Mediate BC Blog

10 Tips for Emailing Through Conflict

Posted by Guest.Author

Knowing how to write constructive emails is up there with the most important communications skills. Especially if you and the recipient have a history of misunderstandings and antagonism. Bad emails can make a bad situation worse. 

The good news is that it's not difficult to communicate productively by email if you follow a few simple rules. If you do a good job, you'll likely even improve your relationship.

Here are 10 rules for effective email communication, written by Jane Henderson, QC, one of the "best family law lawyer[s] in Canada" (1996 National Post), and an all-star conflict resolution professional. 


1. Figure out what you want. Be clear in your own mind about what you want to accomplish before you send the email (e.g., You would like him/her to keep the kids an extra day …..).

2. Be direct but polite. Don’t try to be tricky.

3. Start with a salutation.  It doesn’t have to be formal:  “Hi” and your Ex’s name is fine.

4. End with a closing: “Thanks for considering this” and your name.

5. Don’t use capitals except for proper nouns and the first letter of the first word in a sentence.  CAPITALIZED WORDS IN EMAILS ARE EASILY INTERPRETED AS SHOUTING.

6. Similarly, don’t use multiple exclamation points!!!!! (unless you are conveying something the recipient will think is good news too) or question marks?????  Both come across as being aggressive.

7. Stick to the necessary facts and your real question.  Don’t use email to deliver a lecture, commentary, advice or instruction — unless the instruction has been specifically requested.

8. Don't justify yourself. If a request is made of you in an email and you are saying “No”, you don’t have to give excuses, lengthy reasons, or say why you think the request is out of line.  It is enough to say “I am sorry but I can’t help you out this time” — always accompanied by a salutation and civil closing.

9. Give reasonable timelines. If a time limit for the response is needed, put it in your email, but don’t ask or expect that it be immediate. Give at least 24 hours; the longer the time you can give, the better. (And don’t follow up with capitalized exclamatory requests for a response. You know s/he is going to get great satisfaction in hitting the “Delete” button.)

10. Don’t send or reply to emails in haste, unless it is a legitimate emergency — that is, someone’s health or life is in immediate danger.  Take as much time as possible before you hit the “Send” button.  If there is the remotest possibility that you have not said what you want to say in a civil and respectful tone, send it to yourself first.  Look at it the next day and make sure it says exactly what you want in a civil and respectful way.


Here's an example. It's for parenting dispute between ex-partners, but the basic principles can be applied in any conflict.

Let’s say you would like your Ex to take the kids this weekend because you have plans that don’t include them. This is how you might be tempted to do it:


PERSON A: Since you are always nagging me to be flexible, I am willing to trade my weekend with the kids this week for your weekend next week.  But don’t drag this out.  I need to know now.


PERSON A: So do you want the kids or not??????


The reply might come back as:


PERSON B: Of course I want the kids.  I ALWAYS want the kids.  They come FIRST in my life, not like in some people’s.  But I have a life too and I am not your babysitter.  You are supposed to be responsible for them this weekend and, besides, we have plans for next weekend.  So I guess you will just have to put them first and be a responsible parent for a change.


You may now feel entitled to respond:


PERSON A: Well FINE!!!  Just don’t expect me to be flexible when you want to make a change!!!


And so, the toxic cycle continues.  Neither of you is going to feel very good about it and neither of you got what you want. Your Ex would have been happy to have the kids but didn’t want to swap weekends, so ended up without them. You are either going to have to pay a babysitter or miss your event because you asked to swap weekends instead of asking for what you really wanted, which was to have the kids go to the Ex. The tone of the emails makes any sort of discussion about options or alternatives pretty difficult.


On the other hand, you might try sending this email:


PERSON A: Hi Robin, Something has come up this weekend and I am wondering if there is any chance you could take the kids? I would like to swap weekends, but if that doesn’t work for you, it would still be a big help to me if you could take them this weekend.  I would be glad to do the same for you another time.  Could you please let me know by Wednesday? If I don’t hear from you by Wednesday, I will assume that doesn’t work for you and make other plans.  Thanks, Tony


Then Robin is more likely to respond:


PERSON B: Hi Tony:  I am happy to have the kids this weekend, though sorry that the swap won’t work for me. I expect I will need to ask you to take one of my weekends later this fall.  Let me know when you will drop them off.  Cheers, Robin


Or Robin’s response might be:


PERSON B: Hi Tony:  Sorry I can’t help you out this weekend, but would be happy to do it another time.  Cheers, Robin


The point is that what Tony really wanted was for Robin to take the kids this weekend.  If they could do a swap, that would be a bonus.  By asking in a direct, yet respectful, way Robin is more likely to agree; and even if s/he doesn’t, the door is left open for it to happen another time. Neither person needs to feel that they have “lost” anything, and neither is left feeling angry or attacked. More importantly, they have had a civil, respectful exchange — the first step to a civil, respectful relationship.

In some cases, a respectful request will still result in an aggressive or hostile response. Even if this happens, don’t succumb to the temptation to reply in the same way. One of you may have to be the first to break the toxic cycle, so let it be you. It is hard to maintain hostility if it is not reciprocated. The moral of this story is:

Don’t underestimate the power of email communication, for bad and for good.  Use it wisely and you will improve communication and your relationship.

This post was originally written by Jane Henderson, QC, on May 8, 2012 for the (now unpublished). We have edited and repurposed it here. 


About the Author

According to Clicklaw, Jane Henderson, QC graduated in the first class of the University of Victoria Faculty of Law in 1978 and was called to the BC Bar in 1979. She and Trudi Brown, QC merged firms in 1985, and practiced together in the Victoria law firm of Brown Henderson Melbye. Although retired from the practice of law, she maintains a practice in Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR).

After over 30-years as an advocate, her work is now limited to mediation, parent co-ordination, Voice of the Child interviews, preparation of co-habitation/marriage agreements and arbitration. Jane has lectured in family law, published professional articles and been a panel member on many CLE courses. She received Queen’s Counsel designation in 1996 and was listed as a "best family law lawyer in Canada" by the National Post and a Lexpert Leading Practitioner in Family Law.


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