Recap: This is the fourth and final post in a series about difficult conversations. We started by discussing what makes a conversation difficult and then got into the preparation that sets you up for success. The second post zeroed in on the exchange itself and the techniques you can use to keep things constructive—the third shared tips on creating closure and moving forward after a difficult conversation.
When I asked on LinkedIn for your perspective on what makes a conversation difficult, most of the answers included some reference to the likelihood that the discussion would get emotional. Anything threatening our ability to remain in emotional control at work feels precarious.
Here’s what worries me: If you choose not to act because you’re worried that someone might get upset, you’re dangerously limited in your ability to address critical issues. So, rather than letting the risk of emotional upset or outbursts stop you, let’s talk about how to manage them if they happen.
What to Do if the Person Gets Emotional
Imagine that you broach an uncomfortable topic with a colleague, and tears start to well up in their eyes. Or they begin to raise their voice and turn red in the face. What do you do?
My take is that you shouldn’t abandon the discussion. Maybe it’s an unpopular opinion, but here’s my view on what’s problematic about bailing when someone gets emotional:
- You leave them hanging in the awkward situation of having let emotions detract from their ability to do their job. That’s not a good feeling.
- You have to choose between leaving the situation unresolved or coming back to it again later when it might be even more uncomfortable.
- You signal that emotions are unwelcome and are an immediate kill switch in conversations. From my experience, if you get a reputation as someone who doesn’t cope well with emotions, you will be branded as an unsafe person for your colleagues or direct reports to navigate in the future.
Unless the person is gasping for air or screaming to the point that they’re hoarse, try to keep going.
Make a Safe Space
Don’t pretend everything is calm and normal; just don’t catastrophize. Emotions are human. But it’s fair to say that they aren’t the norm in professional spaces, and we still have many folks who have antiquated hang-ups about outward displays of emotion, so your first task is to demonstrate that you’re not in that camp.
I use one simple line. “This is important. What do I need to understand?”
I use it if someone is crying. I use it if someone is yelling. I use it if someone is pulling their hair out. This is important. What do I need to understand?
There are other ways to create a safe space as well:
- If you are standing, gesture to somewhere you can sit
- If you have another meeting coming up, ask for a moment to postpone it
- If you’re in a public space, suggest that you find somewhere with more privacy
- If you’ve got a tissue handy, offer it
- If you need to readjust the physical distance between you, go for it
- If you can switch to a parallel position and drop eye contact, that can help
Perhaps the best thing you can do is to say that you value the conversation and want to stay with it. You’re trying to limit their discomfort and stop them from thinking they’ve made a career-limiting move.
Ask Questions to Uncover the Root Issue
When someone gets emotional, they often need help figuring out what they’re feeling and where it is coming from. They may be just as surprised as you that your initial comments triggered something in them.
You aren’t a therapist, but you can think of yourself as a facilitator to help the two of you reach a point of shared understanding and a plan for moving forward. The benefit of asking questions is that it gives the conversation (and the other person) momentum rather than getting stuck in the emotions.
Here are a few options:
How are you thinking about this?
Where do you see the risk?
What is this about for you?
What would it take to feel confident?
Share What You’re Learning
Now, take a moment to share what you’re taking from their comments. Treat these like hypotheses or observations rather than facts. “It sounds like you feel we’re under-resourcing the team and burning them out.”Or “You’re feeling like I’m not advocating for you.”
If the information you’re learning is relevant to solving the problem you wanted to discuss, great! Start asking for potential remedies or float a few trial balloons and see if they could be the next steps. Those are the situations where surfacing the emotion helps you get to the crux of the matter and on a path to a mutually beneficial solution.
Recalibrate the Conversation
As the person shares their perceptions, you might realize you’re not getting closer to solving the issue. Instead, you’re going in the wrong direction. Sometimes, as the emotional tenor increases, you might be tempted to let the person pull you off course. You might abandon your original goals and let the conversation flow where the other person wants. That’s often a mistake.
Instead, take the chance to bring the conversation back to the original issue. How you do that depends on what the person did. If they…
Went on a Tangent: If they’ve gone off on a tangent, you might say, “I’m glad you’ve shared more about the pressures you’re under. I appreciate you being so candid with me. With that as context, can we return to this report’s deadlines? What would it take to deliver this on time?”
Overstated Your Concerns: If they took your relatively modest concerns and are speaking as if you have lost all confidence in them or they are somehow not worthy, you might say, “As I listen to you, I feel like you’re seeing this as a criticism of you rather than my concern about this one presentation. How could you incorporate my feedback into your next draft?”
Started to Blame: If they deflect constructive feedback by talking about every other person who didn’t do their part, you could say, “I’m sure there are many pieces to this puzzle. I’m happy to talk more about that later. For the moment, I think we need to stick with your role.”
I’m a huge advocate for a healthy relationship with emotions at work. And yes, the first part of that is to realize that feelings are normal, and sometimes they overflow the bounds of our normally staid professional demeanor. But the second half is just as important; being emotional is not a free pass for getting out of your work responsibilities. So, acknowledge and work with the emotions, but don’t let them hijack the conversation.
Once you’ve addressed the emotions, made space to understand the underlying issues, and returned to the underlying problem, you’re back on the regular track. Bring the conversation to a close and use all the follow-up steps I provided here.
What to Do if You Get Emotional
Did you notice how I spent this whole time assuming that it was the OTHER person who got emotional? Yeah, I was just sucking up to you. Let’s be real; there’s a good chance it was YOU who had the tears welling up or you who lost your nut and started yelling. What if it’s you who gets emotional?
Basically, the same rules apply. If you’re lucky, the other person will shift into facilitator mode and help you get back on an even keel. But that’s not entirely likely, especially if you were the one who raised the difficult topic in the first place. They might be pleased to let you squirm.
In that case, you just apply the steps to yourself.
Keep going. If you want, acknowledge that you’re feeling emotional by saying something like, “This is hard for me, but I want to continue.” Or “I’m emotional about this, but I’d really appreciate the chance to keep going.”
Make a safe space. Ask for what you need to make an uncomfortable conversation bearable. “I’m just going to run and grab a tissue, and I’ll be right back.” Or “Could we shift to the meeting room so I can close the door?” Or “I’m fired up. Would it be possible to walk and talk for a bit?”
Ask questions to uncover the root issue. I know it sounds weird, but just ask yourself the questions to move the discussion along. “I’m wondering why this is affecting me so deeply.” Or “I’m not sure what I’m asking for. What would I want to be different?”
Share what you’re learning. Answer your own questions. “I think this is affecting me so deeply because I’m feeling really protective of my team.” Or “I think I’m asking you to get involved in the meetings with the other departments.”
Recalibrate the conversation. If you notice that you’ve taken the discussion off track, steer it back. “I just derailed what I came here to talk to you about. Let’s get back to that.” Or “I’m probably making a mountain out of a molehill; let me focus on this one point.”
Suppose you’re putting off a difficult conversation because you’re worried it might get emotional. In that case, I’d argue that you’re already suffering with the emotions and better off getting through to the other side of them. Make space for the idea that it’s possible to be emotional and also professional, emotional and accountable, emotional and capable.