Gain self-confidence

How to deal with someone crying at work

Henk Veenhuysen
by Henk Veenhuysen
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It can feel a little uncomfortable when someone cries at work. So what is the best thing to do? Telling him/her to stop crying is not the most empathetic response but doing nothing at all may not be helpful either. What is the best way to handle this kind of situation? In this blog, you’ll read about it.

Why do people cry at work

Of course it’s ok to cry or show sadness at work. Crying is a biological response to stress or tension. Crying allows the tension to drain away (literally). It is a kind of “reset” of the emotions. It is better to respond to it than to ignore it.

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You may be in tears because the feedback you’ve had feels very harsh, a promotion passed you by, a difficult conversation got out of hand, private problems or just out of the blue. In short, there could be countless reasons why your tears are rising.

These are basic natural responses to crying

The basic reaction, to another person’s tears, is that people feel a little tense, maybe guilty, a little uncomfortable or maybe it even irritates you.

It is not easy to deal with people who cry (easily). It could be yourself (being a colleague) trying to avoid topics that you know (from experience) the other person might cry about. Then it get’s in the way of work…

Sometimes crying can be used as manipulation or distraction from the real issue or problem. Crying is then an escape mechanism to get rid of the tension. Sometimes people who cry easily have not yet learned how to give themselves some comfort at such times.

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Examples of natural and human responses to crying:

  • We want to “fix” or solve the problem. That’s your natural instinct on the other person’s grief. What you know at that point, of course, is what problem needs to be solved.
  • You think or suspect that the other person’s tears are your fault. And you worry about that; “was it because I said something?”
  • Usually you don’t know exactly why someone is crying. We often think it’s because someone is sad. That brings up the “helper” in you. But people can cry for so many reasons. For example, because they are relieved, scared, frustrated, appreciated and seen or just tired. There are countless reasons why people cry.
  • Another person’s tears can also just be hard on yourself because you know that another person’s tears can also bring out your tears. After all, emotions are contagious. Especially if you are empathetic yourself
  • Sometimes we also try to let someone else’s tears be and not overreact to them. Before you know it, you “open up a whole can of worms” and well, then what?

Being aware of your own emotion

To properly support someone who cries at work, you need your emotional intelligence. More specifically, how aware are you of yourself and how well can you guide yourself in this?

You are more aware of your own emotion:

  • When you recognize that the other person’s emotion is having an impact on you
  • If you are able to articulate well the impact it has on you
  • When you realize that the other person’s tears are not your tears

If you are all aware of this then it is easier to manage your own emotions in that moment. This is not about controlling your emotions but more about being aware of your own emotions. As a result, you are better able to do something that is needed in that moment. That can be something helpful or supportive.

What is better not to do

  1. Don’t interpret
    What’s best not to say are things like, “you seem a little sad …. Be aware that this is your own interpretation. People can show their tears for many more reasons. And sometimes they themselves don’t even know why they are crying. So rather not interpret
  2. Keep it advice-free
    Do not tell someone who is crying “what they should do” or give unsolicited advice. You take away the other person’s power. That’s not ok. When someone cries, the sense of their own power/control is already somewhat gone. By telling someone what to do (no matter how well meaning your advice is) you further take away that power/control.
  3. Don’t trivialize
    If you say something like “that’s not worth crying about” or “pull yourself together” you are essentially passing judgment and telling the other person that it’s not that important. This makes the other person feel less safe and erodes self-confidence.
  4. No stories about yourself
    Perhaps it is tempting for you to share an experience of your own. But hold back. Most people who are upset are not waiting to hear how you handled stressful situations and statements on your part “that everything is going to be okay
  5. Playing / pretending to be a psychiatrist
    Some people’s problems have a deeper background. It is better not to act/pretend to be a psychiatrist or psychologist yourself. After all, you didn’t study for it. You often notice soon enough if something is not your expertise. Then don’t hesitate to refer that person to HR, for example. (PS: don’t use this as an excuse to immediately refer to HR at the first sign of tears 🙂 )

What is better to do

Example 1 – neutral objective
Shall we stop the conversation/meeting for a moment, I see you are crying. Would you like a break or shall we continue?” This is a neutral, objective question that allows the other person to choose for themselves what they want or need.

Example 2 – empathy and interest
“I will stop the conversation for a moment and perhaps you would like to share with me what is on your mind right now?”. This example shows compassion, empathy and understanding of the situation and interest in the person in question, without exaggeration or drama.

Example 3 Giving Control
“I see/ notice that you are crying, let’s stop for a moment ….. What would you need at this time / What do you need at this time”. By doing this, you are acknowledging what is happening and giving control to the person to determine how they want to proceed.

Example 4 Simple acknowledgment
Give simple responses to what someone tells you why they are in tears. For example, saying understandingly, “that’s an unpleasant situation” or “I can imagine you’re upset about that.”

Example 5 Offering help as a manager
You might say this, “This is indeed difficult for you. Feel free to let me know if there is anything I can do for you and I will find out if that is possible.” The more specific your offer of help is the better. For example, is it possible to take some of the work away from that person.

Prevention as a manager

Of course, you (as a manager) can wait until “all hell breaks loose” on a colleague or employee. Perhaps better to stay on tops of things about the well-being of your people. Just tuning in to see how someone is doing.

From time to time you might check in, for example at the end of a conversation how someone is doing. For example, by asking if there are “personal issues that may affect the work,” or more informal asking “how someone is doing.

It gives your employee an opening to bring a particular issue to the table that he/she may have been bickering about for a while. It gives your as a manager the opportunity to do something about it.

Emotions are a compass

In my view, emotions of the other person and your own emotions are a compass. Crying is a visible and audible expression of those emotions. You shouldn’t underestimate that or push it away. The more aware you are of your own emotional world the better you are able to understand and direct yourself. You can also more effectively support someone constructively in this type of situation.

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Run into a lack of assertiveness or self-confidence?

Want to get rid of that, once and for all? Then my 1-on-1 coach approach is really something for you. Lets get acquainted first, no strings attached. See if we have a 'click' and if I can help you.

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