How to Respond When Someone Is Emotional

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Bryant H. McGill said, “One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” This is especially true if the person is emotional. Most people want to end conversations when someone cries or gets angry, but then you miss the opportunity to find solutions together. And, it’s likely you will make the person feel worse if you do.

Here are some tips for what you can do in difficult conversations when someone is emotional.

Crying

Never tell someone they are weak or unprofessional for crying. Tears are a natural physiological response when someone feels hurt, disappointed, or sad. It could be a result of stress or a buildup of things gone wrong. It’s not known why some people more readily cry than others, but it’s possible this is a sign of health, not dysfunction.

If you have a tissue available, offer it but you don’t need to go in search of one. If you quietly and calmly sit while they cry, it’s likely they will signal with their hands that they are okay now or they will tell you they are ready to resume the conversation. If they want to explain what triggered their tears, listen with appreciation and ask if they need anything before you move on. However, if the crying is uncontrollable, propose to reschedule the discussion if they want to. It is always better to give someone a moment to recover than to make them feel wrong for crying.

Defensive Anger

Defensiveness usually subsides after the initial response if you don’t fuel the fire. When you sense someone is angry about what you said or did, you might reflexively defend yourself by getting angry in return or shutting down. It’s best to breathe, stay calm, listen, and summarize what they say so you both understand what happened. Then ask what they need from you now.

Of course, if you feel you are at risk of being harmed, find a way to remove yourself as soon as possible.

If there is no risk, understand that the person’s anger could be a natural reaction to information they were surprised to hear. Even if you feel the anger is misplaced, allow the person to vent a little to let off steam and express what they are feeling. When they start to calm down, see if you can’t look at the cause of the reaction and sort out what is true from speculation. Clarify your intentions and apologize if you need to. Then maybe you can find some ways of dealing with the situation together so the person gains even a small sense of control. If the anger doesn’t subside, ask for another meeting when the person feels ready to work things out.

Embarrassment

People feel embarrassed when the realize they have acted in a way that is hurtful or they did something that makes them look clumsy, inept, unaware, or insensitive. Do not try to alleviate or soften the reaction by telling them not to feel the way they do. Accept their uncomfortable apologies. You might ask what they will do differently now. Articulating a lesson learned helps people feel stronger.

Confusion or fear

When someone is reluctant to act or speak, share your observation and ask what they need to feel more comfortable. Don’t tell them they shouldn’t feel afraid. If they say you are wrong or they don’t want to talk about it, don’t push them. Just share that you care how they feel and want them to feel at ease when talking to you.

Withhold your judgment when they respond especially if they choose to tell you what they were feeling later in the conversation. Listening with compassion will help build their courage to speak up in the future. Once their emotions dissipate, see if you can’t help them discover the roots of their fear. What are they afraid they will lose by speaking up or questioning you? What can you do to be more inviting? Accept their suggestions graciously. Your relationship will strengthen if they will explore this with you.

Resistance to change

Try to understand what they are afraid of or disappointed about that is keeping them from moving forward. Until you find what is triggering the emotions—what they feel is at stake due to the changes—your words will have minimal effect. People often do not know what is behind their resistance. Being curious and showing you care about the person’s future can bring many things to light, giving them more choices in how to act going forward.

Always remember to release your judgment when people get emotional. Breathe when you feel your own anger, fear, or disappointment. Respect the person who is having a difficult time resolving what is occurring. See the person in front of you as capable of growing.

Then, ask them what outcome they would like to have instead of what they have now. If what they want is even somewhat achievable, ask if there is anything in their control to do to make this happen. Together, you might discover the best ways to move on.

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15 Comments. Leave new

  • Dr. Dennis Reina, co-author, Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace and Rebuilding Trust in the Workplace
    October 4, 2018 9:35 am

    Great article, Marcia. This article is loaded with very helpful “how-to” steps for the person on the receiving end of an emotional encounter. Excellent advice on how to respond to very challenging dynamics in a relationship- at work and at home. Well done.

  • Cheryl Jensen
    October 4, 2018 11:38 am

    As always I truly appreciate your wisdom Marcia. Good advice in actionable, succinct, and clear language. Thank you for sharing this!

  • Thank you Marcia. I’m forwarding this article on to my husband. I appreciate a review on how to communicate compassionately with coworkers and loved ones.

  • Excellent advice; I especially like the discernment to offer a tissue if you have one but don’t go searching for one. The response is compassionate but without enabling or disempowering words and behaviors.

  • Melissa Myers
    October 4, 2018 4:07 pm

    Oh dear, I could have used this the other day when a bunch of us (women and men) got into a conversation about the Kavenaugh and Ford hearings. It got heated very quickly. There was anger, resentment, embarrassment, shutting down, all of it. And this all among mostly friends! Thanks for this helpful post.

  • Thanks Marcia! Really useful scenario response alternatives.

  • Dr. Frank L. Harper, Jr. author, A.G.I.L.E. L.E.A.D.E.R.S.H.I.P. with a G.R.I.P.
    October 5, 2018 6:59 am

    Thank you Marcia. This was really valued teaching.

  • Thanks Marcia, great insight as always!

  • Lisa D McRoberts, PhD
    October 19, 2018 5:52 am

    Marcia, As always, incredibly timely advice for all of us humans who work, live, and co-exist within a culture that often denies or or overtly or covertly diverts emotions for what they are: insights into behavior and a potential to learn and undertstand versus disregard or degrade our beautiful humanness.

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