Help! Someone’s crying in my office!February 17 , 2021

Q: How should I handle a person crying in my office when I’m trying to provide feedback? This situation always completely disarms me. Do I stop the session? Offer a tissue? Just keep talking? 

A: Traditional (Western/white/male) office cultures have indoctrinated many of us with the belief that emotions are “unprofessional.” We’re supposed to hide all our normal, messy human reactions under a pleasantly blank face while we’re told our idea is stupid, our project has been axed, our reporting relationship is changing, or that we missed a mark that we didn’t know was there. As someone who blushes, flushes and tears up easily — a boss once said he’d love to play cards with me because my poker face was so terrible — I’ve spent years managing the shame and embarrassment of appearing human at work. Here are some tips:

First, respond as a human, not as a boss. Offer a tissue. Give them a moment to collect themselves. Normalize what’s happening and give them an out: “I find it hard to have a productive conversation when I’m feeling strong emotions. Why don’t we take a break and continue when you feel ready?” If you can, take a walk for five minutes while they pull themselves together to relieve them of the rumor-inducing awkwardness of leaving your office in tears.

Let them choose when to continue the conversation, but make sure the conversation happens in a timely manner. Some folks have learned — even unconsciously — to use waterworks to manipulate outcomes. Tears can’t be an excuse to avoid what needs to be said, but you don’t need to say it while they’re this emotional.

Second, be careful how you interpret someone’s tears. I’m a big believer in naming emotions when you see them — ignoring them doesn’t make them go away (alas) — but tears can be complicated. Many women, particularly those raised white and middle-class, were taught from an early age that being nice and liked were core to their self-worth; expressing big emotions, particularly anger, was taboo. For many of us, that meant that all big emotions were channeled into the one emotional expression we were allowed: tears. For many women raised in that narrative, tears might be due to sadness, but they may also reflect frustration, anger, shame, or embarrassment. When someone is crying in my office, I stick to, “You seem upset. Can you tell me what you’re feeling?” instead of hazarding a potentially-offbase guess.

(There’s a parallel story for men and anger: many boys were taught early on that tears = weakness, so their sadness, shame, embarrassment and frustration may all be expressed as anger. So when men get mad, the “You seem upset. Can you tell me what you’re feeling?” line can also be helpful in diagnosing what’s really going on.)

Third, think about how you can change this emotions-are-unprofessional narrative in your workplace. You don’t want your workplace to look like a telenovela, but your employees aren’t robots. They have emotions. Hiding them wastes energy that could be put to better use. Hiding the bad ones means we also hide the good ones, so your team misses out on opportunities to feel joy, connection and pride. 

The root of the word emotion is motion. Our emotions move us to action. By taking the lid off emotion — even just a little — you open up more channels for your team to move forward. Even if you have to invest in more tissues.

#Puthappinesstowork #culture #cryingatwork #emotionsattheoffice


Have you faced this situation? What would you add to or change about our advice? We’re having a great conversation about the topic on LinkedIn here:  [INSERT LINK]

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