Don’t Let E-mail Damage Important Relationships

By Katie May, editor, Communication Briefings


Warning: Your e-mail inbox contains a message that threatens to damage a long-term relationship. It’s a message from a friend, a co-worker or your boss, and it contains an accusatory statement, a sarcastic comment or something else that leaves you unsure how to respond.

Whatever you do, do not dash off a hasty reply that you will come to regret. You should never send a response that will worsen the communication problems you already are experiencing.

Even a sincerely worded, calm and rational response can exacerbate an e-mail communication problem. When your communication consists entirely of words on a computer screen, you leave your message wide open to miscommunication. Even worse, because your message is in writing, the other person can read and reread it, growing more upset each time.

So how should you respond? Start with these tactics:

  • Take time to cool off. Take a quick break if possible. Go for a walk, enjoy a refreshing beverage, visit with a friendly colleague. Even five minutes away from your computer can allow you to feel calmer. Once you are in control of your emotions, you will be ready to respond to the e-mail. Find a quiet place and pick up the phone. That is the best way to avoid further damage to important relationships.

Note: If you cannot resist the urge to respond right away, close your e-mail browser and use your computer’s word processing program to compose a reply. Write freely, without editing yourself or tempering your emotions. When you have finished, reread the words you just typed and ask yourself if you really want the other person to see them. Can you imagine saying those exact words in a face-to-face conversation?

Negatives always are amplified in e-mail communication, and if your written response contains negative tones or words, it is likely to come across as harsh or confrontational.

  • Separate the message from your emotional response. Words in an e-mail message can sting, and your emotional reaction can cloud your judgment. Do yourself a favor by rereading the message with a dispassionate eye. Print it out if you need to, crossing out the loaded words. Can you isolate the important message that you overlooked in your first reading? That is what you should be prepared to respond to. Everything else is secondary to that important business communication.
  • Diffuse the tension by personally connecting with the person who sent the message. You can admit to feeling upset or confused by the e-mail; just do so in a way that starts a productive conversation rather than a confrontation. Say something like: “I just read the message you sent me this morning about _____, and I am not sure what you mean by this part … Would you please explain what you meant by that?”
  • Use “I” phrases when you speak to the other person. Saying “You sound angry; what is going on with you?” often will prompt an immediate defensive reaction. But when you say “I am confused,” you put the focus on yourself and you take responsibility for your reactions. The truth is, you never will be able to control the messages that others send to you. The only thing you can control is how you react to them.

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