There are times, at work, when the normal rules do not apply.
There is no script or training course for these scenarios.
You have to trust your instinct and not over think the situation.
Do you feel equipped to help someone who is upset at work and breaks down in front of you?
I believe there are patterns and habits which can used to help someone when they need it most.
Switch the Focus
I remember walking into a particular meeting, my head full of the agenda points I wanted to walk through.
The work was linked to a bigger programme and would be important in influencing the business.
The person responsible for the programme was big on deadlines and reports being completed on time.
If outputs were not defined or the reporting was late you knew about it.
I knew the person I was sitting down with had received some bad news in the last few days.
As soon as they sat down I could tell their mind was somewhere else. As I talked their eyes glazed over and the looked over my shoulder, staring out of the window. Most of my meetings tend to have this effect on people, but this was different.
After a few moments of silence they returned their gaze to me. A surprise of look on their face, questioning where they had been and for how long. ‘I’m sorry…’ they started to say, ‘It’s been a rough…’ their voice tailing off. They returned to whatever issue they were dealing with.
I closed my notebook.
This was going to be a meeting, but not about the meeting we had planned.
We spoke about many things, much of which was not work related. For the most part I listened. I offered a couple of observations and a some ideas that might help in the
circumstance – the original agenda points became unimportant.
It might seem like common sense to completely switch the focus, like this, but not everyone chooses to do so.
I get it. You have deadlines to meet, you are under pressure to deliver and you may not be big on empathy.
I have made all these mistakes before.
So why switch focus?
How to Help
Choosing to ditch the agenda does not mean the meeting will be a waste, it will now just have a different type of value. So what should you focus on when helping someone who is upset at work?
You might be the only person who is taking the time to listen to how they feel.
Others might be telling them to ‘suck it up’ and get on with it. Showing emotion at work is often perceived as a weakness. This might be the first time they have let their guard down.
What an amazing opportunity to make them feel safe and for them to know it is OK to be upset.
Empathy is the number one skill that many struggle with. I did for years and I’m working on it each day, in the hope I will be World Class one day.
Empathy is the ability to connect with others. It helps us understand the battles people are facing. It makes the
person dealing with their battle feel a little less alone, that they have someone in their corner.
If you practice one skill over the next six months, practice developing empathy.
The Friend Technique
If your friend is upset at work, what do you do?
Depending on the strength of the relationship you might ask them what’s wrong, buy them a coffee, or give them a hug.
In work our brains re-wire and we don’t act as our natural selves.
Depending on the relationship with the person at work a hug may not be the right thing to do. You will intuitively
know the right thing to do – don’t second guess yourself because you are at work.
Someone who is upset at work may not know how to start.
A simple ‘It sounds like things are tough at the moment.
How are you feeling?’ will be enough so they start talking.
They may not make much sense.
Just let them talk. Show patience. The words will follow.
Other questions you can ask are:
- ‘Who is helping you with this at the moment?’
- ‘What can I do to help you right now?’
- ‘Have you confided in anyone else? What have they said?’
- ‘Have you felt like this before?’
- ‘What helps, when you are feeling upset?’
Remember, you should be doing most of the listening. The questions are to prompt the person you are with,
helping to start the conversation.
What’s the Real Issue?
Sometimes the thing is not always the thing.
The tears you are seeing may not be related to a work issue, even if they tell you otherwise. It can be difficult for someone to acknowledge this so emotions are transferred into a different issue – a recent
review for example.
Your job is to understand if you are dealing with the real issue or not. This can be hard and often relies on
building trust with the person you are helping to support. You don’t need to solve their problems, you just need to
be there for them.
Sometimes asking ‘Is there anything else contributing to how you are feeling?’ is enough to open the
If they choose not to open up it will be down to one of two reasons. One – there is nothing else happening in their
life and it is purely a work issue. Two – there is something else but they do not want to talk about it right now.
Don’t push the issue. They may not want to talk about it right now. This is not an insult to you, just accept they are not ready to discuss and make it clear you are there for them if needed. It might be a ‘no’ right now, but it is
unlikely to be a no forever.
Whilst you can not wave a magic wand you can offer support and suggest ideas to help with their situation. Ask
them to focus on specific actions that might help their situation.
For example if the issue is conflict within the team then you, acting as mediator, supporting a conversation would help. If it is about a personal issue you might help them develop a plan on how they will address the issues in their life.
Again, you are not their life coach and it can be tempting to go into this mode. The focus should be simple actions they can work on to address the concerns they have.
Draw a Line
It is tempting to turn into a pseudo Psychologist or Doctor when supporting someone through a difficult time.
There are certain subjects where you need to listen and little more. You have to draw a line.
This imaginary line is you saying to yourself ‘this is not my area of expertise and this person needs
The issue might be down to drug/alcohol use. It might be because they are, or have, suffered abuse or it might
be that they worry about the level of anxiety they are feeling. Once the line is breached your role is to listen,
show empathy (yes, that again) and urge them to seek professional support.
Notice the Changes (You might not need the above)
If someone in my team acts out of character I always start with a view to understanding why. Most people, when they come across someone acting out of sorts either dismiss it or make a judgement. For me, I always aim to
pause and ask myself the following question ‘I wonder what is causing them to act/sound/feel in this way?
I wonder if I can help?’
You don’t have to wait for someone to break down, before you start using some of the above techniques. It can be far more effective to observe, listen and interpret what is happening around you. Anticipating a potential crisis is far more effective than reacting to it, once it happens. Of course this will not always be possible, but that does not mean you should not try.
I will sometimes grab one of my guys and walk a route around the building I work in. The route takes less than a minute, perhaps more if I take it slowly.
I will check in with them and ask a variation of: ‘When xxxx spoke to you I noticed your reaction was xxxx. This is unlike you. Is everything OK?’ This gives them the opportunity to open up.
If it develops into something more you can find somewhere more private, to continue the conversation.
We can be our own worst enemy at times and we can fear asking for help. Taking the lead and asking someone about how they are feeling not only gives them permission to talk about their issue but it is the right thing to do.
Ultimately, taking this approach, makes you a better leader.
- The meeting you had planned may not be the meeting you chair
- You have an opportunity to make them feel safe – don’t waste it
- Empathy is the number one skill to work on – aim to improve it daily
- Don’t change who you are just because you are in a work setting
- Ask questions which will tease more info and help to build trust
- Look out for underlying issues – is the issue actually the issue?
You are not there to create a solution but you can offer suggestions – they have to own it
Know where the line is drawn – you are not trained to deal with certain situations
Anticipate and aim to avoid being in crisis mode where possible
An amazing opportunity exists if someone is upset at work and breaks down in front of you.
They will run a whole gamut of emotions, including feeling embarrassed.
The opportunity you have is to listen, make them feel safe and work together to create a way forward.
When you look back on your career highlights you won’t remember the KPI’s, SLA’s and other stats you achieved.
What you will remember is listening to someone with 100% concentration, making them feel safe and making a
difference to their life.
You know something else?
They will remember it forever.
Believe and take action.