Bad things happen that impact people and emotions at work. The last two years have more than proven that – and we often don’t know what to say.
It could be a professional issue – missed targets, failed promotions, layoffs. Or it could be a personal issue – illness, financial setbacks, family turmoil. Either way, HR leaders and front-line managers have to address tough situations.
Unfortunately, it’s those times when you feel there’s nothing you can say that you must say something right.
Stop the contagion
“Research shows emotions are contagious,” says Deborah Grayson Riegel, a principal at The Boda Group and communication professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business in the Harvard Business Review. “The longer your peer is feeling upset, the more likely those feelings are to rub off on you.”
Then one person’s tough time impacts the boss, other employees and potentially the entire department.
Change outlook, not situation
So you need to communicate in a way employees or colleagues can change how they feel about the situation (because you can’t change the actual situation).
“By acknowledging where he is emotionally right now, and by giving him an opportunity to reflect on how he feels, what he needs or what’s in his way, as well as letting him brainstorm what he wants to do to make things better,” Grayson Riegel says.
Here are four of the best things to say, why they work, and what to avoid:
Acknowledge the impact
Say: “It seems like this is impacting you in a significant way. Tell me more about what’s going on.”
Why it works: As a leader, you don’t want to make judgment on the depth or breadth of employees’ or colleagues’ reaction. Instead, you recognize they have been impacted and give them some venting space.
Avoid: “You’re making a big deal about this” or “I don’t see what the big deal is.”
Call on concern
Say: “You seem worried. What’s concerning you most about this?”
Why it works: When employees are upset, frustrated or even angry, the last thing they need to hear – and the last thing they’re capable of doing – is “calm down.” Avoid telling others how to feel in tough times. Instead, with this response, you acknowledge how they feel and give them the opportunity to explore what drives the emotion. In doing that, they might uncover ways to overcome the difficulty.
Avoid: “Stop worrying so much” or “Just calm down.”
Let them own it
Say: “This is serious. How do you think you can get through it?”
Why it works: You don’t want to one-up employees or colleagues who face a tough time with your own experience. Recognize the gravity of it, and help them consider solutions.
Avoid: “You think that’s bad? Let me tell you about …”
Help with forward movement
Say: “It sounds like you’re still thinking about it quite a bit. What do you feel you need to move forward?”
Why it works: You can’t make people stop feeling bad, or put a time limit on brewing. But you can help them move toward action that will get them beyond the tough time and the negative emotions it’s causing.
Avoid: “You need to get over it” or “Come on, just move on.”