You know that for me, the best part of giving a keynote is the Q&A session. I already know all the stuff in the speech, but the questions are the entrée into what people are thinking, how they’re feeling, which of my suggestions comes easily and which needs more clarification. And that insight is the fuel in my tank.

This week, I got this gem (paraphrased), “Liane, you’re talking about managers needing to deal with people’s emotions, are we expected to be therapists these days?”

Wow! Instant insight into how one (and likely many) managers are feeling with all they’re being expected to manage in today’s world. The questioner’s tone was thick with a combination of desire to do the right thing and panic at feeling so unprepared.

Awesome. Question.

The short answer is, “No.” “Definitely Not.”

That’s not an awesome answer. I can do better.

It’s not your role to try to provide psychological assistance or to be ready to lead your employee through a session of cognitive-behavioral therapy. You’re not trained for that and even if you were, there are some lines that are worth keeping in the workplace. If you suspect that the employee needs professional help, seek out HR’s advice and provide links to Employee Assistance Program resources. If your organization doesn’t have an EAP, there are web resources you can point to.

That said, the majority of situations and individuals will not require professional counseling. They just need a safe place to express their emotional experience of their work.

Not a Therapist, Just a Guardian


Instead of thinking of yourself as a therapist, think of your role as holding space for the uncomfortable, emotional issues for which the person needs an outlet: a fierce guardian of their right to be human.

If you sense rising emotion, but the person hasn’t said anything openly about it, you might try saying, “I get the sense there’s another layer beneath this conversation. How are you feeling about this?”

If they brush off your question, you might try one follow up, such as, “It’s important to me that I understand how things are going.” If they skirt the emotional issue again, take your cue from them and move along.

If someone’s emotions are on the surface (they are yelling, crying, or shaking), stop, breathe, and ask, “This is important. What do I need to understand?” Then be silent. Make space. Take a sip of coffee, look away casually to reduce the pressure, and simply wait. Almost no one will be able to leave that silence for more than 10 seconds.

What comes next will be illuminating.


When they see that you aren’t judging, or rushing, or trying to squash their feelings, they will be more likely to express them and, ultimately, to work through them. You might hear, “I’m just so overwhelmed. I never feel like I’ve finished enough to stop working and I feel like I’m letting the team down and my family down.” Maybe they’ll expose interpersonal frictions on the team; perhaps some you weren’t aware of, “Sandy is excluding me from all of the conversations about the project and I’m having to learn about them from others after-the-fact.”

Just listen. Nod. Encourage. Probe (“keep going” “say more”).

If you’re patient and resist the urge to solve things for them, within a minute or two, the emotion will have dissipated and they’ll probably be answering some of their own questions. “I guess I need to do a better job of letting you know when I’m overwhelmed,” or “I should be talking to Sandy about this, not to you, but I just don’t know what to say.” You’ll be amazed at how people can slowly but surely work themselves out of the emotional state if you create a little breathing room for them.

At this point, you’re back to being a manager again. Except now, you’ll be a much better-informed manager and you’ll have more of the person’s trust and respect.


At this stage, you can reflect back on some of the issues you’re hearing, but don’t jump to a conclusion. Saying something like, “You’re feeling overwhelmed by the workload” is both validating and also keeps the conversation moving. Again, wait for the answers to start to come from them. You’re encouraging accountability by letting the person propose some of their own solutions and while you might think it’s mean or harsh to expect an emotional person to solve their own problems, it’s actually much kinder in the long run for people to realize they have agency, that they can solve their own problems. It’s also a better path to ensure that they will be able to hold their head high next time they see you rather than feeling that you had to rescue them.


As you start to hear something tangible and constructive, it’s ok to chime in with, “how can I help?”

It’s also important to own your part of the situation. If you can see that you played a role in the person getting to the point of anger, or frustration, or overwhelm, admit that and propose what you might do differently. “I have been taking your huge capacity for granted and I apologize. Would it make sense for us to have a quick touch base on your workload on Mondays and Wednesdays so that I’m better informed when I’m assigning work?”


Finally, don’t end the conversation without taking a moment to thank the person. (Yup, surprise ending… I want you to thank them for bursting into tears in front of you!) Nothing fancy, just “Thanks for your candor,” or “Thanks for trusting me with this,” or “Thanks for working through this.” You’ll be amazed at how making space for emotional outbursts makes them less frequent.

Thriving in the kind of perpetual change we’re all facing means working with emotions much more than most managers have ever done before. Don’t confuse that with suddenly needing to be a therapist. Here’s a handy dandy visual you might want to tuck in somewhere so you’re ready when someone’s emotions spillover.

Instructions for Managing Emotions

Download this handy dandy reference for your wall or your screensaver.

Further Reading

Managing Fear and Emotions

3 Benefits of dealing with emotions on your team

Should I risk making someone emotional?