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The world would be a wonderful place if our inboxes were constantly overflowing with compliments, praise and free coffee coupons. But instead, you have to deal with junk email, deadlines and endless questions -— and the occasional angry email.
Whether it’s from a coworker, client or your boss, being on the receiving end of a scathing message is never fun. It can be difficult to know how to react. Should you run to your supervisor? Ignore it? Hide under your desk and cry?
Instead, follow these steps:
1. Take a pause
As tempting as it might be to fire off an equally biting reply, resist the urge to respond immediately. Take a few minutes — or even a few hours — to breathe deeply and collect yourself.
2. Consider the reasoning
Consider where this angry sender is coming from. Did you make a costly mistake, and now he or she is furious about it? Or, does this person just seem to be irrationally angry?
Identifying the cause of that scorching message is helpful in crafting a fitting response. It helps you determine whether you actually have something to apologize for, or if you need to be a little more firm, direct and rational in your reply.
3. Determine your approach
Although it might seem easy to simply craft a response message and never have to encounter that person directly, it’s important to evaluate whether that’s the best tactic. Do you need to set up an in-person meeting or a one-on-one phone call with this person to resolve the issue? Is this something that needs to be escalated to your supervisor?
Weigh your options and determine which one best fits the situation.
4. Recognize emotions
This person is obviously upset about something. And, regardless of whether he or she has legitimate justification for being angry, it’s important for you to acknowledge the emotional reaction.
If you’ve decided to reply via email, begin by saying something along the lines of, “I can understand that you’re upset about this.” It recognizes that you’re not just brushing off their feelings, and that you’re hoping to talk through what exactly is causing this outburst. Even better, it’s usually enough to take their anger down a few notches, simply because they feel heard.
However, it’s important that you avoid the phrase “I’m sorry” — unless you actually have something you need to apologize for. You don’t want to send the message that you’re accepting blame, especially if you think you’re right. And, stating things like, “I’m sorry to hear you’re upset” or “I’m sorry you feel that way” can come across as condescending in emails.
5. Ask questions
Asking “What can I do to help remedy this situation?” or “Where do you suggest we go from here?” encourages the sender to thoughtfully contribute to the conversation, rather than repeatedly berating and belittling you. Plus, it’s a pretty solid indicator of whether this person is angry for the sake of being angry, or if he or she has something legitimate to be worked up about.
6. Encourage further discussion
After getting through the rest of your explanation, offer the opportunity to discuss this further — but directly this time. Questions like, “Would you like to set up a time when we can talk all of this over on the phone?” or “Can we meet for coffee to go over the details?” offer the opportunity to really work the kinks out, without that security blanket of email hanging over you. People are much more brave behind their computer screens.