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The Right Way to Respond to a Nasty Email

Don't get dragged into a heated exchange that can damage not only feelings, but also your career.

Very often in business, the important thing is not how you act, but rather how you react.

For example, at some point you're going to be on the receiving end of a nasty email. It might come from your boss or a co-worker, a client or customer, perhaps even a stranger. But regardless of the origin, it can feel like a slap in the face. And chances are good it's going to result in hurt feelings, anger, and a strong desire to answer in kind.

I speak from experience: Over the weekend, I received an accusing, insulting email from a PR person who didn't like something I'd written about her company's product. I was so taken aback by this (most of the PR people I deal with are total pros), I broke my own rule: I immediately fired off a heated reply.

That was a mistake. Having dealt with my share of mean-spirited emails over the years (and allowed myself to get dragged into some very painful arguments), I've learned a few things about how to handle them:

1. Step away from the keyboard. Give yourself a chance to digest the message, to consider the viewpoint of the person who sent it, and to just generally clear your head. People often write things in e-mail that they'd never say in person (or over the phone), and they're usually just looking to vent.

2. Wait at least an hour before you respond -- and make sure you spend that time focusing on something else. If you let that initial anger fester, you won't be thinking clearly when you reply, and things may get further out of hand. Take the high road; be the bigger person.

3. If you do decide to respond (after first considering whether any good will come of it), end the email cycle and pick up the phone: "Hey, I wanted to talk about your email and try to get this worked out." Most of the time, that's a quick and effective way to resolve bad feelings.

4. If that's not an option, try this: write out the meanest, nastiest response you want -- but don't send it. In fact, write it in your word processor. If you use your mail client, a momentary impulse might trigger a click of the Send button. Writing is a great way to calm yourself down and get some perspective on a tough situation.

Most importantly, remember that email can be a very poor form of communication, one that can easily be misinterpreted. Indeed, misunderstood messages often lead to nasty exchanges that wouldn't have happened otherwise. One of the best ways to avoid this is with liberal use of the smiley emoticon. It's a simple, effective way to say, "just kidding," or, "I'm not being serious."

Do you have your own methods for diffusing angry emails? What's the worst message you've ever received? Let the healing begin in the comments. (In the meantime, be sure to check out a great batch of email tips: How to Email Like a Pro.)

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