How to deal with an emotional outburst

[box] In light of the overwhelming response to our recent piece on mental health, we felt this was an area to explore further.

It’s hard to change people’s willingness to talk about their mental health at work until they know their disclosure will be met with empathy, not judgement.  While we can’t teach leaders empathy, we can give them tactics to help them respond more positively – so this is where we will begin.

Hopefully, we can contribute in a small way to making it easier for people to talk about this stuff at work.[/box]


For a lot of us, other people’s emotions are scary.  We know a lot of leaders who count one of their team bursting into tears on them amongst their worst nightmares! It’s awkward, uncomfortable and, often, inconvenient – for both parties.

But if one of your team finds their emotions getting the better of them, then there’s probably a good reason for it.  And you, my leader friend, have the power to make a difference simply by the way you respond.

So instead of avoiding the issue by beating a hasty retreat or embarrassedly moving the conversation on, respect that person and their wellbeing enough to deal with the situation kindly.

Think about it.  What if the way you respond is the difference between helping someone have a better day or making things worse?  Knowing your leader is empathic takes away a major source of stress and anxiety in the workplace.  As a leader, you might not be able to solve their problems, but the least you can do is have the guts not to add to them.

It’s hard to show empathy when you’re busy, stressed and frustrated (and quite frankly ready to have a good cry yourself!).  But if you’re to be a gutsy leader, the ability to show empathy is key to building professional intimacy and an essential tool in your kit.


A gutsy leader’s tactics for dealing with emotional outbursts
  • Stop seeing the person as an inconvenience. Remember they are someone’s wife, brother, daughter, friend, father etc.  Treat them as you would want those people in your own life to be treated.
  • If you’re panicking about what to say, or you need to be somewhere else, take a breath. Cancel the meeting you need to go to or let them know you’ll be late.  Recognise that what you’re dealing with in this moment is important.
  • On a practical level, get them some tissues, a glass of water/cup of tea– this gives them a few moments to compose themselves and gives you time to take that breath and clear some diary space if you need to.
  • While touch is very much a no-no in the modern workplace (and enveloping your employee in a hug may not go down well) there is power in an empathic, non-threatening touch. A hand laid briefly on the shoulder or on the upper back as you pass, for example. It says, “I am here, I know you are feeling pain, I care”.
  • Give them the space to talk. Don’t try to fix the problem, just listen. Be comfortable with silence because that’s when people open up.
  • Use positive listening noises (mmhmm, mmmm, ahhhh, – that kind of thing) and validating statements (“I can see you’re really upset”, “It’s obviously difficult for you” etc) to show them you hear them.
  • If they don’t feel comfortable talking to you and are clearly very upset, ask them if there is anyone you can get for them. They may have a close friend at work who they’ll be more comfortable opening up to.
  • If they’re really upset, let them go home and ask them if you can call someone to be with them.
  • Follow up afterwards, discreetly (remember this is personal and not something to share around the office). Check in to see how they’re doing and keep a friendly eye on them.  Ask them directly what you can do to help – sometimes it can be something simple that can make a big difference.  Whatever you do, don’t avoid them or the issue.
  • If you have an Employee Assistance Program, make them aware of it. If you think they are dealing with a serious mental health issue, talk to your HR team and remind them that there are services like Lifeline.

Take the pressure off yourself. It’s the simple things like listening, giving them some space and checking in on them that let them know you’re a source of support.

If you’ve been investing in professional intimacy with your team, you’ll have a foundation of trust and respect which makes these conversations much easier for everyone involved. It may even help you catch it before emotions erupt.

Challenge yourself over the next 4 weeks to spend 15 minutes each week, building professional intimacy with each of your team and let us know the impact.

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