Breaking Bad Email – Avoid Passive-Aggressive Replies

Breaking bad emails storm drain banner

What is it about people using email to verbally start a storm?! How can we keep the important information from running down the drain during a flood of spiteful messages? Here are some tips on how to break the cycle of passive-aggressive email conversations.

This blog post came from a comment conversation I had on Manta’s Breaking Bad Email Habits (

Be Grateful the Email Started the Conversation

Thank the person for sending the email, and offer a phone call or meeting. (Really!)

  • The meeting or call can mitigate passive-aggressive behaviour between you, and the recipient
  • Passive-aggressive behaviour happens more often within email, and social media than directly between the two people with the conflict
  • Most human communication comes from body language and audible voice queues

Ask the Questions Using the Right Words

Ask one or two questions in the first paragraph of the reply:

  1. Use “How” or “What” questions – passive-aggressive people tend not to want to come up with solutions, but people with honest conflicts often want their idea to be heard
  2. Avoid using “you” or “I” – this catalyses the fact that you do not agree
  3. Use the “question” or the “object” in the questions instead of you, or I
  4. If you need to speak about people, use “we” and “us” — or the job title like “the project manager”
  5. Avoid asking “why” – because this puts people on the defensive
    Only use Yes / No or multiple choice questions sparingly, preferably not at all

I recommend reading or listening to the book Power Questions by Andrew Sobel.

Construct and Rebuild (Edit) the Message


Write an email reply using the tips for asking questions above. “Paint your way backwards out of the message.” Be aware of how you construct the message, and edit-edit-edit!

  1. Work to not to reply to the original email, but instead reply with an invite to meet, or call
  2. Save the email, but do NOT send the email (sometimes the invite is hard enough!)
  3. Don’t stop writing (maybe just take a detour, like a walk!)
  4. Move one of the last sentences to the top (put the main point in the beginning)
  5. Rewrite that sentence to be a lead into How and What questions
  6. Go above that sentence, and open the letter with “I am grateful for your email” or “Thank you for contacting me”
  7. This is one of the few times to use you or I, and most controversial emails are sent because people want to be heard and acknowledged
  8. Add the invitation to meet or call (use the call where meetings cannot easily happen) with a DATE and TIME
  9. Go to the bottom of the email and write a close “Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I look forward to …” our meeting or our call
  10. Save and do NOT send the email

Clear the Mental Debris, Let Thoughts Run Clear

Take a walk, take a 40-minute nap, or eat lunch. Let your thoughts “run clear.” Primal activities like walking, sleeping, and eating allow other parts of our brain to process the thoughts, and to overcome the influence emotions like anger. After you’ve had a break:

  • Come back and re-read the email reply
  • Edit the reply, or send it

Control the Flood and Break Bad Email

These steps come from experts like Bernstein’s Crisis Management Blog, and UCLA’s Dr. Albert Mehrabian’s non-verbal communication studies. Sobel’s book (mentioned above) has been incredibly useful for my work with email, and social media.

Honestly, I struggle with the face-to-face, and phone when someone has violated my trust. And, I am protective, and loyal to people that I feel have also been wronged. All participants can get caught up in propagating the bad reply behaviour, including me. Ask for an outsider’s advice, if you can’t see how to end the downpour of bad email.

Some people use aggressive emails to cover up, manipulate others or justify continuing bad behaviour. If someone has violated your trust, or is acting in an unethical way – speak up! For more on ethics see the Josephson Institute for tips on ethical behaviour in business, family, and community.

Choose the bits of knowledge that fit your industry from these sources. Let me know how these tips work.