photo of email screenYou’ve been working on a long-term project. The production deadline is looming. There are tons of last-minute details still needing to be addressed. One of them requires information from a person in a different location. You shoot off an email with the question in the midst of your harried, multi-tasking day. You copy colleagues involved in the project.

You get back a defensive response.


You write back a snarky reply, calling out the glaring error in your counterpart’s position. You hit reply all.

Hours pass, maybe even a day. Your question remains unanswered.

You ignore it. The ball’s in her court and you’ve got plenty of other details to attend to.

Finally, your inbox dings with another message. This one criticizes the tone of your previous email and still doesn’t answer your original question.

You show the email thread to a colleague and ask, “Was I off base?”

“No,” your co-worker says. “Your request for information was factual. Don’t know why she’s so defensive.”

Feels good to be vindicated, doesn’t it? But now what will you do?

You can see how a conflict erupted  in just four email exchanges. It festered between messages. It feels personal. You’ve already started gathering allies. The person at the other end may be doing the same thing.

Do you think another email will solve it?

Chances are it would come off as a missive–also known as flame mail–not a message because you feel wronged and righteous. If you’re like most people in this situation, you’re likely to lay out an argument justifying your responses and your position, and then demand that your original issue get addressed stat.

What do you think might happen then?

Sure, you might get an answer to your question. Now you can cross that detail off your list. The conflict between the two of you, though? It’s still not resolved.

If the relationship matters, then you still have some repair work to do. It matters if this is someone you have to work with again in the future. Also if it’s someone you’ve liked and respected before. It’s important on a purely human-to-human basis. If for no other reason, it matters because your self-respect and your professional reputation are on the line.

Even if you were completely in the right to begin with, you helped escalate this conflict. You share a responsibility to try and make things better.

Let’s deconstruct what might have happened in the above example to identify the surefire ways this conflict was predictable.

1. Did your original query imply criticism or dissatisfaction?

Take a look at that original query. Was it truly worded in neutral language? You were in a hurry when you hit ‘send.” Read it out loud to yourself.  What about it’s wording might have caused your colleague to react defensively?

You see, the problem with email or any informal written communication, like texting, is that you can’t see body language, facial expressions or hear tone. It’s easy to misconstrue intent and meaning. The asynchronous aspect of email–lag time between responses–makes it hard to “catch” a misunderstanding and correct it right away.

If you’ve had any tensions or complications with this person in the past, that history is part of the context for how you “read into” each other’s email communications. Same holds true if you have trust built up–in this case, you’re more likely to give someone the benefit of the doubt, and they you.

If there’s even a hint of something in that original statement of yours that might come across as implying criticism or judgment, that would explain the defensive response.

Think about how else you might have stated it to lessen the likelihood of a negative reaction.

2. Did their defensiveness trigger a similar response from you?

One defensive reaction after another escalates conflict. You have to stop that cycle or it’ll just keep getting worse.

It’s true, your colleague may have been having a bad day and took it out on you. It doesn’t matter. Someone–you–has to take the first step to rectify the situation.

Another email won’t cut it. You have to have a personal conversation. In this case, since the two of you are at a distance, it’ll have to be by phone. This is better than continuing on with writing.

If email is your only option for some reason, at least acknowledge that this isn’t ideal and choose your words carefully. Let it sit in your draft folder for a while. Read it with fresh eyes and edit out any potentially incendiary language. It might help to have a colleague read it and give feedback.

3. How well thought-out versus reactive were your messages?

When you’re in a hurry with a lot on your mind, sometimes you can unintentionally send poorly-worded messages that are therefore open to misinterpretation.

Letting frustration and annoyance take the lead often means a knee-jerk response, fingers flying without thought across the keyboards.

Those sorts of feelings should be a clue to wait. Wait until you feel calmer so you can craft a constructive reply. Sometimes, you might need to sleep on it. It’s amazing how a good night’s sleep can put a fresh and sensible perspective on things.

By the way, copying colleagues to this exchange? Probably not a good idea once it began escalating. Once you’re in the throes of conflict, you might not care or not even think about this anymore, but the recipient will consider it one more reason to be upset or incensed.

Email is a wonderfully efficient way to communicate but conflicts can  get blown out of proportion very quickly in an online environment. Pick up the phone or better yet, if possible, meet in person to address whatever problems were sparked, even inadvertently, by your virtual email avatars.

Express regret that things got out of hand. Apologize for your part in the escalation. Be willing to forgive your co-worker’s contribution to it. Engage in mutual problem solving. Be cooperative and constructive in addressing both the substantive and relationship elements at stake.

How have you handled email conflict in the past? What are some examples (keep it confidential, of course) of ‘flame mail’ you’ve seen?