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Hot emails and emotional control

By Mastery3 min read

Abraham Lincoln got mad at times.  When he did, he had an interesting technique to deal with it. 

He’d write what he called a ‘hot letter’.  In an article published yesterday in the New York Times, Maria Konnikova describes how Lincoln, for example, wrote a hot letter to General George C. Meade to express his fury and frustration that he’d allowed Robert E. Lee to escape Gettysburg.  He would pour all his bile into these letters, then mark them ‘Never sent. Never signed.’

Organizations are emotion-soaked places these days.  As we scramble in our headlong quest for personal productivity, we inevitably bump and even collide with others whose aims aren’t perfectly aligned with ours.  As we race to get it all done, small obstacles get magnified by our urgency and anxiety, and we can over-react.  In short, we’re flustered and so we fluster others.

Yet, as the challenges and demands of organizational life continue to increase, we need to learn to manage our emotions better; to stay calm and focused no matter what is happening around us.  Which brings me back to Lincoln’s letters.  As I read Konnikova’s article I came up with an idea: how about setting up a ‘hot email’ alias.  Effectively create an email account which you, and only you, have access to.  Whenever you are angry or upset with anyone, unreservedly pile your angst into an email and send to your new alias.

Why does this help?  I think there are three reasons this could be beneficial.  The first and obvious one is that, after writing your hot email, you can then come back to it the following day and more dispassionately decide what you want to send.  Relationships are vital in our highly-matrixed organizations, so an overnight pause to reconsider what you want to say can save a lot of time and energy later in rebuilding trust.

The second reason is focus.  When we are in the throes of anger or frustration, our limbic system fires up and valuable mental resources are diverted away from the pre-frontal cortex.  In short, we become more stupid and less able to focus when we’re hot and bothered.  We lose time we simply haven’t got to spare.  Research has consistently shown that writing about our emotions is an efficient method to diffuse extreme feelings to regain focus and calm. A few minutes blasting someone in an email (to our hot email address) could save hours of unproductive festering.

Finally, there has been a lot of research on the benefits of mindfulness for well-being, creativity and effectiveness.  One of the central aspects of mindfulness is the ability to observe your thoughts and reactions to events, rather than being hooked emotionally by them. If we can understand how we get ‘hooked’ better, we can observe when this happens and learn to stay calm more often.  If we begin a practice of sending our hot emails to a particular email address, we are effectively building up a record of what causes us to lose emotional control.  I think that as we read our history of vitriolic outbursts, not only would they be hilarious in retrospect, we can learn a lot about ourselves.  We can learn to be more mindful of our reactions, to choose different responses in the moment and so stay more focused and effective more often.

What will you call your hot email alias?

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