Be courageous when initiating negative conversations

Recently I received a flaming email from an acquaintance taking me to task for a perceived lack of judgment which he found egregious.

I was dumfounded that he would take this route.

There were two major reasons I was taken aback:

  1. He choose to communicate via email. This, to me, is a cowardly way to express your displeasure with someone you know personally. Email leaves too much room for misinterpretation. Word choice can lead to the recipient reading something one way when it was meant another. Picking up the phone is a much more respectful way to communicate.
  2. He made a major assumption, not even taking the tact that what he saw had another explanation. The act he blamed on me had really been done by someone else in my organization without my knowledge, but he blamed me personally for making the decision to put the act in action. I had nothing to do with it and only found out afterward. If I had been consulted beforehand I would had suggested another way to accomplish the same thing.

I called the flamer to discuss it. He called back and we talked about what he found so offensive. Oddly, he had done the same offending act a few years ago so found it particularly ironic he was calling me on the carpet for something he had done. We cleared the air on both matters and ended up understanding we had both misunderstood the other’s behavior.

I’m flummoxed when people who claim to be professionals would choose to send a flaming email rather than pick up the phone to talk.

If you are the one who’s taken offense, first think through what you’re hoping to accomplish by taking the person to task. Since they can’t change what’s been done are you wanting an apology? An admission they hadn’t fully thought it through? These are not worthy motivations, only demeaning the other person.

However, if you’d like them to understand how their action was taken differently than how they intended, you need to start the communication in a way that they won’t get defensive. No learning happens when one is defending one’s behaviors.

If at all possible, have the courage to pick up the phone. An opening could be something like, “I have always respected how you communicate and the high ethics from which you operate. So I know there must be a reasonable explanation for X, but I can’t think of one. Can you help me understand the motivation and thought process behind X?”

This is more likely to result in an open conversation where the other can listen to you, rather than a closed conversation where they just think you’re a jerk.

When you are upset with a colleague, how do you handle it? Do you go to see them in person, or if they are not on site, call them? Have you been the recipient of an email flame from a colleague, and if so, how did you handle it?


For more information about respectful communication in the workplace, go to