How to Deal with Difficult Emails

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By Rebecca Palmer and Tiffany Nicole Slade


It’s not something we look forward to, and it’s definitely not something we aim for, but at some point, it happens to everyone: the angry email.


Thanks to the hyper connectivity of the internet, you don’t have be in a public-facing position to be contacted by the public. Anyone at any level can end up on the receiving end.


Maybe it’s from a member or a collaborator. Maybe it’s even from a bigshot within your organization. Email, as with most internet communication, can insulate the writer emboldening them to say things they would never dream of saying to your face. Meaning even well-intentioned email writers may end up going overboard.


No matter who sends the email and no matter how disappointed, angry, or even rude the letter writer is, it’s your job to respond professionally.


As executive editor of two publications and as acquisitions editor of a journal that rejects a majority of the papers submitted, the two of us have some experience in dealing with complaints, dissatisfaction, and even the occasional angry email.


We’ve put together some tips for answering these emails in a manner that is professional and resolves the issue tactfully and effectively for all parties involved.


Do not respond immediately.

Read the email thoroughly. Read it several times. Read it out loud. Compose a response — in a word processing document so you can’t accidentally hit reply. Take all the time you need to process everything that was written, but no matter what, do not respond right away.


It can be hard to keep your cool when you receive an insulting, unprofessional email from someone who should know better. It might be tempting to respond accordingly, deftly launching your own well-justified, counterattack or hurling a few well-timed retorts that land just right.


However, this is not productive and will only serve to escalate the problem. It could also land you in hot water with your employer. You’re not going to put out a fire with gasoline, so remind yourself to take a step back.


Gauge the severity.

There are levels of unhappiness you may receive in an email — maybe the writer feels a little inconvenienced, or maybe they’ve worked themselves up into a foaming fury. A lighthearted response to someone who is only mildly irritated may diffuse the situation and remind them that we’re all professionals — and people — here.


But someone who’s worked themselves up into full-fledged anger might perceive a similar response as dismissive and, in their eyes, unprofessional. Using your best judgment to assess the gravity of the matter — before responding — is imperative.


Honestly evaluate the problem.

Whenever someone contacts you with a concern, it is only fair to give the grievance your full consideration, no matter how big or small the issue may seem. As association professionals, we are in the business of providing good customer service to our members and others, no matter how far removed we may be from more public-facing positions.


If the issue isn’t within your purview, it still might need to be addressed. Sometimes simply taking the time to thoughtfully respond, even when no solution is offered, can diffuse a situation and make a person feel heard. Is there a legitimate grievance buried under otherwise angry details? If so, it will behoove you to really spend some time with the email to understand precisely what the problem is.


Acknowledge the problem.

Regardless of where blame may end up, a little bit of validation goes a long way. Telling someone they’re overreacting or that their problem is unimportant doesn’t resolve anything. You aren’t taking the blame for something just because you acknowledge that it exists.


Don’t apologize for things you’re not sorry for.

You need not apologize for fair policies, nor for something the complaining party is actually responsible for. You might say, “I apologize for the confusion,” if their misunderstanding of a policy or procedure resulted in their grievance. You could also say, “I’m sorry if this has caused you difficulties,” if it’s something that was avoidable but the failure to avoid it was on their end.


While we advise against apologizing for something we’re not sorry for, we also strongly advise against simply laying the blame on someone else. Even if the problem is a direct result of someone else’s mistake, pointing a finger and walking away is unprofessional and unhelpful.


Instead of dwelling on whose mistake it was, focus on resolving the issue with the complaining party and, if possible, have a discussion with whoever was at fault to see if you can amend policies or procedures to avoid another unhappy customer.


Focus on resolving the issue, not placating the person.

Sometimes there will be nothing you can do to resolve a grievance. A decision has been made — maybe company policy dictates that this action be taken — and no amount of distress can change it. In such cases, the best thing you can do is simply acknowledge the person’s frustration with a thoughtful and meaningful response that lets the aggrieved know that you care.


If next time is even an option, discuss opportunities to avoid confusion and to promote clear understanding of policies.



We have found that following these guidelines is an effective way to resolve issues in nearly every situation. We hope that our advice proves valuable to you as well, if and when you get the occasional angry email.



Rebecca Palmer is the acquisitions editor for Academy of General Dentistry’s General Dentistry.

Tiffany Nicole Slade is Academy of General Dentistry’s executive editor.