Email tips for when the going gets rough




The spirit and skills of Motivational Interviewing (MI) can transform even the most delicate email conversations


Responding to email can be tricky at the best of times, and when emotions run high email is downright perilous. We’re all aware of the email best practice to “sleep on it” before hitting send, and/or to just pick up the phone and step out of the email conversation altogether. But what if we have to respond the same day? And what if we can’t reach the person by phone or want to document our response?

Enter Motivational Interviewing (MI) as a guide and model of good practice in email communication.

In responding to delicate or difficult emails, I try to employ the four core MI strategies (remember them with the acronym O A R S):


Motivational Interviewing OARS


In addition, we know that the skills of MI fall flat in the absence of MI “spirit::


MI Spirit

What does it look like in practice?

Say you receive an email in which the writer is clearly frustrated, and the tone is somewhat hostile and accusatory. Start with a modified affirmation/ reflection:

“I appreciate that you have been trying hard to get results, and it sounds like this has been a very frustrating process.”

Just the act of affirming the person’s efforts and accurately reflecting the feelings or experience helps the person to feel heard and acknowledged. This, in and of itself, can help to de-escalate the situation and starts to move the conversation in a positive trajectory. It sounds simple, but it’s not always easy when we want to reflexively put forward our response/justification/rejoinder.

Open questions can be used to evoke a constructive response and generate collaborative solutions:

“You raise an important – and difficult – issue, and it would be great to hear your thoughts about how we can best resolve this. What might be some ideal next steps?”

Of course, it might be appropriate to provide information and suggested solutions proactively, but my past experience is that when we jump to solutions too quickly, without first really hearing and acknowledging the person and evoking their preferred outcomes, our tone via email can come across as defensive or even abrupt (the “righting reflex”). If you do want or need to offer suggestions/solutions, an MI adaptation is to preface these with a caveat that affirms the individual’s autonomy:

“I’m not sure if this is the solution that you are looking for, but we could try…”

“I’d like to suggest some ideas, and I’m eager to hear your thoughts as to whether they are in line with what you are hoping to achieve…”

“This may not fit with what you have in mind, but is it worth exploring…”


Hmmm…sounds good (you say) but who has the time?! It’s true that thoughtfully responding to email with compassion and unconditional acceptance, and using the foundation skills of MI, might slow us down in the short-term. But in the big picture it actually ends up saving us time. Adopting an “MI approach to email” fosters good will, communicates mutual respect, and preserves the relationship.



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