How to Respond to a Nasty-Gram

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Tammy is an educator who coordinates the nurse residency program at her hospital.  She received an email from one of the front-line managers that immediately elicited a full-blown fight or flight response in her body.

The manager basically accused Tammy of being rude to one of her new nurses and for giving them (the new nurses) wrong information regarding the residency program schedule (classes are mandatory, 8 hours, once a month – manager said they were only 4 hours and that they could choose not to attend at the manager’s discretion).

Oh, the manager then continued her written tyrant by bringing up other “issues” she had with the educators.

While reading the email, Tammy immediately felt a surge of hydrochloric acid well up in her stomach; she lost her peripheral vision for a moment and needed to find a bathroom – fast!

What did Tammy do?

She did what we’ve all done…she answered right back, defending herself, telling the manager that it was her nurse who was rude and disruptive in class and that she wasn’t the first new nurse this particular manager hired that was a problem…on and on.

Sound familiar?

Many of us, like Tammy, find ourselves on the receiving end of a nasty-gram.

These emails are usually sent by someone who is angry about something and then chooses email as their method of communicating their anger. When received, these nasty-grams evoke powerful self-protective emotions, prompting us to immediately launch a counter attack.

Our instinct is to defend ourselves and as we all know, it’s way easier to do so in an email, where you don’t have to actually face the person. You can be way uglier when hiding behind email than you are looking into someone’s eyes.

No wonder emails can start wars.

My first nasty-gram came from a student who didn’t like the grade I gave her on her paper.

When I first read her email, I had a visceral reaction – autonomic nervous system kicked in – surge of hydrochloric acid in my stomach, started sweating, increased heart rate, etc.

Her email was venomous, hostile and could have been considered threatening. I actually had to exit out of my email and wait until the next day before I could fully read it again when I had moral support from a colleague.

When I went back through and read her email again, I got angrier and found myself wanting to zing her right now.

What I wanted to say was that her paper was fraught with grammatical errors, unprofessionally written, and that the “C” I gave her was a gift!! Her paper really deserved an “F”! And then of course, I wanted to address every one of her points with my own, more articulated, counter point.

But I didn’t.

Email is never the right channel of communicating when you are angry about something even if you are on the receiving end and want to defend yourself – never have a heated “discussion” in email.

The best way to respond to a nasty-gram

  • Give the nasty-gram a 24-hour pause.

Why? Because if you respond right away, you are more likely to get nasty in return. Give your amygdala time to cool down.

  • Respond but don’t defend.

When emotions are involved, email is NOT the best channel for communicating. Like a virus, emails can go everywhere. Nurses have lost opportunities because of their behavior via email.  Far too often, we fall into the trap of defending ourselves in email. However, when we do, it never, ever rectifies the problem and only causes hard feelings and mistrust.

How to respond to a nasty-gram

When faced with a nasty-gram, this is how I always respond:

“Dear xxx (always start with a greeting)

I’m sorry that you feel this way. I’m also disappointed you chose an inflammatory (or hostile, threatening, etc.) email as your method of communicating with me. I prefer a more professional approach, which is to schedule time to talk with me face-to-face (if possible) or over the phone.

Would you like to schedule time to discuss your concerns? If so, I am available (and then give that person limited options).

Sincerely (always include a closing)

Dr. Renee Thompson

Notice that I never defended or even mentioned why she was angry to begin with. I never addressed it. Email is NOT the place to do that.

By responding this way, you are setting an example of professional behavior. You may have the urge to defend yourself or get nasty in return but don’t do it!!! Be the consummate professional.

As for that student who sent me my first nasty-gram…I was friends with the head of the nursing program and called (notice I said called…not emailed) to give her a heads up (the student threatened to get me fired). We had a conversation about how I handled the nasty-gram and then she asked me to forward the email to her. The director’s reaction was similar to mine. She couldn’t believe how unprofessional this student was. I also sent her the paper I graded and the director actually thought I was generous in giving her a C. This student was put on probation and almost removed from the program.

Bottom line: Never defend yourself in email – ever. Be the role model of professional behavior both verbally and in email.

Have you ever received a nasty-gram before? How did you handle it? Would love to read your comments.

Thanks so much for reading. Take care and stay connected.

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