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Processing emotionally-charged emails

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  • Processing emotionally-charged emails

    Sometimes we all receive emails that irritate us. One that perhaps threatens your wellbeing, insults your intelligence, or where a coworker, partner or supervisor has done something that will cost you dearly. Sure, emotionally charged topics are best addressed interpersonally, but not all people do so.

    Depending on your situation, you may receive such email(s) that cause you to have a temporary emotional response. Some roles involve a lot more of these emails than others. This may last anywhere from 5-20 minutes or more each when processing it, some people may even get fuming mad for awhile.

    Have any of you found an effective way to process larger baskets of email littered with these little gems, without the processing task taking your whole afternoon?

    Thanks,
    Bob

  • #2
    Although I can't address the problem of many emotionally charged e-mails arriving in the same day, I did receive one such message yesterday. Of course, my first impulse was to fire off a reply, because I have a short fuse. But I have learned to recognize my short fuse and deal with it (usually!) in what I hope are more constructive ways. So with this particular e-mail, this is what I did, more or less in order:

    1. Fumed silently for a couple of minutes.
    2. Determined that the e-mail didn't require an immediate reply.
    3. Wrote furiously in my journal for another couple of minutes to let off steam.
    4. Let the matter cool overnight.
    5. Sent a calm reply this morning, which addressed the situation adequately in a mature and professional way.

    Hope this helps.

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    • #3
      Echo what Day Owl said.

      Also, I find it helpful to keep in mind that written communication loses quite a bit "in translation". You can't see the other person's body language and facial expressions to determine if what they are saying was meant to be serious, sarcastic, or what. I try to filter out "what is the message" versus "how was it written".

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      • #4
        If I can tell an email is getting me that upset (likely to be >2 minutes upset, ha ha), I'd put replying to it as a next action rather than work the reply into my processing. Then I can take the 5-20 minutes I need to do it, and also sometimes my reaction will be a little less intense the 2nd time through anyway since my subconscious mind did a bit of the processing already.

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        • #5
          As I process my email, I filter it using these rules:
          * if it is a long mail that will take more than 2 minutes to process, move it to @read folder
          * if it needs a reply or forward
          ** if the reply can be done in 2 minutes, do it now
          ** otherwise move it to @reply folder
          * if it needs to be saved, move it to the appropriate folder
          * discard

          Emotionally charged mail will *never* be a < 2 minute reply, so it gets pushed off for a bit of a delay right up front.

          Once I've finished processing and my inbox is empty, I process the @read folder. Then @reply. Some days, I never get @reply clear before I'm back to processing the inbox again...

          But the point here is to take that emotionally charged email and put it where you will get to it when you're ready to deal with it cleanly, and not to respond in kind.

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          • #6
            I have learned the hard way that imediately checking the "Reply" button may bring instant gratification as I "Give It Back" to the emailer, but will usually escalate the emotionally-charged situation. I drop the email into @Actionable and purposely leave it until the next day. I then answer it appropriately.

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            • #7
              I've never seen the need to reply to emotionally charged emails. Emotion is not a thing which can be conveyed reliably through email. Grrrr. Usually it's the other person who wants an emotional response back from you. So you can be satisfied in the knowledge of their disappointment when they don't get the reply.

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              • #8
                I'm with GTDWorks and treelike:

                o Sit on a reply for at least 24 hours. I've made the mistake of replying right away, which I later regretted. Remember: You can't un-send an email. Some suggest writing a letter, but not sending it. This gets your reaction down somewhere (captured), but doesn't get you into a dialog.

                o Reply using the appropriate medium. Email is not good at conveying emotion. Use the phone or have a 1:1.

                Finally, if you're getting many of these I'd want to look at why that's happening. There may be something else going on that's worth your looking at.

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                • #9
                  Originally posted by boblevy View Post
                  Have any of you found an effective way to process larger baskets of email littered with these little gems, without the processing task taking your whole afternoon?
                  If you must reply at all, I think everyone agrees that it is essential not to fire back an answer right away, but rather let the first burst of emotion pass before sending a thoughtful reply. So Replying is automatically NOT a 2 minute action, and may instead be a small project. Once that's understood, "Getting Things Done" provides everything you need. You can compose a "draft" reply, park this in an action file, such as the drafts folder of your e-mail program, and put "edit reply to so-and-so" on your Next Action list. Or you can do the same but without first composing a draft reply. If you need to gather information for your reply, your next action would be to gather the information.

                  If you must deal with a person who frequently sends such e-mail, most e-mail programs will allow you to set up a filter that directs e-mail on a certain subject or from a certain address to a separate in-box. Then you can check that box separately from processing your other in-boxes.

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                  • #10
                    Two quick thoughts

                    I've seen more than one career get destroyed by sending what I call a "Nasty Gram"...especially if many people are copied on it, this is one heck of a dangerous practice. I agree with others here....pick up the phone or have a 1 on 1 about it.

                    I practice a 24-hour rule WHENEVER I'm mad...it sometimes even makes me feel better to just go ahead and draft the zinger email response back...but I do it WITHOUT A RECIPIENT NAME. 24-48 hours later, I'll look at it to see if I still want to send it. I never have :-}

                    One final note: NO REACTION to a Nastygram is typically very effective at getting even...no reaction at all makes the writer squirm wondering when their words will come back to haunt them. I learned this tactic from a judo student. He said that, in judo, you let your opponents' strength work against him/her...you basically just step out of the way and their full force goes only against them.

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                    • #11
                      not replying to emotional email

                      "NO REACTION to a Nastygram is typically very effective at getting even... I learned this tactic from a judo student. He said that, in judo, you let your opponents' strength work against him/her...you basically just step out of the way and their full force goes only against them."

                      What a great explanation of the tactic!

                      Most of the emotional emails I get are from overwrought students, who expect an IMMEDIATE reply, even if they write me at 1 AM. I can delay answering them only for a short time. I have found I can answer their main problem in a paragraph or two, but then I go back and write another paragraph at the beginning of my answer. This introduction usually thanks the student for bringing the problem to my attention, and appreciating their position, or understanding how difficult it is. My last paragraph then asks the student to call me or come to my office so we can discuss the problem. very few do come.

                      Rachel

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