Sooner or later, you will encounter strong emotions at the workplace. Whether it is an angry colleague, a stressed manager or an unhappy customer. But how should we behave if we are faced with the strong emotions of others? How can we be supportive while maintaining our own boundaries?
It can feel overwhelming when a co-worker shows strong, especially negative, emotions such as anger, stress, fear and sadness. How can we be supportive without feeling perhaps too involved? After all, professional boundaries should be only stretched to an extent that we feel comfortable with.
Sometimes emotions will be overwhelming, and it is just not possible to maintain the usual neutrality. This can happen to everyone, so be compassionate (Seppälä et al.,2020). To find out what the other person might need in this situation it is OK to ask how you can help. If the person is not able to tell you what they need, think about ways that might help you in a similar situation. Often a glass of water and some tissues are appreciated and signal to the receiver that you are compassionate for their experience.
Active listening is an important skill. It is the ability to make another person feel heard without giving advice or offering solutions. You can show that you are listening by nodding and paraphrasing your understanding of what they are telling you back to them. Feeling heard is powerful when you are overwhelmed with emotions. Often, advice and “What-I-would-do’s” are not wanted and can even make exasperation worse.
Most of the time when someone is expressing emotions in the workplace, they will only disclose parts of their distress. You might think that you understand what is going on, but just as with an iceberg you usually cannot tell what emotional struggles lie under the visibility line (Kirby et al., 2019). Therefore quick advice might not be helpful, however well-intentioned it is. Often the benefits of being a good listener are underestimated. It can be extremely relieving to put the worries into words and might even lead the person to finding solutions themselves. So next time you feel inclined to offer unsolicited advice, ask yourself whether listening might be enough.
When we are feeling overwhelmed with emotions we struggle to think creatively and don’t know which step to take next. As an outsider, you are most likely better able to think practically right now. Think of the next step this person could take, or another place where they could get help. Are they feeling angry? Suggest a cooling down period or a quick walk around the block. Are they feeling stressed? How can they feel less stressed? Did they receive some sad news? Connect them with someone whom they can talk to if you aren’t able to. Even if you don’t know where else to find help in that situation, you might know someone who does.
Do not feel bad if you are not able to help the other person with their emotions. It is better to admit not being able to help and seek help elsewhere than to pursue strategies that are not working. Whom could you ask for help? Is there an HR professional who might be available? Do you have other resources available, such as a work psychologist or a manager, who could take over? You are already helping by being present and taking the next step for help.
Experiencing negative emotions, yourself
Dealing with other people’s emotions at the workplace is difficult, but sometimes you will struggle with your own emotions. For example, you might be angry about another person’s reaction to your work, or sad about a project that did not go as planned. In these situations, it is important to understand that emotions are automatic and cannot be controlled. We can control our own behaviour.
Before you react as a result of your own emotions, you have the choice to suppress or reappraise the situation. This means that you can either stop yourself from reacting or re-evaluate the situation before deciding on how to react. While the first can help to temporarily stop a situation from escalating, long-term it might leave you with frustration and dissatisfaction. The latter option refers to a strategy that has been found to be more supportive of maintaining relationships and well-being at the workplace (Gross & John, 2003). Rather than suppressing emotions and denying that they exist, the person tries to communicate their emotions in a way that will help solve the issue on a longer scale.
Emotions at the workplace can often feel like navigating a minefield. We fear that things can go wrong easily. An Auntie Professional can help you acquire skills to navigate difficult situations, such as these well and feel more confident. One of the packages that focuses on your emotional well-being is “Feeling Down”. It is aimed to help you feel more confident and show you ways to deal with difficult emotions.
Gross, & John, O. P. (2003). Individual Differences in Two Emotion Regulation Processes: Implications for Affect, Relationships, and Well-Being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(2), 348–362. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1248 Kirby, Seppälä, E., Wilks, M., Cameron, C. D., Tellegen, C. L., Nguyen, D. T. H., Misra, S., Simon-Thomas, E., Feinberg, M., Martin, D., & Doty, J. (2019). Positive and negative attitudes towards compassion predict compassionate outcomes. Current Psychology (New Brunswick, N.J.), 40(10), 4884–4894. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-019-00405-8 Seppälä, Bradley, C., Moeller, J., Harouni, L., Nandamudi, D., & Brackett, M. A. (2020). Promoting Mental Health and Psychological Thriving in University Students: A Randomized Controlled Trial of Three Well-Being Interventions. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 11, 590–590. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2020.00590