How to Respond to Hostile Email

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Over the past decade, email has become the most common way that people connect with one another. It's also the most common way that people complain and harass others. Hostile emails, status updates and even blog posts have become commonplace, but when they happen to you they can be difficult to deal with.


Most of the time, these hostile messages are from people you don't know or people who are just venting their rage. An example of this would be, if you shared something even slightly controversial on a social networking site and someone attacks you for your opinions. Depending on who they are, you probably don't even need to respond to them. The problem arises when the hostile email comes from someone you work with or a family member. In those situations, you may find it necessary to reply in a way that won't harm your future long-term relationship with the sender.


Here are a few key suggestions from the High Conflict Institute for managing the situation:


Don't respond unless you have to. Depending on the situation, you may need to respond and your reply might be legally or professionally significant. In these cases, be sure that you take your time crafting your response and if possible, allow yourself time to cool off between writing the response and actually sending it.


Don't take the bait. Remember your goal. The typical hostile message is designed to make you upset. They are emotional and filled with conflict. Even though it might be very tempting, don't rise to the bait. Remember, this is an attempt to communicate, not an arms race. Before you respond, take a moment to clear your head and think about your goal. A large part of conflict is misdirection, so instead of trying to respond to a laundry list of accusations, narrow it down to the root problem.


Keep it professional. Hostile messages can go back and forth, with each one becoming increasingly more heated. To minimize or prevent this, the High Conflict Institute recommends using the B.I.F.F. Approach: 


  • Brief – Don't give a lot of information because it only serves to give them more things to complain about. Instead, be as brief as possible. If there are inaccuracies that need to be cleared up, you can say something like “Just to be clear, I wasn't here on the dates in question and therefore couldn't have been the person who caused the problem.”

  • Informative – Stick to just the facts and give the needed information. Don't sling mud, call names or take the bait. It isn't productive and will only serve to escalate the problem.

  • Friendly – No matter who you're writing to, stay cordial. There is no need to take things personally and call names. Be sure that a friendly and polite tone is evident in your writing and try to reach out with empathy.

  • Firm – It's important not to encourage a back and forth exchange. Be clear and non-threatening but make it clear that you aren't leaving the door open for any continued discussion. Your goal should be to sound confident and not ask for further information.


Once you've replied and made your position clear, there is no need to worry about any additional messages. If the person wants to send you another hostile message, you can feel free to ignore it.


Hostile emails can be disturbing, but if you stay calm and respond with empathy, you can prevent them from becoming all out flame wars where both parties look bad.


How do you deal with hostile emails? Please share your thoughts in the comments.


Image source: MorgueFile


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