How To Deal With Emotionally Difficult Situations At Work

Offer a tissue? Walk out of the room? How should you act when someone at work has a meltdown?

How To Deal With Emotionally Difficult Situations At Work
[Photo: Flickr user Alex]

Keeping your personal life and your professional life separate isn’t always possible. While getting emotional at work isn’t ideal, it happens. And when it does it can be awkward to say the least. So what should you do if a coworker has a meltdown? Do you offer them a tissue? Give them space? Pretend it didn’t happen?



Marcia Reynolds, president of Covisioning LLC, an Arizona-based leadership consultancy, recently explored this topic for Psychology Today. She suggests offering a tissue and calmly waiting for the crying to subside and the person to signal they’re ready to move on. “Crying is a natural physiological response when someone feels hurt, disappointed, sad, or had expectations that weren’t met,” she says.

“Business is comprised of people, and people have emotions,” says Sean Smith, president of Third Street Partners, a Midwest-based marketing agency. Smith says listening is key to defusing an emotional situation because it shows respect for the person and allows them to express themselves. Many people want to be heard, and listening gives them that.


“Defensiveness and anger usually subside after the initial response, if you don’t fuel the fire,” Reynolds notes. She suggests remaining calm and allowing the person to vent. Tina Gilbertson, a Portland-based psychotherapist, suggests following the lead of the most senior person in the room. If that’s not possible, she recommends reacting to the person’s behavior and not their emotions. “[If they’re] yelling, ask them not to yell, [but] don’t tell them not to be angry,” Gilbertson says.

It’s also important not to escalate the situation or soak up others’ emotions like a sponge, says Traci Ruble, a San Francisco-based marriage and family counselor. She suggests taking five deep breaths, which helps to calm your nervous system and keep you from getting pulled into the drama.
“If we absorb all the emotion the other [person] is putting out, then you are likely to miss an opportunity to right the ship for your team,” she says.


Sometimes the situation isn’t an isolated incident. If you’re seated near a screamer, for example, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask to move your desk, Ruble says. You don’t want their emotions to affect your productivity.


If a member of your team expresses concern or fear about an impending change, Reynolds suggests asking questions to try and understand what’s holding them back. Asking questions like, “What are you afraid you’ll lose?” and “What do you need to take the first step forward?” can help the person realize whether the loss is real or imagined, and alleviate their concerns while helping them move forward in a nonjudgmental way.

[h/t: Psychology Today]

About the author

Lindsay LaVine is a Chicago-based business and lifestyle freelance writer who's worked for NBC and CNN. Her work has appeared online in,,, NBC News, MSNBC, Yahoo, Business Insider, and Fox Business.