Have you ever been witness to crying in the workplace? Maybe it was a coworker in the cubicle next to yours, or someone sitting across from you in a conference room meeting. You’re not alone.

The problem: we often work in corporate environments where the unspoken code of conduct is, to show emotion is unprofessional. Not only unprofessional, but unproductive, which is a crime to the bottom line.

What an outdated way of thinking!

Deal With The Outliers

Unfortunately we sometimes encounter an extreme scenario. Where things get overly dramatic and devolves into a cry-fest, or worse, a screaming match. That’s a big issue. But this is what I would consider an outlying circumstance. That type of scene simply doesn’t happen very often. If you find yourself in this type of situation, it’s likely a sign there’s something very, very wrong going on, either for the individual or with the organizational culture. Or, there’s something wrong with the workplace in general.

Emotions Are Normal

What we’re talking about are the times when somebody gets really frustrated with a work issue, to the point where tears well up in their eyes. Or when someone starts to raise their voice to the level of aggression and intimidation. Emotional expressions like these come with being part of a workplace community, it’s absolutely normal.

I’m going to give you the magic line to say when this happens:

“This is important. What do I need to understand?”

I think these words are super impactful. When somebody starts to get emotional, whatever that looks like, just say, “This is important. What do I need to understand?” Simple, short and sweet, and a lot better than the alternatives that we tend to say instead.

What to Avoid Saying

One of the alternatives is to say, “DON’T get upset.” I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of a time when somebody telling me not to get upset has done anything other than make me more upset than I was to begin with! It’s also very invalidating.

Sometimes I hear people say, “I was told to acknowledge the emotion and say, ‘I see you’re upset.‘” I don’t like overstepping and telling somebody how they’re feeling or what they’re thinking. That seems like an unfair assumption.

Another bad option when someone gets upset, is to say, “It’ll be okay.” Another invalidating statement. When you say this, you’re basically saying a condensed version of “I don’t know why you’re getting upset. Your reaction is really out of sync with what’s actually going on. You’re making a mountain out of a molehill. It’s going to be fine.”

This is just another way of saying, “It’s not okay to be human and have emotions in the workplace.” While we may mean it as a vote of confidence in the person (“You’re amazing, you’ll get through this”), that’s likely not how they’ll receive it.

The Root of the Emotion

When someone gets upset it’s because they haven’t been effective in protecting something they care a lot about with other means. They maybe tried to explain their point of view calmly, or presented work they’ve done to protect something they care about, but it hasn’t been effective. That’s why they’re crying or yelling. They want to be heard.

Try to Understand Their Feelings

When we tell someone how they should feel, or when we try to sweep their emotions under the carpet, we are likely to make them either erupt into more frustration, or go underground and become quite passive aggressive.

Instead, just say, “Hey, this is important. What do I need to understand?” As they explain the source of their emotions, they will start to dissipate. Within a couple of minutes most people will have stopped crying and they’ll be able to explain what’s really going on.

Similarly, if you’re yelling at someone and they tell you, “Okay, this is important. What do I need to understand?”, it would be pretty hard for you to keep yelling. We’re going to get to something much more constructive.

Use the Right Words

If someone gets really emotional; upset, cries, yells, pounds the table, even if they run away and you have to chase them, just say, “This is important, what do I need to understand?” You’ll get to a much deeper understanding of what’s going on. You’ll also build trust and they will know that you’re a safe person with whom to be candid and share their emotional reactions.

What is so counterintuitive, is when we feel safe with someone, we’re actually less likely to get emotional. We feel like they’re a person where we can expose, share, and be candid about our experiences WITHOUT having to let emotions bubble over.

If you see emotion in the workplace, it’s okay. You don’t have to call 9-1-1 or pull the fire alarm or don a hazmat suit. When it happens, just lean into it.

“This is important. What do I need to know?”

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