Effectively handling negative or crummy emails

It happened again – writing my previous post about improving your email comunication made me realize I needed an entire post dedicated to this specific sub-topic as well. If you work in an office environment, interact with customers, or, let’s be honest, deal with people via email in any capacity, you’re bound to encounter what I call “crap-grams”. (Feel free to replace ‘crap’ with a less family-friendly synonym.) They’re easy to spot by the passive-aggressive tone, finger-pointing, egregious complaints, or a combination of all three. You know you need to do the mature thing and respond appropriately, as much as you’d rather reply with the perfect comeback. Here are my tips for handling these crap-grams and getting yourself back into a mental state to reply with grace.

Never email reactively. This point is kind of a twofer because I use the term ‘reactively’ to mean two different things.
1. Your instant reaction. If you get a fun little crap-gram, your first thoughts are usually not very nice. “This is the dumbest person on Earth.”, “That’s complete BS.” – you get the idea. Do not respond with your first thought. The examples I gave are obvious, but in a more nuanced way, you don’t want that reaction to come through in or influence your response.
2. As a synonym for ‘emotionally’. While the crap-gram may have hurt your feelings or made you upset (which is totally valid in the workplace, btw, contrary to what some say … which is a whole separate topic on its own!), you want to be mindful of how much your emotions cloud your interpretation and response. You may have already been having a bad day at work, so you read the email in a tone that the sender didn’t intend or misinterpret a way they phrased something. While it’s okay to have an emotional response, it’s not okay to let it take over. My next tips cover ways to avoid this.

Sit on it. There are three ways to do this.
1. Sit on the crummy email. Don’t do anything with it until the next day when you can approach it from a better state of mind and with some separation between you and your immediate reaction.
2. Write a response, save it in your Drafts, and revisit it and revise the next day.
3. Abandon email altogether and pick up the phone. Especially in tense or passive-aggressive situations, having a realtime conversation can truly go a long way.

Write and delete. Write it all out. Say whatever you want to say. Don’t worry about not expressing emotion or censoring your language. And delete it. Sometimes you just need the catharsis of letting everything out, and you can move onto a constructive response. Just triple check that you absolutely, 100% deleted that first draft that isn’t intended for anyone but yourself.

Put it into perspective. This is much, much easier said than done, I get it. Start training your brain to think of the human being on the other end of that communication who has their own set of goings-on, frustrations, way of thinking, and set of vocabulary. Something innocuous to them may be interpreted differently to you. Or maybe they were in a rush. Or maybe they operate differently than you. Or maybe they really did want to set you off. There are so many variables to communication, you can’t possibly piece together why they sent that email and why you reacted to it the way you did. As tough as it is in the moment, give that person the benefit of the doubt, respond professionally and appropriately, and let it go.

Crap-grams, crummy emails, and frustrating or disheartening communications are never fun to receive. As with anything, know that the email is not about you, is a reflection of the sender, and is something you cannot control; just as your response is 100% about you, a reflection of you, and that is what you can control. With anything you can control, take ownership and let it be something that you are proud of.

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