How to Respond to an Angry E-mail (and Not Let it Destroy Your Career)

Last Updated Feb 16, 2011 12:53 PM EST

It's a fact of modern work life that at some point you're going to be on the receiving end of an angry e-mail. It may come from your boss, a co-worker, an employee, a client, or even a stranger. It's usually unexpected, and it frequently causes shock, hurt feelings, and anger.

The natural instinct is to fire off a heated reply, to give that miserable S.O.B. a piece of your mind, but that's a mistake. There are better ways to handle the situation, and they're all less likely to cost you your job.

Here's an example. A blogger friend of mine recently shared this story with me:

Out of the blue I get an e-mail from my boss's boss. He's pissed about something I've written and actually accuses me of taking a kickback from the company featured in the story. I'm flabbergasted, and not sure I've ever been more insulted in my entire professional life. If he had concerns about my work, that's fine, he should have discussed it with me. But lobbing baseless accusations at me in an e-mail? Not cool.

Needless to say, this friend wanted to let the big boss have it with both barrels, but instead wisely stepped away from the keyboard, took the time to calm down, and then sent a measured, non-inflammatory response. Situation resolved, job saved.

That's good advice. In fact, that's exactly what eHow writer Valerie David recommends in How to Reply to an Angry Email:

Step away from the computer. An angry email will usually trigger your own anger and cause you to act irrationally. Take a deep breath and walk away from the situation until you feel you can look at it objectively. Never reply to the email right away. You don't want to send your own outraged response and make the situation escalate.
Carlos R. Todd, author of "Anger and Conflict 101: Six Simple Rules to Master Anger," suggests ending the e-mail communication right then and there:
Offer to meet the person and talk face-to-face. Constant emails back and forth can make a bad situation worse.
Having dealt with my share of angry e-mails over the years (and allowed myself to get dragged into some very painful arguments), I'll second that suggestion -- but it doesn't have to be a face-to-face meeting. If the message came from someone you know, just pick up the phone: "Hey, I wanted to talk about your e-mail and try to get this worked out." Most of the time, that's a quick and effective way to resolve bad feelings.

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.

Remember, too, that e-mail is a poor form of communication at best, one that can easily be misinterpreted. Indeed, misunderstood messages often lead to nasty exchanges that wouldn't have happened otherwise. Laugh if you want, but one of the best ways to avoid this is with liberal use of the smiley emoticon. It's a simple, effective way to say "I'm kidding" or "I'm not serious."

Anyone with half a brain could figure that out. :)

Do you have your own methods for diffusing angry e-mails? What's the worst message you've ever received? Let the healing begin in the comments!

More on BNET: Photo courtesy Flickr user jonbro, CC 2.0
  • Rick Broida On Twitter»

    Rick Broida, a technology writer for more than 20 years, is the author of more than a dozen books. In addition to writing CNET's The Cheapskate blog, he contributes to CNET's iPhone Atlas.

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