3 Tips for Dealing With Emotions at Work

I’ve been working with a client who is facing a tricky situation at work … tears – lots and lots of tears.

He is not the one crying; it’s a direct report who breaks into tears on a regular basis. It may be his employee’s way of reacting to stress or when something doesn’t go as planned. However, it has become a real problem and impacting him and the others on the team.

I, too, have been in a similar situation, so here were some ideas I shared about how to best manage through those times when emotions are high:

  1. Don’t get triggered yourself and react emotionally – Nothing good comes from an interaction when two people are in a heightened emotional state. When this happens, the oxygen has left the brain, and we are in a fight or flight mode. Keep a calm tone of voice, take a deep breath and focus on the facts of the situation. The other person may be wanting to get a reaction from you. When you remain calm, it de-escalates the situation.
  2. Be compassionate without bending over backward to appease the person in the hopes of stopping the emotional outburst – It’s important to acknowledge that the person is upset, but you want to avoid being manipulated into behaving in a way to just get the person to stop crying. You may respond by saying something like, “I can see you are upset right now. Why don’t you take some time to collect yourself and then come back and we can have a conversation about the situation.” This allows time to regroup and offers a pause, to enable both parties to take a breath, calm down and then engage in a discussion that will be more meaningful. Our ability to listen when we are upset is drastically diminished, so this pause puts both people in a position to listen to one another, which is critical for mutual understanding.
  3. Offer feedback about the observable behavior and its impact – If the tears or other emotional outbursts are a regular occurrence, you need to explain what impact that is having on the work environment. Delivery of the right words and tone can make all the difference. So remember to:
    • Offer specific examples of behavior observed/words heard – focus on the facts.“You started crying during our meeting two times over the last three weeks when things have not gone as planned. We operate in a fast-paced business, changes are going to happen, and we must be able to be flexible and respond accordingly.” 
    • Describe the impact of the behavior in a non-judgmental way.“When you’re reaction is to cry when things don’t go as planned, it makes me feel like you can’t handle change or any adversity. That does not give me confidence that you can manage your responsibilities and I also feel that you expect me to fix things for you. While I can help remove roadblocks, I’m not here to solve your problems. I expect you to offer solutions. When I see you remaining composed and presenting alternatives and solutions, I will have confidence in your ability to handle more responsibility.”

We teach people how to behave around us by how we respond. If you can avoid getting caught up in the emotions, it suggests that you don’t think it’s appropriate behavior. Be clear about your expectations of professional behavior and then the other person will either stop reacting in an emotional manner or won’t be surprised when they are asked to find work elsewhere.

Remember, we can’t control how someone will react, but we can always control how we react in those situations. 

Martha Duesterhoft is a Partner with PeopleResults. Follow her on Twitter @mduesterhoft or connect by email at mduesterhoft@people-results.com.