How to Respond to Harsh Emails Professionally

It’s easy to lose control when someone says something which upsets you. From misunderstandings to non-constructive criticisms, there are many ways in which your colleagues, customers, clients or business partners could upset you. This may be intensified when a colleague upsets you through email. Picture this, you open your email and see a colleague’s response that seems rude. Your reflex is to defend yourself with the same negative energy that was thrown at you. Is it beneficial to respond right away? Are you considering all the consequences of the next words you are about to type?

It’s easy to retaliate to a harsh email with an equally harsh email response, but it is wise to calm your emotions and respond professionally. Here’s how:

1. Always take an emotional check

Just like when you have face to face conversations, you need to think before you speak. In this case, think before you click. Moreover, when conversing online, we have more freedom in choosing our words and there is less pressure for you to respond right away. So take a step back and assess the situation. Mindfulness (while keeping your cool) is key to managing any given stressful situation at work. Take a few, deep breaths and once you’re ready you can re-read the email.

Note any misunderstandings that could be the possible root cause of the problem. Also remember that words are only a small percentage of determining if the person is actually angry, since tone of voice and body language is out of the picture. Keep in mind that most communication is non-verbal; are you sure you are interpreting the meaning of the email correctly? Maybe the sender did not mean to be rude or upsetting.

Let’s paint the picture more clearly with examples.

You receive this email from a customer: “I would like to call your attention for not having provided the service we expected which was disappointing and frustrating at the same time.”

How you should respond: “Thank you for bringing this concern to us. Your feedback is appreciated. Would you mind to expound on your concern, so I can provide you solutions and/or alternative things to suffice your request?”

When responding to such correspondences, it is best to check on your emotions beforehand. In this way, you are handling the situation proactively and professionally to reduce the damage cost.

2. Be objective about your correspondent’s intent

When anger radiates through screens, there is a tendency to overthink what the sender meant. This leads us to sending out defensive, emotional email replies that we sooner or later regret. In such situations, you have the power to adjust your perspective and not read between the lines. When you take words as they are, and as much as possible in a neutral voice, you could be less critical of the sender’s choice of words and instead focus on your task in the given situation.

What you received: “This is to seek clarity about what has been transcribed in yesterday’s meeting. I hope you can send us any proof of the decisions made.”

How you should respond: “Your concern is noted. Below is the minutes of the meeting. A gentle reminder, decisions are final and irrevocable as they are already agreed by the body.”

Responding directly about the concern allows little space for arguments and other issues that may arise. Sometimes, less talk means less problems.And have you heard of the phrase “Kill them with kindness”? If someone is intentionally rude or unreasonable through email, do not sink to their level. Remain calm and firm and that person may realize their wrongdoing.

3. Keep the negative emotions offline

Keeping in mind that work and a bad mood don’t mix well together, remember to try to provide only brief, straight to the point email responses whenever possible. Office hours will eventually pass by and you will log out of your email account and head home. It is important not to carry baggage and exhaustion after work. At work, you will surely encounter rude or angry emails but it’s unnecessary to dwell on them. Do not overthink, especially if it is after work or if you are trying to rest. The last thing you want is to be sending unnecessary rants through email.

4. Remember to observe the proper online etiquette

Once you structure an email as a response to an angry or emotional message, remember that it all comes down to respect. Have one main message that is clear and concise, maybe also consider adding light humor without sounding sarcastic or ironic. Just like in any other means of conversation, proper courtesy in emails goes a long way and it would surely alleviate the heated scenario. You don’t have to be offended; some emotional emails were sent out of simple concerns. It is also important to end your message on a positive note, such as “I hope this resolves the situation. Let me know if there are any other concerns” to set a good tone.

5. Ask for help or consider taking the matter offline

When it’s appropriate and needed, you may seek advice from a person who can handle conflict in the email better than you. Finding the right approach can be tricky, especially when things are starting to get out of hand; an objective opinion can help. Once you’re calm and equipped with the right advice (from a colleague or a professional who has been through the same situation), you would have a more appropriate response. However for certain scenarios, it may be best to ditch the email response and set up a face to face meeting.

How you should respond: “Thank you for bringing this concern. I suggest to talk about this in person to avoid further misunderstanding and miscommunication. May I know your preferred schedule and venue?”

Professional correspondence through email entails empathy. Angry or emotional words are said because certain feelings of confusion, dissatisfaction, or disappointment took over. Do not respond to anger with more anger. That leads nowhere. Think of the long-term consequences of your email response. Exercise control and patience. Good luck!


Like this article? Check out other workplace tips from the following blog posts:

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