Responding to a Difficult Email

It’s never fun to get an email that makes your blood boil, your heart race, and has you seeing red. It’s happened to all of us at one point or another, and working remotely as a Virtual Assistant, where almost all communication does not happen face-to-face, I feel like it happens more often than I’d like.

(I would like to preface this with saying that, if possible, when an email angers you as much as some have angered me in the past – it’s much better to call the person and talk to them on the phone. But, as a Virtual Assistant, I realize that’s sometimes not possible. I have had clients in different time zones, some who are in meetings all day, and others that are traveling so much that they can barely breathe.)

stressed-woman-3403423_1280These upcoming steps lay out how to move forward when you receive an uncomfortable email that makes you angry and you can’t talk to them on the phone but have to sort it out via email.

Step 1: Let yourself be angry…by yourself.

I find that allowing myself to get worked up also helps me run through the anger and emotions much more quickly than trying to ignore the problem or downplay it. Downplaying it is one of the worst things that I, personally, can do. The more I try to ignore it, act like it isn’t a big deal or tell myself that maybe I’m overreacting, only makes me focus on the problem more. If I ride through the moments of indignation and frustration, I find that I’m able to move onto looking at the email objectively a lot quicker.

Step 2: Allow others to read the email.

Get feedback on the email in question. Perhaps you’re worked up due to the history you have with this client or person. Have they been rubbing you the wrong way recently and this was the final straw? Taking the email out of context and allowing someone with a neutral point of view read it helps to determine if your interpretation is correct.

Step 3: Read the email out loud in a different voice.

Thanks to my husband for this one! At one point, I was getting worked up continuously by a woman’s emails and later realized it was only my own interpretation. In my profession as an assistant, I am used to working with people who are excessive with their polite demeanor over email so that nothing can be interpreted incorrectly. The emails I were receiving were very matter of fact and straightforward; the bare facts. I interpreted this as rude and thought the person was being condescending to me and treating me like I was not intelligent (this is also due to the fact that we were emailing about something I know very little about but was trying so hard to understand; as such, I was playing into my own insecurities). My husband told me to start reading them in a different voice and see if I had the same reaction. Turns out, I was getting enraged over emails where the feeling of being slighted was all in my head. Once I changed the way I was reading them in my head, I realized the emails were not so bad after all. I had built them up into something much larger due to my own lack of knowledge and insecurity on the subject.

Step 4: Write out a response, but don’t send it…yet.

By all means, write away. Say everything you want to in the most professional way possible. BUT DON’T SEND IT. Get others to read it first to make sure it sounds polite aiphone-3635262_640nd as calm as possible. Try to also include room for doubt; often emails are misinterpreted and that may have happened when you read it. Sometimes it helps to write something like, “When I read x, I interpreted what you were saying as y”. This helps the reader see your point of view and hopefully see where the breakdown was.

Step 5: Sleep on it.

This is the hardest advice to follow. When you’re worked up in a rage, feel less than intelligent, and feel like your dignity has been walked all over – the last thing you want to do is sleep on it. You want to write a hasty, angry reply and send it off NOW. “That’ll show them!” you think. But if you’ve made it to step 5 of this process and written your response, pausing on sending it that day and waiting until you wake up in the morning will give you some new clarity on it. You may find out that you don’t want to send the email after all. Perhaps it’s not worth it. Or maybe you realize you need to tweak a few more things; I often find my emails tend to run long, so I work on shortening it until the basics are laid out. Sleeping on your response guarantees that you’ll have more confidence in your decision.

Step 6: Dig deep.

Whatever you decide to do – either let the email go and realize it’s not worth your energy, or send it and try to resolve an issue – why did their email set you off in the first place? Is this something that has been building over time? Are there changes that need to happen in this working relationship? Perhaps this helps you realize that this client/vendor/teammate is not worth your effort and you need to distance yourself as much as possible (or let go of them). I often find that when I receive an email that makes me uncomfortable or angry, even if it feels out-of-the-blue, it rarely is. I have generally been getting more uneasy with the person I’m dealing with so that anything they send is starting to frustrate me.

Email is wonderful invention and has changed the working lives of many. But with this comes the realization that uncomfortable situations now have to be handled over this platform as well, which is also less than ideal.

How have you handled emails that have made you angry in the past? Better yet, do you have any horror stories of emails you’ve sent without meaning to? Or when you battled it out over email?


Kiri Mohan is the COO of the Association of Virtual Assistants and runs her successful Virtual Assistant company, DependableVA. Kiri believes that assistants are the secret behind every great executive/entrepreneur and while the world can be slow to pick up on that, she’ll continue to advocate for the profession.