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Handle Emotions at the Office with Critical Conversation Skills

Critical conversation skills can help you handle a lot of situations, including emotional employees. A critical conversation can help keep an employee's emotions in check while you uncover the real problem and search for a solution.

When an individual gets a bad review, is under stress, or is dealing with personal issues, one reaction may be crying in the workplace. Many people perceive crying as a weakness, when it’s really just a reaction, much like anger, sarcasm, or silence. However, if you tend to react differently, seeing someone cry in the office may catch you off guard.

What is an expert communicator to do? First and foremost, try to keep the crying in perspective, and don’t judge the other person. Second, if the person isn’t already in a private office when the crying starts, offer to go to one right away.

The next step is to get the critical conversation going as soon as possible to help manage emotions. Many managers either quickly back down from a comment that made the other person cry or just do whatever it takes to make the crying stop. Neither of these options is a long-term solution. Use the critical conversation method to get to the real problem and allow everyone to maintain dignity.

For example, suppose that during a critical conversation about poor performance, Alex starts to cry. Manager Maggie, and expert in critical conversations, refocuses the conversation.

Maggie: “I can see that you’re upset about the feedback. I’ve found that everyone reacts differently to performance reviews. Would you like some time to yourself?”

Alex: “No, just a tissue. I just can’t believe I’m doing so poorly. I can’t lose my job. My kids are in college, my mom is sick, and I have a mortgage.”

Maggie (after a short pause): “I can understand how you’d feel overwhelmed by everything going on in your life. My goal is to help you excel at your job, not to fire you. I’ve found that having a clear action plan makes doing a great job easier when you’re trying to fulfill many responsibilities. Are you willing to continue the conversation now and find ways to boost your performance?”

At this time, Maggie and Alex can agree to continue the discussion, or, if needed, postpone it. Crying is no different from any other reaction employees may have during a critical conversation or leading up to one. State the problem or situation, acknowledge and appreciate other’s feelings, and then decide what to do next (in this case, either work on the performance feedback or postpone the meeting).

Note that Maggie didn’t apologize for Alex’s feelings or back down from the issue they were originally discussing. And she kept the conversation going in a humane and respectful way. Critical conversations allow everyone to have feelings and express their feelings, but still get work done.

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