How to Write — and Receive — Mean Emails

Before the age of emails, people would leave nasty voice mails. It was a quick and efficient way to get your message across without having the face-to-face encounter that so many people want to avoid. But now there is email. Don’t like the tone someone takes with a constituent? Put it in email. Saw some errors on that last press release? Fire off an email. Did something go through without your approval? Write that in an email and send it right off. We’re all sending and receiving mean emails. Yes, some people call these emails “feedback” but let’s call it what it is: An unpleasant message that will likely ruin your day and cause you to whine to your friends that you need a new job, one with a boss who really understands and appreciates you. Maybe that’s true. But mean emails are a part of life, especially on Capitol Hill, where such unfriendly messages can be the preferred mode of communication. Hill Navigator isn’t here to banish the mean email; we all need feedback, we learn from constructive criticism, and sometimes, even the best of us are just plain wrong. But there are ways to go about writing and receiving mean emails more effectively, which we hope can lead to more harmony for all. When Writing Mean Emails: — A good mean email is constructed like a sandwich, one with a very thin, spicy slice of meat. The bread, spreads and fillings are meant to be the positive reinforcement you need to deliver your nasty news. “That press release was stellar, you’re always so great with reporters, I really appreciate you working Saturday morning and yes, I know we asked you to rewrite this six times.” Then somewhere in between those thick layers you can put the criticism — keep it short and to the point — and then close with another round of appreciative banter. It’s hard to feel too dismissive of someone who appreciates you. Because isn’t that what we all want in the end? — Put a follow-up option in there. Hill Navigator is a fan of the “happy to discuss in person” but don’t include if you have no intention of doing so. If you’re going to lob a bomb via email, give the person a chance to respond, but it’s best not to request an immediate answer. Most staffers want to do a good job, and any position has a lot to learn. But even the most even-keeled staffer needs time to cool down; you’ll get a better response if they take time to step away. — Don’t CC anyone. Is there anything worse than getting lambasted via email and having a co-worker included on it? Not really. Don’t do it. — Before you hit send, take a minute and make sure you absolutely need to write this and this is the tone you want to use. Yes, sometimes things must be in email so there is a written record, which protects both the sender and receiver. But sometimes things can be easily misconstrued, or said better in person, and sometimes it’s not worth having a sulking co-worker when it’s better to move forward and onto the next project. So take the extra time to decide this is what you want to do before hitting send. When Receiving Mean Emails: — Realize it happens to us all, and it’s usually not meant to be taken personally. Easier said than done, of course, but every job comes with feedback, and feedback can sometimes be less than pleasant to receive. — Wait before writing back. It can be so tempting to fire off a missive defending yourself or debunking the claims, but unless an immediate reply is required, step away and clear your head. Give it as much time as possible — wait overnight if you can — because things tend to seem much less nasty after a night’s sleep. When Responding to Mean Emails: — Write the worst email you can think of. Then don’t send it. Don’t even write it in Outlook, lest you press the wrong button. Delete it, or if you want to share with someone, send it (via gmail) to your best friend in Los Angeles so you guys can laugh about it before you return to your regular responsibilities. — Don’t be mean back. It keeps the mean-email-cycle going and it’s rarely effective. — Validate THEM. Say you got the message, reiterate it if you have to: “I was quick to send that press release out and I realize you should have seen it too.” If the sender doesn’t think you got their message, they’re likely to go over it again. — Validate YOU. Don’t take blame if its not yours. “I thought I had sent that press release to you, but perhaps it was lost in the shuffle.” Some people think its easier to apologize, even if they aren’t in the wrong. That may work on episodes of "Grey’s Anatomy," but in real life people realize there are nuances around most miscommunications. — Offer to follow up. If you think it’s worth keeping the conversation going, suggest you meet and take it off email. The sooner the bridge is mended, the better. — Sulk and move on. Go buy yourself a pity-party latte or raid the candy bins in the Longworth sundry. Whatever you do, make it quick and get back to star-staffer mode as quickly as you can. It’s hard to avoid the sting of a mean email, but the best staffers are those for whom it is brief and (nearly) painless. Want more Hill Navigator? Did you know you can get Hill Navigator delivered to your inbox? Go to the right hand sidebar and sign up under "SUBSCRIBE VIA EMAIL."