I’m constantly encouraging teams to wade into the really difficult, contentious, emotional discussions that they would otherwise try to avoid. The problem is that you might lack the vocabulary to get to the other side of one of these emotional discussions or to move it forward when it gets stuck. That leaves you listening to lengthy, unproductive, even hurtful monologues about everything that’s wrong with the team. If you open Pandora’s box, you need to know how to close it again. As a facilitator, I’ve learned that sometimes you have to interrupt. Here are the questions you can use to get an emotional conversation unstuck.

But First… (sorry, I just have to)

I’ve written (and even done a YouTube video) about the importance of validating people to make them feel heard and understood. Before I tell you how to interrupt someone who’s stuck in their emotional response to a discussion, I need to remind you that your first move is to validate what you’re hearing, ask questions to understand the underlying concerns, and then pivot to share your version of the truth. What follows assumes that strategy has been ineffective, and you need to shift into a different mode.

Go Ahead…Interrupt

Question #1: What do you need?

When the emotional stakes of a discussion are high, likely because your teammate’s values and beliefs are being challenged, they’re not going to be as solution focused as they need to be. Even when you want to help, you might be at a loss for what to do.

When your colleague is floundering around, overwhelmed by emotions, a prompt from you can be so beneficial. Simply ask, “What do you need?”

For example, if Emerson is talking about how unreasonable the deadlines are and how much is on his plate, asking, “What do you need,” might yield, “I need you to tell me the one thing you want me to work on first.” Ok, great. I can do that.

Round 2: If Emerson can’t find the words in the moment, say, “I get that there’s a lot going on at the moment. I’d like to be helpful. Let’s come back to this when you have a sense of what you need.”

Question #2: Where from here?

Another common problem with wading into a difficult discussion is that it turns into a history lesson. People want to air their grievances and justify their hurt feelings and calcified positions.

In this situation, the best interruption question is, “Where from here?” You don’t need to agree or disagree with their version of events, you simply need to pivot the conversation toward something focused on action.

For example, if George is giving you considerable detail about how Sally was the one who was supposed to do the first draft and he checked in with her and she said she was, on it, and then just when he really needed it to be done she comes saying that there were too many other things and she just couldn’t get to it…. Sometime before George passes out from uttering the world’s longest sentence without taking a breath, look at George and say, “Where from here?” George will probably give you something to work with, like, “I guess I need to pick this up and run with it.”

Round 2: If George goes back to giving you more of the backstory, look at him and say, “Where from here?” You can say that calmly at least two or three times to make your point that you’re not going to use another minute of the meeting talking about the past.

Question #3: What do we need to solve for?

Sometimes, your colleague’s frustration comes from the fact that she can’t address the problem on her own. There’s an obstacle, or a missing resource, or a decision-point that she can’t resolve on her own. This can create a particularly emotional reaction in someone who is nervous because their autonomy is low, and their accountability is high.

In this case, your go to interruption question is, “What do we need to solve for?” You’ve acknowledged that they aren’t in a position to solve the problem on their own.  You’ve shifted the pressure off of the individual and shared it with the group.

For example, if Doreen is running through a litany of issues and concerns about how to accelerate the store opening into Q4, stop her and ask, “What do we need to solve for to get this opening into Q4?” Doreen might still be exasperated, but she’ll probably start listing out the issues. “Well first off, I’d need to have people dedicated to this full-time, rather than doing it off the corner of their desks.” As she starts her list, jump up and write her points on the white board (a great validation technique).

Round 2: If Doreen looks back at you with wide eyes and no clue, invite someone else in to the discussion. “Bing, what do you think it would take to get accelerate this opening 45 days ahead of the current plan?”

Getting Back to Business

Last week, I was quoted in a Fast Company article about crying at work. I’m a big believer that humanizing the workplace will make us more productive. The article got enough traction on LinkedIn to attract the people who think that if we allow even a crack to open, that the emotional flood gates will wash away our productivity. As I think about it now, I believe it’s because we don’t know how to make room for emotion without being held hostage by it. Prepare yourself with these three questions so you can be confident that you can make room for the emotions because you know how to stem the flow, if necessary.

Further Reading

Held Hostage by the Crier on the Team

When Your Teammate Needs to Vent

3 Benefits of dealing with emotions on your team