How to Respond to a Hostile Email

We’ve all been there. Fired off an unusually aggressive email in the spur of the moment. Emailed something we wouldn’t dare say to someone’s face. It’s one of the pitfalls of communicating by text or email. We have a tendency to behave more badly than we would face-to-face.

It’s usually just thoughtless venting soon forgotten but when it comes to more serious conflict such as work grievance, divorce or inheritance, an aggressive email can have deeper repercussions. More people involved, more chance of emails being forwarded, emails which could be brought up in court. Which is why your response to hostile emails can affect not only your relationships but also the outcome of a case.

Ask yourself – do I need to respond?

Because often, the answer will be no. Most hostile emails and letters from angry siblings, ex spouses, neighbours etc have no legal significance. They only have power if you give them power. The sender may be venting and if you reply with equal emotion you could make things worse, inviting them to fire one back and so on.

You could try not replying. Though Bill Eddy at the High Conflict Institute points out that if the messages are forwarded to others or filed for a court you may need to respond to inaccurate statements with accurate (but purely factual) statements. The best way to do this is to BIFF them. No steady on, we’re not suggesting violence here. BIFF is a response developed by the Institute and stands for brief, informative, friendly but firm.

Here’s how they suggest you reply to an aggressive email:

Make it Brief:

The more you say the more you give the other person to pick you up on. Keeping it brief lets them know you don’t want to get involved in a tit-for-tat argument. Don’t get personal and don’t make any comment about their character of behaviour. You don’t need to defend yourself. Don’t get drawn in.

Be Informative:

Focus on the facts. That’s the only reason you respond to a hostile email. To correct incorrect facts which might be seen by others. Don’t engage with their accusations. To the angry neighbour who complains about your ‘unruly children’ who broke his window, “Just to clear things up my children are away with their grandparents this week so it could not have been them who threw a ball through the window.” Avoid being negative, sarcastic, saying rude things about their intelligence, being provoked by their accusations. As the Institute cautions, if the other side has a high conflict personality you won’t get anywhere by making it personal.

Keep it Friendly:

Sure you want to fire off an angry response. But if you want to end this whole exchange, you’ve a better chance of success by piling on the charm and giving them no reason to get defensive and nothing accusatory to respond to. You don’t need to be over-friendly. Just don’t wind them up. If they feel respected it may calm things a bit.

Sound Firm:

Let them know what position you’re taking on the issue without being aggressive about it. “That’s all I’m going to say on the subject”, kind of thing. Don’t make comments that invite more discussion and steer clear of comments like ‘I hope you’ll understand that…’ which invites them to come back with I DON’T understand’. Sound confident and concise. Don’t ask for more details if you’re hoping to wrap it up ASAP. If you’ve tackled the inaccurate information and then get further emails, you can ignore them. If you need to reply, make it even briefer. Nothing personal. Or emotional. Better still repeat the same words.

Here’s an edited version one of the Institute’s examples:

Joe’s email: “Jane I can’t believe you are so stupid to think that I’m going to let you take the children to your boss’ birthday party during my parenting time. Are you having an affair with him? I always knew you would do anything to get ahead! I remember coming to your office party witnessing you making a total fool of yourself – flirting with everyone from the CEO to the mailroom kid! Are you high on something? Haven’t you gotten your finances together enough to support yourself yet without flinging yourself at every Tom, Dick and Harry?” [and on and on…]

Jane’s reply: “Thank you for responding to my request. Just to clarify, the party will be from 3-6pm on Friday at the office and there will be approximately 30 people there including several other parents bringing their school-age children. There will be no alcohol as it is a family-oriented firm and there will be family-oriented activities. I think it will be a good experience for them to see my workplace. Since you do not agree then of course I will respect that and withdraw my request as I recognise it is your parenting time.” [end of email]

Jane didn’t need to respond, as the email was between Joe and her. But when she did she was brief and didn’t engage with the comments on her character or behaviour and didn’t try to defend herself. If Joe had sent the email to friends, co-workers and family members (which high conflict people often do), she’d need to respond to the larger group with more information, such as:

Jane’s group email: “Dear friends and family, as you know Joe and I had a difficult divorce. He has sent you a private email showing correspondence between us about a parenting schedule matter. I hope you will see this is a private matter and understand that you do not need to respond or get involved in any way. Almost everything he has said is in anger and not at all accurate. If you have any questions for me personally please feel free to contact me and I will clarify anything I can. I appreciate your friendship and support.” [and that’s all]

Jane has kept it brief, informative, friendly and firm. With others involved it’s important to keep communication open and show you’re willing to correct any misconceptions. There’s no need to address all of Joe’s allegations in this group email as it will just escalate the dispute and others will feel they need to get involved.

The more you can use these techniques for closing down hostile emails, the easier and less stressful your life will be. Life’s too short. So when you see red, just think BIFF.

For more information from the High Conflict Institute see