Responding to Hostile Emails

Responding to Hostile Emails

By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

Hostile mail – especially email – has become much more common over the past decade. Most of this mail is just “venting,” and has little real significance. However, when people are involved in a formal conflict (a divorce, a workplace grievance, a homeowners’ association complaint, etc.) there may be more frequent and intensely hostile mail. There may be more people involved and it may become legally significant. You would be amazed at the embarrassing hostile emails that show up in court cases these days.

Therefore, how you handle hostile mail may impact the future of long-term relationships and the outcome of a case. The following are some suggestions based on my experience with high conflict people:

1. Do you need to respond?

Much of the hostile mail today does not need a response. Letters from (ex-) spouses, angry neighbors, irritating co-workers, or attorneys do not usually have legal significance. If someone says nasty things about you or someone else in a letter, the letter has no power, unless you give it power. Often, it is designed to get you engaged in a battle of emotional venting for the sake of relieving the writer’s anxiety.

Generally, responding with similar emotions and hostility will simply escalate things without satisfaction, and you will just get a new piece of hostile mail back in return. In most cases, you are better off not responding. However, some letters and emails develop power when copies are filed in a court or complaint process – or simply get sent to other people. At that time, it may be important to respond to inaccurate statements of fact with accurate statements of fact (leaving out your opinions). Therefore, sometimes you need to respond.

2. Don’t Respond Emotionally

Brain research shows that our ability to think rationally is impaired when we are very upset–and hostile mail can trigger many emotions. Therefore, you do not want to respond until you have recovered from these emotions. This is a common mistake people make in quickly responding to hostile e-mails. Calm yourself down first, either by taking a break, getting some exercise, doing another project, talking to a friend or neutral relative, etc.

3. Determine Your Goal Before You Write

Is your goal to get the other person to do something? If so, focus on what you want the person to do – not on what he or she did wrong. For example, if a neighbor has been loud, request that the person try to keep it quiet during specific times that are important to you. Avoid focusing on comments about the person’s character, such as saying he or she is rude, insensitive, or stupid. These do not motivate high conflict people. Once you have identified your goal, I recommend writing a B.I.F.F. response: Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm.


Keep your response brief. This will reduce the chances of a prolonged and angry back and forth. The more you write, the more the other person will be tempted to criticize in your writing. It also signals that you don’t wish to get into a dialogue. Just make your response, then end your letter.

Don’t take their statements personally (even if they were intended as personal attacks) and don’t respond with an item-by-item personal attack. It just escalates the conflict and keeps it going and going and going.

You don’t have to defend yourself to someone you disagree with. If your friends still like you, you don’t have to prove anything to those who don’t.


The main reason to respond to hostile mail is to correct inaccurate statements which might be seen by others. “Just the facts” is a good idea. Focus on the accurate statements you want to make, not on the inaccurate statement the other person made. For example: “Just to clear things up, I was out of state on a trip on February 12th, so I would not have been the person who was making loud noises that day.”

Avoid negative comments, like little digs. Avoid sarcasm. Avoid threats. Especially avoid personal remarks, like those about someone’s intelligence, ethics or moral behavior. If the other person has a “high conflict personality,” you will have no success in reducing the conflict with personal attacks. While most people can ignore personal attacks or might think harder about what you are saying, high conflict people feel they have no choice but to respond in anger – and keep the conflict going and going. Personal attacks rarely lead to insight or positive change.


While you may be tempted to write a response in anger, you are much more likely to reach your goal by writing in a friendly (and brief) manner. Consciously thinking about a friendly response will increase your chances of getting a friendly – or neutral response – in return. If your goal is to end the conflict, then being friendly has the greatest likelihood of success.

This does not mean that you have to be overly friendly. Just make it sound a little relaxed and non-antagonistic. Make it sound like you recognize their concerns. Brief comments that show your Empathy, Attention and Respect (E.A.R.) will generally calm the other person down, even if only for a short time.


In a non-threatening way, clearly tell the other person your information or position on an issue. (For example: “That’s all I’m going to say on this issue.”) Be careful not to make comments that leave the door open to more discussion, unless you are negotiating an issue or want to keep a dialogue going back and forth. (Avoid comments that leave an opening, such as: “I hope you will agree with me that this does not need further discussion.” This invites the other person to tell you “I don’t agree.”)

Sound confident and don’t ask for more information, if you want to end the back and forth. A confident-sounding person is less likely to be challenged with further emails. If you get further emails anyway, you can ignore them, if you have sufficiently addressed the inaccurate information already. If you need to respond again, keep it even briefer and do not emotionally engage. In fact, it often helps to just repeat the key information using the same words. (“As I said in my email of March 6th, that is all I am going to say on this subject.”)

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