Every so often I receive an email written out of anger, hurt or any one of the various emotions that cause people to lash out at others. Sometimes these emails are specifically written to inflict pain and shut down communication, while other times they are written to elicit a specific response from me. I’ve only ever been a pastor, so I’m not sure what other people endure, but I’m reasonably certain that this can’t possibly be the only profession that invites these kinds of letters. I imagine that many of you receive them from time to time.
Today I want to address this seemingly new phenomenon of human beings launching virtual cannonballs from the comfort of their couch and pajamas. I imagine that the rise in this type of behavior is due in part to the easy access that we have to the people we are upset with. It used to be that when you had a grievance, you would either set up a meeting and prepare your thoughts to be delivered face to face. You were forced to look into the eyes of the other person. Where your body language spoke far more than your words ever could. Where there is a sense of respect and decorum. That type of scenario is exactly what many people fear, and, until recent history, this is what has kept them and their emotional outbursts in check.
But in this day and age, we can inject ourselves, our anger, our unhealth and our spiritual darkness directly into the souls of the person who has become the object of our ire during their family dinner, their prayer time or the busiest parts of their day, through email. And for the bitter minded, this is far too big of a temptation to pass up.
So what do we do? How do we respond? How do we interact with ungraciousness? Well, I can only tell you what I have learned over the years (through both my failures and successes) about how to respond to this type of behavior. So here are some simple rules that I follow. Rules that have helped me turn many of these interactions into helpful dialogue instead of heated and destructive breakdowns in relationship. So here we go.
Rule #1: Wait 48 hours before responding.
I make a general habit of trying to treat the majority of digital correspondence as if it were not digital at all, but tangible. Like a handwritten note that I received via old-fashioned snail mail. Putting some chronological distance between the initial emotions, and the response.
This does two things:
1) It gives them time to think about the repercussions of their actions.
It takes time for information to be processed. They probably haven’t taken that time. They acted out of anger, combined with unfettered access to you. A couple of days of letting their thoughts settle will do them (and you) some good. Often I will receive a follow-up email a day later that will try to soften their previous letter, and sometimes even a request to meet in person…which is the best possible scenario. Regret and shame weigh heavy on people. It can drive them to the realization that they are in a dark place and need to draw near to people, not push them away. Time to think and to let the spirit of God do his work can soften the heart.
2) It gives you time to think about your response.
Your first instinct is to defend and fire back. You, no doubt, know about some easy jabs that you could throw at them: pointing out their struggles with some sin that you know about, stupid things that they have done, all of the misinformation that they have gathered. This is not only unhelpful, it throws more heat on the fire.
Remember, they weren’t thinking clearly when they wrote the letter and, at this moment, neither are you. Let things settle, abandon the scene of the accident and return when the adrenaline has worn off. You will find that you can easily look at things differently, and only then will you be able to respond with your integrity intact.
Rule #2: Do not defend yourself.
Let me quote a passage from my favorite book, “Celebration of Discipline” by Richard Foster: