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Copyright by Stephen Wilbers, Ph.D.


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Angry letters are risky but sometimes necessary

by Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere


Letís assume you know what youíre doing.

You know the risks of writing in anger. You are aware that, unlike in-person conversations, written communication does not allow you to respond to body language or to modify your tone and approach as you go. You know that whatever you write "stays indelibly clear for an indefinite period," to quote author David Ewing, that over time your words will lose none of their immediacy.

But this particular situation is exceptional. Despite the insufficiency and the rigidity of the written word, you decide to express your anger in writing.

Now, given your thoughtful, rational nature, you donít just sit down to your keyboard and blast away; you carefully consider your purpose and how best to achieve it.

Recalling your training as a skilled communicator, you follow this five-part formula:

Opening purpose statement

Depending on your strategy, you open abruptly, or perhaps you begin somewhat indirectly, with a words such as, "Iím sorry to complain, but . . ." Either way, you state your purpose clearly and unambiguously. Your language is noninflammatory. Your tone is firm but respectful.

Explanation of the problem

You describe the problem, again using noninflammatory language. You focus on actions and consequences rather than on personality and character. You avoid questioning your readerís intelligence, competence, or ethics, unless such questioning or personal evaluation is the main point of your complaint.

If the problem is cumulative, you provide a specific, detailed, accurate record of occurrences. If the problem relates to a single event, you concentrate on the issue at hand rather than provide a laundry list of incidental grievances.

Refutation of readerís position

Depending on your rhetorical strategy, you acknowledge your readerís position. You point out, however, that it is invalid in this situation.

Proposed solution and threatened consequences

You are clear and specific about the action you want your reader to take. You know that your request is reasonable and within your readerís power or capability. If your purpose is to present an ultimatum, you end your letter with words to this effect: "If this problem is not resolved, I will have no recourse but to . . ." The consequences you threaten are relevant and proportionate to the problem.

Respectful closing

If you hope to preserve good relations with your reader, you conclude on a hopeful note. You express your desire to put the matter behind you. You emphasize the mutual benefits of finding a satisfactory solution. Perhaps you allude to your personal regard for your reader or to the satisfactory nature of your previous relationship.

Now, youíve written your letter, but you resist the urge to send it immediately. You know one negative word carries the weight of 10 positive ones, and you know you will be more sensitive to your tone if you reread your text after you have let it go cold.

Finally, you send your letter. And what happens?

If youíre lucky, your reader responds with an apology and agrees to take the desired action. Even if your reader has said something that annoys or angers you, you write a letter thanking your reader for resolving the issue, and you disregard everything else.

But what usually happens?

You receive an angry letter in return. Now what?

Hereís my advice:

1. Donít fire off another angry letter.

2. Reread the other personís letter the next day. Chances are, it wonít sound as angry and unreasonable as it did when you first read it.

3. If your reader has offered a compromise, consider accepting it.

4. If your reader has refused to cooperate in any way, write a brief letter describing the actions you are taking. If you donít follow through, donít expect to be taken seriously the next time you complain about something.




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