Email is a key part of our work lives – but how do we manage not just the volume but our response to tricky emails ?

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For many of us, a growing volume of emails is inescapable. Rather like the mythical, many-headed Hydra, however efficiently you deal an email, two more spring up in its place. It’s easy to complain about email and forget that it is great for some things (broadcasting, confirming and summarising things, newsletters!) and not so great for others.

Basically, email is a good functional tool but a less good relational one – useful for conveying facts, less effective for communicating complexity. This is made even worse when we receive an aggressive, annoying or accusing message and are tempted to reply straightaway. When this happens, it’s worth remembering that email has all the immediacy of speech and all of the permanence of letter-writing with none of the upside of either.

Email is a good functional tool but a less good relational one

When we reply verbally in anger or annoyance, the spoken words have a power in the moment which can fade with time. In addition, there is a context to our words, we can see their effect on the listener and adjust (or even apologise) accordingly.

When we choose to respond formally in a letter, old school though that is, we tend to take time before putting our thoughts on paper, we cross out and delete, we re-read and rethink, and then the logistics of finding an envelope and a stamp and a postbox all have the effect of making our response more considered and less hasty. How many furious, grumpy, affronted letters have been written and thankfully remained unsent, to the benefit of countless professional and personal relationships?

Email, in contrast, crystallises our emotions in the moment and makes them permanent so that the reader can re-read and revisit them countless times in the worst light and even forward them to others. 

Email crystallises our emotions in the moment and makes them permanent

Much of my practice as a business coach involves helping clients grow in professional self awareness. When I recently asked a client what he had found most valuable about our work together, he responded, “Perspective! Learning to step back and to respond rather than react to things at work.” What a great result!

So the next time you receive a challenging email and are tempted to react straight away rather than respond thoughtfully, a few ideas:

Responding vs. Reacting: Seven Ideas for Replying to Tricky Emails

1. Remember that what you read may not be what was meant. In the absence of other clues, we tend to read the most negative tone into emails

2. Relate – where possible, have an actual conversation with the sender, either in person or on the phone. One of the main problems with email is that it’s a serial monologue rather than a dialogue. It’s amazing how often actual dialogue can clear up any misunderstanding or resentment. Apart from anything else, you can actually hear the tone in other person’s voice as well as clarify what the other person actually wanted to say

One quick tip here: If you’re fortunate enough to have a clarifying conversation with the sender, don’t start on the attack (which is guaranteed to put the other person on the defensive). Instead, begin in a curious, generous and open way e.g. “Thanks for the email; just checking on exactly what you need from me/ what the issue was with X/ how we can help…” as opposed to, “Why did you send such an aggressive, unprofessional email about X! Don’t you realise how hard our team has worked to deliver for you?”

One problem is that email is a serial monologue rather than a dialogue

3. Review – in true ONION style, think carefully what you want the outcome of your reply to be. Is it to clarify/ set the record straight? To achieve a particular result? To ensure that something happens? If the¬†answer is “To vent/ let the recipient know how I’m feeling about what they sent me!” , I’d suggest that you think carefully and perhaps consider communicating later and/or in a different way.

4. Rest – if you write a reply in the moment, if possible, put it in your drafts folder for 24 hours and come back to it before sending – I guarantee you’ll make some changes. I sometimes go as far as suggesting removing the sender’s name from the “to” field until you’re actually ready to send so that you don’t send your first in-the-moment draft by mistake!

5. Refer – ask a trusted friend, colleague or family member to have a look at your draft and let you know how it reads. Another pair of eyes can be very useful in situations like these

6. Remove – if you don’t have the luxury of some of the above options and have to reply fairly blind and quickly , review your reply and be ruthless in removing any words which make a value judgement. Instead describe the situation. Start with adjectives – so often the load-bearers of our judgments! To give you an example, in my response to a recent tricky message, I reviewed what I’d initially written and removed the word “aggressive” from the description of a message I’d received and simply summarised the content of the message instead, leaving the reader to make their own judgement. Result? Tacit agreement and a harmonious relationship

7. Relax – Particularly for those with more anxious temperaments, it’s easy to stew and worry about emails we’ve sent and how they’ll be received, even re-reading them countless times, but if you’ve made the effort to respond thoughtfully rather than to react hastily, you can send your reply and move on safe in the knowledge that you’ve done all you can to preserve (and even prosper) your professional relationship

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