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You can choose your reponse


Imagine that you sent out an email suggesting a timetable for meetings.

You were clear in your own mind that it was a draft.

A colleague reacted as though it was NOT a draft and replied with an email, sent to several people, saying  ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’.

What you thought

You had several different thoughts about the email, each of which would have had an effect on your ‘emotional temperature’.

Immediate reactions

  • I sent the timetable as a draft: why on earth didn’t he take it that way? Is he stupid – or what?
  • His email is rude.
  • He should have sent the email only to me.
  • He should apologise.

With these thoughts in mind, your emotional temperature will have risen quickly.

Subsequent reactions

You dealt with this rise in emotional temperature by making conscious choices.

  • I won’t take this personally.
  • I won’t reply to the email.

Good thinking!

You have avoided making the situation worse with a heated reply to the ‘rude’ email.

What more can you do?

  • I’ll ignore the email.

If ‘ignoring the email’ also means ignoring the feelings it had aroused, then I have some concerns.

I expect that you are still left with your original reactions (see above).

Thoughts trigger feelings. If the thoughts are left swirling around in your mind without being ‘processed’ (reflected on and transformed into the needs of yours that were not met), the feelings that were triggered will spill out when you meet the colleague. This will be particularly likely if the colleague does something else that raises your emotional temperature.

An alternative approach

Moving from thoughts to feelings and then to needs

Take the thoughts one by one – because they may trigger different feelings and needs.

But first, be curious about what your email might have conveyed.  Check the following:

  • How clear was it that you were offering a draft?
    • For example: did you put ‘Draft’ in the subject line AND in the body of the text?
  • Did you invite specific responses from your colleague?
    • For example: ‘Is there anything in this draft that would not work for you?’
    • For example: ‘Would you let me know if you have any reservations about this draft?’

In doing this, you’re avoiding a big leap into judging the colleague. You’re starting from the position of ‘did I contribute anything to the colleague’s apparent misunderstanding?’ You’re staying curious. When you’re curious, you’re unlikely to be angry.

And now let’s look at the possible reactions you had – and translate them into feelings and needs.

  1. ‘Is he stupid – or what?

Are you feeling annoyed? Irritated? And needing some understanding of your intentions? Recognition of your ability to produce a sensible timetable? Co-operation?

  1. ‘He was rude’

Are you feeling annoyed? Irritated? Wanting productive dialogue? Wanting him to be aware of the possible effects of his words – particularly on other members of your team?

  1. ‘He should have…..’

Whenever your emotional temperature rises when you think about what people should be doing – but aren’t, transform your angry feelings into what you would value instead.

  • For example, I guess that your ‘shoulds’ in this case came from a wish for people to be considerate of others and to be aware of the effect their words might have.

Why bother translating the anger into feelings and needs?

When you react angrily, your emotional temperature will be high. In this state, you are not able to think or act clearly.

You will be wanting to get your anger heard. Maybe you want to ‘punish’ the other person in some way. You want them to feel bad about what they’ve done. You are filled with a self-righteous energy which will prevent you from hearing anyone else’s version of reality.

You will make matters worse because your anger will spark off anger in other people. The result will be arguments and bad feeling.

When you step back and think about what needs of yours are not being met, you are in a very different place. You might feel deeply sad. You might feel all sorts of painful feelings – but these are different from anger – and will lead you to approach the other person in ways that lead to understanding rather than to fighting.


What about the other person?

Transforming your anger into feelings and needs helps you! It reduces your stress levels. It puts you back in the green zone.

Once you’re back in the green zone, you can get curious about the other person.

His email in response to your draft suggested that he was in a highly emotionally aroused state. So what was going on for him?

Guess what he might have been feeling. It doesn’t matter whether your guesses are accurate or not. And you don’t necessarily have to check them out. The process can be purely inside your head.

What matters is that in trying to guess, you are no longer seeing him as some unreasonable ogre. Instead, you’re thinking of him as a fellow human being, doing the best he can in response to the stresses and strains of his life.

So let’s see what we might guess.

When he read your email, maybe he felt:

  • anxious or worried, and wanted reassurance that the new term would run smoothly
  • annoyed and would have liked more consultation.

When you try to put yourself in his shoes, check with yourself: do you feel calmer and better disposed towards him than when you were in the orange/red zone and feeling angry?


That’s all very well, but he shouldn’t have…..

If you’re still angry and thinking ‘he shouldn’t have been so rude… etc’, then I suggest that you do some more work on translating you irritation into feelings and needs. When you get clear what they are, you can be compassionate towards yourself.

Only when you can be compassionate towards yourself will you be able to show compassion for your colleague.


What shall I say to him?

Say nothing – unless you are sure that you can speak from a place of curiosity rather than angry, hurt and judgmental feelings.

If you can speak from that place of compassionate curiosity, you might say something like:

‘Can I have a word with you about the draft timetable I emailed to you the other week?’

If he says ‘OK’, you might continue:

‘When you read it, were you anxious about the effect it might have on your students?’

Note that this is very simple and straight to the point. The fact that you’re guessing what was going on for him conveys a concern for his perspective and a willingness to hear his point of view.

If he comes out with more irritation, along similar line to ‘You don’t know what you’re doing’, the challenge for you will be to continue listening, not trying to defend yourself, just getting information from him.

Then, when he’s finished venting, you can ask: ‘what would you like me to have done instead?’

And you might learn something useful!


But when do I let him know about the effect his email had?

If you go into a conversation with him wanting him to know that he upset one of your team, you are likely to put him on the defensive.

He won’t be able to hear you unless you’ve heard him first.

So wait until he’s said everything he wants you to hear and told you what you could have done differently.