Never Write E-mails When You are Angry

If the Golden Rule is to treat others the way you want to be treated, then the Silver Rule should be never write/send an e-mail in anger. 

Writing e-mails when you are angry is a quick way to ruin a work relationship, friendship, customer account, etc.  Over the course of my career, I have fired off my share of angry e-mails.  However, I cannot think of a single time when this had a positive effect. Usually, the e-mails only served to escalate the conflict and alienate the recipient.

Steven Covey writes in his book 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, that there is a space between stimulus and response.  He says that what makes humans different from animals is that we have the choice—the freedom—to chose how we will respond to any situation (good and bad).  Unfortunately, blackberries, i-phones, and other technology make it way too easy to react quickly to a stimulus with a bad response.  We all know the situation.  Stimulus- someone at work does something that offends you.  Maybe they send you the first angry e-mail that hits you when you are pressed for time.  Response- you react and fire off a terse e-mail in “response” to the offense.  The result is almost always the same- the relationship going forward is strained and awkward.  It really does not matter who is “technically” right or wrong.  The bottom line is that when you write an angry e-mail, you are “relationally” wrong, which never leads to anything positive.

Written communication carries about 100% more power than words spoken verbally.  This works great in thank you notes, but not so well in anything negative.  Why is this?  The first answer is that verbal communication has the context of taking place during a conversation.  That means two-way dialogue, voice inflection, body language, listening, etc.  None of this happens with written communication.  Another reason is that written communication can be read over and over, which magnifies the message.  If the message is negative with the first read, it will get more and more negative with every read.  Lastly, written e-mails can be forwarded and read by others who have even less context on the “offense.”  This can exacerbate the ripple effects of an angry e-mail. 

Over the course of a career with many work relationships, you are going to experience countless situations when you will feel angry or slighted.  When it happens to you, consider doing the following before you react negatively (especially digitally). 

  1. Cool down. Put some space between the stimulus and the response. Any offense looks much bigger the closer you are to it. If you let a little time pass, you will see it in its proper context and respond appropriately.
  2. Think like a leader.  Before you respond to negative stimulus, ask yourself what your objective is.  Do you want to merely make a point to make yourself feel better or are you really interested in solving a problem?  Anyone can hurl digital spears at an adversary, but are you accomplishing anything constructive?  Make sure you stop in the heat of the moment (stimulus) and ask yourself these very important questions before you respond.   
  3. Talk it out. When you are upset with someone, pick up the phone or go visit the person in their office, and talk it out.  Doing this takes a lot more guts and self control (two traits VITAL to an effective leader) than blasting off an e-mail. There is nothing better for a strained relationship than verbal communication.  I can’t think of one time in my career that I regretted calling someone and talking it through “live”.  Sadly, I can think of a few examples when I should have done it this way, and I chose/reacted otherwise.   
  4. Write a response, but don’t send it.  My colleague Joel Junker wrote in another post that President Lincoln used to do this with his Generals and political leaders during and after the Civil War.  He would write a scathing response to someone who had let him down (usually with a lot of justification).  When Lincoln died, they found dozens of these letters that he had never sent.  Maybe he used this as a tool to cool down, but he was wise enough to know that sending an angry letter did nothing to fix a problem. 
  5. Try to see it from the other perspective. This is the best part about verbal communication as opposed to e-mail — it is two-way, live communication.  You get to talk and to listen.  While you do this, try to see it from the other person’s perspective.  Stand in their shoes.  Listen completely and let them vent their perspective to you.  Sometimes you think you are right, but upon further two-way conversation, you may discover that you contributed to the problem or aggravated the situation.  Move from being the victim to being an active participant in finding a solution.  This is leadership.
  6. Burn it for fuel for the journey.  I’m borrowing this from the Japanese poet Kenji Miyazawa who wrote, “We must embrace anger and pain, and burn it as fuel for our journey.”  The fact is that as long as we have to deal with people, we are going to be disappointed, get frustrated, and react in anger. But as leaders, we have to build and reinforce the habit of channeling these emotions in productive ways. Sending an angry e-mail or writing a negative letter is never the appropriate or most effective way. If you get angry, resist the temptation to respond in anger.  Instead, burn it as fuel for the long trip.

In closing, here is the Silver Rule restated; when you are communicating something positive- write it in an e-mail or letter.  If you are communicating something negative- do it VERBALLY or NOT AT ALL.

Chuck Alvarez