I once got a jaw droppingly rude e-mail from someone with whom I have been collaborating. It took me completely by surprise, but when I showed it to my husband and a few friends, it seemed like receiving an occasional e-mail like this was a fairly universal experience. In that vein, I thought these tips might be helpful:
Don’t reply immediately
Your first instinct, naturally, is to get defensive and give the person a piece of your mind. Feel free to draft a message to this effect, but do not send it. Rather, give yourself a day – or at least a few hours – to cool off. This will prevent you from saying something you regret and allow you to re-approach the situation with a calm demeanor.
Be the bigger person
Even if the person is way out of line, when you start off your reply by thanking the person for contacting you and offering feedback, it often diffuses the tension and encourages the other party to back down. It also preserves your reputation in the event that the e-mail should be forwarded to someone else.
Offer additional information or take the discussion offline
In your response, include a carefully constructed argument supporting your point of view – using external sources if necessary. If it’s more of a personal issue, volunteer to get on the phone so that the two of you can address it and determine a productive way to move forward.
Don’t completely let them off the hook
If the person is being particularly unfair and cruel (calling you names, making wild accusations, etc.), be direct in expressing that this is not an appropriate way to behave. For instance, you might say that in future communications, you would appreciate it if the two of you could keep your tone professional.
Alexandra Levit is a Partner at PeopleResults and is passionate about helping people and organizations succeed in the evolving workplace. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @alevit.