. In turn, he will almost definitely respond to your response with even more hostility and perhaps threats. This will only escalate the situation.
  • By escalating the situation, you will waste hours of your valuable time rather than spending that time being productive.
  • You will greatly decrease your chances of changing the opinion of the person who sent the e-mail. Your response will undoubtedly make the person more defensive.

So what are you supposed to do? Let another make unjust claims about you or your service when it is obvious to you they have all their facts wrong? Not necessarily. Forget about your ego and your desire to prove yourself right and remember effective communication. Here are some suggestions for handling hostile e-mails.

  • Understand that the e-mail was most likely written at the peak of the sender’s frustration. If you were to call the sender, they would probably start by apologizing.
  • Ask yourself, what is your goal? What are you trying to accomplish in your response? If the answer is, “tell the person a thing or two” or to vent your anger, then just hit the delete key and move on. You will have wasted no more than the time it took to read the e-mail. And maybe, you can learn something from the e-mail—perhaps something you can change to prevent others from getting so upset. If there is something you can learn from their written fury, reply with a simple, “Thank you for sharing this with me. I am sorry I have caused you so much frustration.”
  • Once you have a goal in mind, use your knowledge in effective communication to compose the most effective response. Some sample goals may be to:
  • save a customer from leaving
  • calm an angry customer
  • maintain a good working relationship with a customer
  • save a friendship
  • offer a sincere apology for doing something wrong
  • prevent a lawsuit
  • Start your response by admitting to, or apologizing for, any fault that may have been yours to prompt such an e-mail to be sent in the first place. This alone will have an almost miraculous effect on the attitude of the sender. For example, “I checked with my supervisor, and you are correct, we did overcharge you $20 for the product. This is completely my fault—I should have double-checked the price before charging your account. I am very sorry.” How can any human still be furious after an apology like that!
  • Correct the sender’s erroneous comments or assumptions in such a way that it does not seem like you are trying to prove the sender wrong. People do not like to be corrected, and they like it even less when others tell them they are wrong. Make it sound as if it is your fault that their assumptions are incorrect and sympathize with their position. For example, “If I were overcharged $20, I would probably think the company that overcharged me were crooks as well. However, I can assure you that our firm is not in the habit of overcharging, and we are quick to correct our mistakes.”
  • Let the sender know what you will be doing about rectifying the situation. In some cases, there is no “situation,” there is just an unreasonable person showing a complete lack of self-control. In other cases, your best course of action is to either a) explain your point of view and reasoning as to why you will not be taking any action, b) explain or apologize for what did happen and offer a solution or c) a combination of a and b.
  • If appropriate, offer a phone number or ask for the sender’s phone number and talk the situation out on the phone. The true message in an e-mail can easily be misunderstood. Once when a reseller of ours was having a problem with his account, being quick with my replies, I told him in an e-mail to “re sign” as in “sign up again.” He thought I meant “resign” as in “why don’t you just quit since you are obviously inept.” Fortunately, he picked up the phone to tell me off and the situation was instantly cleared up.

What about initiating the sending of a hostile e-mail yourself? You may be thinking, “I would never do that!” The fact is, when emotion gets the better of us, we often become unreasonable and get caught up in the moment. For times such as these, here is some advice.

  • Write your nasty message. Go ahead and blow off some steam. Let the person know what you really think of them. Tell them they have ugly children and their breath stinks, even if they don’t have children and you’ve never been in physical contact with them. Write whatever makes you feel better. Then, delete the e-mail–do not send it. Tip: Do NOT enter the person’s e-mail address in the “To” field... you may hit “Send” by accident.
  • Do your best to compose the e-mail after your feelings of anger have subsided. Keep yourself away from the keyboard at times of high negative emotions.
  • Remember that sending an aggressive, hostile e-mail causes the recipient to become defensive rather than open. If your point of sending the e-mail is to get something, chances are, the only thing you will get is a nasty e-mail back from another pig-headed individual defending his ego.

It is certainly within your power to never send another hostile e-mail again, whether initiating the e-mail or replying to one. A careful and thoughtful response to a hostile e-mail can make an exiting customer a loyal customer for life or a furious employee a respectful and productive staff member. Controlling your temper and sending only e-mails that use effective communication for persuasion will produce much more favorable results than those that use harsh criticism and vulgarities. Practice self-control when dealing with e-mail and remember Lincoln’s advice, “...a drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.”


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    Personal Development
    Year To Success
    Bo Bennett, PhD

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    Personal Development : Personal Transformation
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