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10 Smart Strategies for Responding to a Stressful Email

Anxiety-inducing emails are never fun, but they’re also inevitable. To keep them from ruining your day — and leaving a lasting feeling of stress — it’s key to know how to course-correct from the resulting stress spike. Whether the message is a not-so-friendly reminder that a deadline is approaching, an unnecessary work request over the weekend, or an unpleasantly worded message from someone who is having a bad day themselves, a stressful email can catch you off-guard — so you need to have tools to deal with them at the ready.

We asked members of the Thrive community to share their go-to strategies for responding to these kinds of messages, and ensuring they don’t ruin their day. The biggest tip? Take a deep breath — and some time to collect your thoughts — before pressing send.

Talk instead of text

“Keep it simple. Get on the phone or schedule a video conference to clarify the message. Human beings require connection, so relying solely on digital communication can actually reduce the life-cycle of a relationship whether personal or professional. So get old-school and pick up the phone. It’s taking that extra step to let that person know what they said in writing matters, and that they matter to you.”

—Sarah Figueroa, cause marketing and publicity strategist, Dallas, TX

Step away before pressing send

“I read the message thoroughly so I understand the need that was expressed, and disregard the tone, because it can be subjective and doesn’t contribute to the solution. When possible, I write a response, but hold off on pressing send. I often step away, focus on something else, come back, and review with a fresh set of eyes before I reply. Sometimes I pick up the phone. Voice communication can clarify concerns, reduce anxiety, and sometimes reveal that a stressful email was only direct rather than dissatisfied.”

—Rania Walker, public relations, Toronto, ON, Canada

Write a draft first

“Breathe, write a draft, then take a walk to reframe your thoughts. Take another look at your response and then send, call, or take the necessary next steps. Do not react immediately if nobody is in danger.”

—Lori Paulin, customer engagement, San Francisco, CA

Empathize with the sender

“Being mindful helps me manage particularly stressful emails. If I come across a message that stresses me out, I find it helpful to schedule a time to handle it, rather than responding immediately when my emotions are running high. I also remind myself that email doesn’t always promote mindful communication, so if a response seems unpleasant, I try to empathize with the sender and seek to understand how they’re feeling.”

—Andrew Gobran, people operations, Minneapolis, MN

Streamline and schedule your communication

“I’ve cut the number of emails I receive by about 90 percent by using Slack both internally and for external clients. Slack has streamlined our communication and made it easy to have direct conversations with important stakeholders. Using Slack makes our dialogue more consistent and informal, which helps to prevent stressful emails from coming in. If I do happen to get a stressful email, I never take it personally. I also do my best not to check email for the first 90 minutes of my day. This gives me time to set my priorities, take calls, read, and set myself up for success. Jumping straight into my inbox can be stress-inducing — and that is the wrong way to start your day.”

—Daniela Kelloway, public relations, Toronto, ON, Canada

Keep your kindness

“Working as a freelancer and managing people means I get many stressful emails. To make sure they don’t completely derail my day, I first take a step back and process the emotions that come up. It might only require a few moments of deep breathing, or it might mean coming back several hours later. It’s best to consider the situation from a calm place, and then decide the best way to reply. Then, no matter what my response is, whether it’s about defining boundaries with a firm ‘no’ or admitting that I’m in the wrong, I keep it neutral and kind.”

—Christine Blubaugh, copywriter, Columbus, OH

Determine if a response is actually required

“The first thing I do is step away from the device entirely and do something — preferably outside — that requires a mental shift for at least three to five minutes. Next, I decide if the message actually requires a response. Half the time, the suggested prompts in systems like Gmail are likely the most useful, like ‘Got it, thanks!’ If it does require something more, sleep before sending.”

—Kristie Holmes, Ph.D., clinician, Los Angeles, CA

Don’t hide behind your screen

“I have learned — sometimes the hard way — to take a breath before responding, and to wait at least 15 minutes to think through a response. Even if it is a particularly contentious work-related email, I will often suggest the matter is best discussed in-person or over a phone call. I find that snarky people calm right down when they have to speak to a human, and are unable to hide behind their computer or phone screen.”

—Cindy J., executive search and HR consultant, Boston, MA

Throw on some music

“Music sets the mood for everything. It’s in movies, video games, gyms — even when a newly married couple walks into the reception. It can make us feel excited, mellow, sexy, or even depressed. When I know I’m going to open an email that can potentially get me stressed, I listen to a song that prepares me for what’s coming. Perhaps a little Snoop Dogg or Prince? Or should it be Led Zeppelin, or Pink Floyd? The song always sets my mood.”

—Rudy Chavarria Jr., founder and CEO, Walnut, CA

Reread to better understand tone

“We have a wonderful imaginative ability to read an email in the sender’s voice and manipulate that voice in our heads. We usually hear it in a tone that doesn’t adequately represent the reality. So take as long as possible to come back to it. Once you reread several times, it’s amazing how much the tone can change to something far less offensive. If it still reads as offensive, hold firm to your email boundaries. Let the negative energy remain where it came from, and keep your reply straight and balanced.”

—Anne Marshall, fundraising director, Toronto, ON, Canada

(Thrive Global)

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