Everyone’s been there: You get an email that makes you do a double take. Sure, the other person is clearly frustrated or angry, but you’re still expected to answer. What should you do? How do you respond?

While internal office messaging services and texting are certainly growing in popularity, email’s still the most important and widely used communication tool at work—so your ability to use it in the most professional way possible is crucial. That means that how you respond in the situation outlined above has the potential to positively—or negatively—affect your career. Even if you think you’re just responding in a similar tone.

Yes, I know that staying professional at all times is easier said than done. Answering emails at work is an art in and of itself, and responding to emotional messages takes it to another level.

This guide will walk you through your response so you can avoid conflicts and get your job done.

Step 1: Take a Break

You may wish to reread the email you received in order to make sure you got it right—you can do that—but don’t start typing the answer right now. Your colleague, boss, or client let his or her emotions dictate what he or she wrote. Do not repeat this mistake. Take a break and let your temper cool down.

One of the advantages of emailing is that you don’t have to answer immediately. Sometimes it’s appropriate to take hours to compose a response! Leverage it. Even if you feel tension, and the other side is waiting for your answer—you surely have at least a couple of minutes. Get up from your desk, cool your mind, and have a snack or a glass of water. It will help you avoid a knee-jerk reaction.

Step 2: Don’t Jump to Conclusions

Be honest: Are you reacting the way you are because you’re reading between the lines? When you’re dealing with overly emotional emails, you may think you feel the anger or the frustration of a person radiating through the screen. And you’ll feel compelled to assume that there’s more to it that just what’s there.

However, you should not be guessing what the other side really meant. Judging others’ intentions based on a few sentences (and through the filter of your own brain and the way you communicate) is a bad idea.

Resist the temptation to jump to any conclusions. Just read the words, receive the information, and prepare to provide a professional response.

Step 3: Keep it Short

Keeping in mind the possibility of a misinterpretation, remember that your task is to provide as precise an answer as possible—and nothing more. Forgo veiled responses to what the other person might’ve meant.

Structure your email to carry only one main message. It doesn’t mean that it should consist of only one sentence, but it does mean that if someone criticizes your presentation and asks for a copy of the statistics you were citing, you base your response around providing the stats (and not defending your credentials).

This way, you can be sure that the other side will read your response and will understand it exactly the way you mean it. The last thing you want is to defend yourself only to learn that your colleague wasn’t, in fact, criticizing you; but that she just phrased her feedback awkwardly.

Step 4: Be Straightforward

It’s generally a good idea to avoid sarcasm and irony in your work emails—especially if the situation already feels heated. Sometimes you may consider joking in order to relieve tension, but this plan could easily backfire.

Keep in mind that the reader will not be able to see your facial expressions or gestures and may very well misinterpret you. So, save your trademark wit for face-to-face conversations—and for a less dicey exchange.

Step 5: Ask for Help

If your email is not confidential then it’s appropriate to ask for help. Perhaps your colleague knows better how to deal with your enraged boss, or your manager can help you find the right approach to your confused client.

Once, my boss was able to interpret an email I received from one of our clients because he knew her very well. He assured me that I shouldn’t take her response personally, because there were other factors involved. After that, I was able to calm down and write a perfectly appropriate response.

When you receive an angry email, don’t be offended. People send emotional messages when they’re not satisfied with something, or feeling disappointed, or even confused. You should operate under the assumption that it has nothing to do with you personally—so that means you shouldn’t let the tone distract you from doing your job and responding professionally.

Photo of broken tablet courtesy of Shutterstock.

Updated 6/19/2020