Abraham Lincoln's Unconventional Technique For Handling Stressful Conflicts

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Scott Tousley
Scott Tousley



In 1842, a young Abraham Lincoln learned a valuable lesson that changed his life forever.

This lesson was so important, it propelled him to become arguably the most efficient president in United States history. He led the Union to a Civil War victory, abolished slavery, strengthened the federal government, and modernized the economy.

The crazy part is the lesson is supported by modern psychologists as well. In fact, neuroscientists from UCLA and University of Texas-Austin discuss the positive effects on the brain.

In addition, Lincoln’s unconventional practice produces the following benefits:

  Reduces stress
  Solves problems more effectively
  Resolves critical disagreements with others

So what did Abraham Lincoln learn that propelled him to becoming one of the most influential men in history?

Well, it started in 1842 when he publicly ridiculed an obnoxious politician named James Shield through the local newspaper.


The town roared with laughter, but Shield's was a proud man. So he angrily challenged Lincoln to fight a duel to the death. Lincoln was (obviously) opposed to dueling, but he was forced into it after publicly criticizing Shields:


Minutes before the duel began, Lincoln nervously held his sword awaiting to fight for his life. But by shear luck, the duel never happened. It was called off at the last minute. Lincoln took a huge sigh of relief.  


He could have lost his life, all due to this stupid public ridicule.

Needless to say, he learned a valuable lesson here -- never again publish an insulting letter (but still write them). 

Wait … still write them? But don’t publish them? Huh? Let me explain.

Fast forward 21 years later to July 4, 1863, when Abraham Lincoln was president during the Civil War.

Robert E. Lee, general of the Confederate Army, was trapped between the Potomac River and a fast-moving Union Army behind him. Finally, victory was near for The Union to end the war. Lee was trapped. He couldn't escape. 

Lincoln realized this golden opportunity and ordered General Meade to capture Lee's army to immediately end the war. At last, the Civil War will soon be over, thought Lincoln.

And what did General Meade do? He did the exact opposite.

Instead of immediately attacking, he asked other’s what they thought. He didn't listen to Lincoln's orders. As a result, Lee narrowly escaped over the Potomac with his solders. 

Lincoln was furious.

Shocked at the stupidity of General Meade, he wrote him this letter: 

My Dear General, 

I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee's escape. He was within our easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late success, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. If you could not safely attack Lee last Monday, how can you possibly do so south of the river, when you take with you very few -- no more than two-thirds of the force you then had in hand? It would be unreasonable to expect and I do not expect that you can now affect much. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it. 

-Abraham Lincoln 

Yet, here's the thing -- General Meade never read this letter. Lincoln never sent it.

It was found among other unsent angry letters after his death. 

Rather, Lincoln inspired General Meade, giving him trust and encouragement. Eventually, this led to the end of the Civil War, as The Union defeated the Confederacy — a pivotal moment in the United States' history.

This was all because Lincoln’s self-control and understanding criticism is pointless. He realized brutally chastising someone only makes them defend themselves, justifying their actions. It only hurts someone’s pride and arouses resentment.


He who has a right to criticize, has a heart to help.

Abraham Lincoln    click-to-tweet-1.png

Now when I’m angry with someone, I use a similar process. I call it The Lincoln Email

It works exactly like Lincoln intended, just with a 21st Century twist (since we’re not sending snail mail here):

Step 1: Write how angry you are at this person 

Using The Lincoln Email, I simply get the feelings off my chest. This could be a vendor who botched an order and delivered it late, a coworker who made a mistake on an important project, or our spouse who again forgot THE ONLY THING we asked for at the grocery store.

Say exactly what’s on your mind. If you think that person is totally incompetent, say it. Shocked that they messed up again?! No problem, state exactly how you feel, uncensored, just like Lincoln would.

According to a brain-imaging study conducted by UCLA, putting feelings into words produces therapeutic effects on the brain, similar to a gratitude journal.

Similarly, a psychologist at University of Texas-Austin concludes that regular journaling strengthens immune cells, called T-lymphocytes. Writing down your thoughts also help you reduce stress, solve problems more effectively, and resolve disagreements with others.

Step 2: Add this sentence to the bottom of the email

After you vent, copy and paste this message into the bottom of the email:

Re: Project due 5/29

You know what, it’s no problem. If I were in your shoes, I probably would have made the same mistake. It was my fault for not thoroughly explaining the directions.

You’re an invaluable asset not only to our business [or my life], but to the entire comradery of the team. It’s a petty mistake, one I hope won’t happen again, yet I understand. Next time, I’ll be more clear on the directions. My apologies.

Thanks again for everything you do.


Step 3: Send the email to yourself, read it 30 minutes later

Schedule the email for 30 minutes later. Now pretend you are the person receiving your email. Put yourself in their shoes, reading the words from step #1. How does it feel to receive that?

Now read the words from step #2. How does it feel to receive that?

By waiting 30 minutes, it buys time to cool off and empathize how it feels like to receive the letter, not send it.

B.F. Skinner, the world-famous Harvard psychologist, proved that animals rewarded for good behavior outperform those punished for bad behavior. This turned out to be relevant for people as well. 

So Lincoln didn’t believe in punishing others when something went wrong. Rather, he encouraged them, while taking full responsibility for what happened. 

So next time we are angry, upset, or befuddled, let’s ask ourselves, “What would Abraham Lincoln do in this situation?”

In fact, we’re in good company asking this question. When Theodore Roosevelt was confronted with a significant problem during his presidency, he would lean back and stare at the large painting of Abraham Lincoln, asking himself, “How would Lincoln solve this problem?”

So instead of criticizing people, let’s try to understand them. Empathy, kindness, and encouragement will always prevail against ripping someone a new one. But if you truly feel the urge, send yourself A Lincoln Email.

Be kind, encourage others, and create powerful relationships. 

Because in the words of one of America's most influential men:


Whatever you are, be a good one.

Abraham Lincoln    click-to-tweet-1.png

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