Dealing with emotions came up in a mentoring programme recently during some role play practice. ‘I was terrified she was going to cry – I wouldn’t know what to do’ said a manager of the colleague she was mentoring.

Every manager is likely to come across a colleague who has an emotional response at work. It is easy to be blind-sided by this – to rush to stop the emotion because we don’t know how best to respond. ‘I’m not qualified to deal with this’, ‘I don’t do emotions’, ‘I might un-earth something personal’ etc.

The first few moments are key, and with a few simple strategies it is possible to buy yourself some thinking time and allow the other person to feel acknowledged and supported. We’ve collated out tips below, for when it’s just you and them.

 We are focusing here on a one to one meeting. It might be project catch up, formal review meeting or a chat over coffee, but it is down to you to respond in an appropriate way. You might know the individual well – their work and personal circumstances but you might not.

You might well be giving them feedback. Even when managers are particularly good at giving feedback (well timed, factual, well delivered and absolutely necessary),  there is always the possibility that the recipient might get emotional about it. And that’s OK. Some of us are more emotional about these things than others. It really doesn’t matter. It does however mean that managers need to know to respond to that emotion.

After our mentoring workshop we got our team together and talked through what to do and what not to do in those first few minutes.

Don’t do this…

  1. Don’t panic and say ‘Oh don’t cry!’ or ‘Don’t get emotional!’
  2. Don’t rush to shove the tissue box in front of them.

Both of these responses say ‘please stop crying quickly, you are making me uncomfortable’. They also dismiss and undermine the feelings of the individual.

  1. Don’t dismiss their embarrassment. If they are upset, then treat it as real. And don’t ignore it.
  2. Don’t rush to fill the silence with words.

Instead, do this…

  1. Allow the person time. Pause. Let them cry if they need to.
  2. Do say ‘take your time.’
  3. This pause may well be the space required for the upset person to say something. And they often say something like ‘I’m sorry’. If they do, then this is a good opportunity for you to let them know that it is OK… and say so, because it is OK.
  4. Give them time to breathe and compose themselves.
  5. Ask if they need a tissue or a glass of water. They may well say no.
  6. When they have a little more composure, ask them what it was that upset them. You will need to talk about it and now might be the right time.
    • I can see you are upset. Do you want to talk about it now?
    • I can see you are upset. What is it that is upsetting you?
    • I can see you are upset. Do you want to take a short break?
  7. Ask simple, gentle questions to begin to explore the issues, and start to think about workable solutions. You don’t have to solve everything now. Coming back to things later (a day perhaps) might give the person concerned the thinking time they need.
    • What do you think might help?
    • How can I help?
  8. Be gentle. Slow things down. Allow them to recover.
  9. If they don’t want to talk about it now, then let it pass, but come back to it, maybe the following day, or the moment will be lost.
  10. Is it work-related or is it personal?
    You may sense the issue is not work related and may need to ask follow-up questions.

    • Is there something else upsetting you?
    • We have time, would you like to talk about this?
  11. If you are presented with personal information you feel ill equipped to handle, remember, it’s not your role to be a therapist or counsellor. Your role is to be a supportive manager. Ask: ‘What do you need from me right now?’
  12. Offer to put them in touch with others in your organisation who might be able to help – HR etc.
  13. Finally, always offer a follow up call or meeting to check in and see how they are – and keep to it.

Longer term strategies

  1. Develop your own feedback skills.
    At Helix, we encourage managers and leaders, to increase the amount of feedback in the workplace, and to get better at giving feedback. We also talk about taking feedback on board and processing it. For practical tips see our blog post 
    The Art of Giving Great Feedback
  2. Learn how your team members respond to feedback.
    If you want to run good teams, get to know how team members are likely to react to things – then we can manage our interactions more effectively.  Understanding ourselves, our own responses to things can help us improve these interactions. Tools such as Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) or Strength Deployment Inventory (SDI) can help here.

Useful links: Challenging conversations and how to manage them (