Have you ever gotten one of these late in the afternoon from someone in power at work?

I need the following pieces of data and reports by tomorrow AM. This is very important. You do not need to know why I need this. There are some things going on that I can’t discuss. I also think it would have been helpful if you had provided this information previously and will need it from now on. I’m getting tired of having to track this kind of information down.  Let me know if there are any questions.

And you think – Excuse me?.. What an idiot… He’s never asked for this kind of information before… And what does he mean by I don’t need to know why?.. Ooh, cloak and dagger stuff at the top – I’m impressed… I didn’t have anything else to do this afternoon at 5:15 PM. I’ll just put everything aside so that I can make him happy – as long as I don’t ask any questions! Unbelievable!!

Ready to roll up your sleeves and get to work?

Hardly. If you are like many people, you are more likely to respond by matching emotion to perceived emotion, or put another way, giving into a limbic moment. The limbic area of the brain is involved in emotions and feelings as well as part of the logic system. With the guiding help of your limbic brain, you can use your reasoning power to construct an equally volatile reply, articulating the way you are presently feeling. It would feel really good – for a while – but how well do you think it will work in the long run?

Perhaps if you knew some background about the sender, it would be easier to temper your response. For example:

There is extreme tension within his peer management group due to negative market conditions, an inability to track internal costs, and the installation of a new computer software package that is far more complex than expected and is not generating reports that everyone considers accurate. The sender also has personal family issues involving an aging parent and the recent recovery from kidney stones that have left him physically exhausted. He also is known for his abrupt emails.

The more you know about the sender, hopefully, the less likely you are to take the ‘Queen of Hearts – Off with His Head’ approach.  Even if you did not know any of the above, you still have options regarding how, when, and what to include in a response. Jonathan Cohen is helpful in his discussion about the interactions between emotions and cognition.  In an evolutionary sense, emotional adaptations that at one time were helpful for individual survival, still exist, but are not always appropriate for today’s social situations – such as firing back kind for kind, in an email exchange.  We have developed other systems, reasoning and the capacity for cognitive control, to redirect some of the limbic system.

So what do you do?   First, take some time to analyze what might have prompted the email and what your reaction is. You could be upset, or, you could burst out laughing, due to the apparent absurdity of the request. Is this an odd-ball request or fairly typical? After you have absorbed the email, you might get someone else’s reaction to the missive. Next, plan your response. Collect the information that you think the sender needs, and call it a day. The following morning, drop by his office, or give him a call. Phones still serve a purpose when you are not physically near someone. Whether in person or voice mail, you could let the sender know that you have tried to provide the requested information to the best of your ability, but you could be more effective if you knew more specifically what he is looking for. You also could let him know that you were unaware that he was in need of the information, and you agree with him that you could have been more helpful, had you known.  In order to be helpful in the future you would like to know what “on a regular basis” means.

There is no perfect solution to an acid email, but there are ways to minimize its impact. You may not have an option when it comes to being a spear catcher, but you do when it comes to being a spear thrower.