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Imagine you’re faced with a really upset co-worker who’s just stormed into your workspace, sporting an angry scowl on his face. He’s wagging a finger at you, screaming loudly, “It’s not fair that Bob got the Turner account. I deserved that!”

How do you respond to someone at work who’s expressing a lot of emotion?

You might be tempted to say, “Calm down!”

I totally understand that.

However, when you hear the words “calm down,” do you find them calming?

Saying “calm down” has probably never made anyone feel calm.

To the person receiving those words, “calm down” the tone come across as condescending. Even if you try to sound very subdued and matter-of-fact.

If you’re the person saying “calm down” to someone who’s visibly upset or distraught, you’re subtly acting as if you have the upper hand.

Since you didn’t just get emotionally triggered, you might be able to stay emotionally cool as a cucumber.

Even if you’re expert at staying emotionally detached, please don’t expect others to stay cool, too, after getting upsetting news, being rejected, losing an opportunity, or things of that nature.

When someone is experiencing a lot of emotion, they cannot remain purely rational. During emotionally triggering events, the emotional centers of the brain dominate. So until the emotion subsides, it’s virtually impossible to access reasoning centers of the brain to have a logical conversation.

Saying to an emotionally distraught, visibly upset employee, co-worker, or client “Calm down,” only adds more fuel — in the form of shame — to that person’s emotional state.

If you feel the urge to say “calm down,” it’s helpful to notice that you as you see and feel the person in front who is visibly upset, you may be feeling a shift in your emotions.

You’d be justified in wishing you could stay calm. Especially when you’re experiencing the other person is so palpably agitated.

Let’s look at how you can more effectively help with an upset person, in a way that’s more likely to build a stronger connection.

Dr. Susan’s See & Say Strategies for Helping a Visibly Upset Person

(1) Practice good self care

When you see that you’ve got an upset person in front of you, first do some self-care to calm yourself: Take a few long, slow, deep breaths. Let them out slowly, to relax yourself.

If you’re feeling shaky, feel the solidity of your feet on the ground.

Stand up or sit up a bit straighter to boost your confidence.

Pause for a moment and mentally say to yourself “I trust myself. I can handle whatever arises in this situation.” 

(2) Invite the other person to talk

Even though you may not initially see it, the upset person wants to tell you their story, wants to get out their frustrations.

So you can say something like this: “Seems like you need to talk. I’m all ears.” 

Most people are primed to be punished for being emotional at work. They’ve been chastised for it before. So in giving them permission to feel their feelings, you are helping them remove shame and stigma. As you demonstrate openness and compassion to them, you build a strong bond of trust between you.

With that trust, people feel free to be creative and productive. Most all of us love to get things done when the people around us let us be our authentic selves.

(3) Listen

Stay present, and pay more attention to hear their unmet, which they may not speak directly. That’s where the pain is.

Keep breathing. Allow the person in front of you speak.

Sure, what they say may upset you. Their words may be false. Their words may seem angry or vindictive.

As long as that person doesn’t threaten to hurt themselves or anyone else, let them keep speaking, without interruption. (In the case of threat, be safe and call your organization’s Security or the police)

Now, this might seem simple, yet it’s hard, because your impulse is likely to do something to shift their emotion into a more positive range.

Simply put, you want to allow someone to safely express their full range of emotions. It’s like letting a little kid throw a tantrum. Once they release all their chaotic energy, they’ll calm down emotionally. You will need to wait until after the big storm of emotions has been released to speak with the person on a rational level.

(4) See if there’s more emotion

When you see or hear a long pause, and you think the person is done speaking, say in a neutral tone, “I hear you. And I’m right here with you.”

Follow that up immediately with the question “Anything else?”

Let the person vent completely and get it out. You’ll be giving that person permission to be themselves, which is invaluable.

(5) Check if they’re ready to move forward

Wait until you see a noticeable decrease in emotion. The person may sigh, yawn, display less movement, may tell you “I feel better,” or something else that signals an emotional shift.

When the person seems more at ease, you can say something like this:

“So, when would you like to start looking into how to address this situation?” 

If the person is back in a logical state, they may want to talk start addressing the underlying issue right away. But they could also want a break to compose themselves. Allow them to set the timing for the next conversation.

A Real-Life Example of How to Help an Upset Employee

“All I did was make a few simple edits to a web page!” Meghan (not her real name) told me, trying not to cry.

Meghan was angry when she stomped into the office of her new manager, Daniel.

She explained to me, “Bridget, the new copy editor in the Marketing Department, who has been on the job just a month, blasted me with negativity in a very long email to a bunch of senior managers, including my manager. In great detail, she describe how I had not followed the usual procedure for changing a web page.”

Meghan was rightfully upset that Bridget had make such a fuss about Meghan’s actions. Meghan worked for her company for 6 years in the web design and development group. So she had the discernment to know that she was making a minor edit that really didn’t need approval.

“You know, Susan, I expected Daniel to scold me and tell me, “Calm down!”

But he didn’t! He said, ‘Wow, this is upsetting you. Let’s talk.'”

Daniel knew that Bridget was still quite new to the whole editing process. After letting Meghan vent, he said, “I can see and understand why you’re so upset, Meghan! Given that a new product was being rolled out that same day, so it was crucial for you to make quick corrections to the web page to reflect the correct pricing and delivery dates.”

Meghan revealed to me, “I breathed a sigh of relief. I didn’t get in trouble. I didn’t get fired. I felt like Daniel understood me. And now, I trust him even more. I feel like he has my back. He’s awesome.”

Daniel allowed Meghan to feel her feelings, and to work through them. Afterwards, he offered her a few options of how he might help smooth the waters with Bridget, and they worked together on repairing the relationship with the Marketing group.

Wrapping Up

Time and again, I’ve seen these five steps work to support someone who’s been really upset at work. Normally, the person feels so grateful to be heard and understood.

Sure, some people may just stay emotional for a long time. For those people who get stuck in an emotion for an extended period, they take on a mood or attitude. In those cases, it can be tougher to create a shift. You may need to be persistent. And, you may need to decide how much of a drag that person is on your organization’s culture.

Regardless, by letting others safely vent their emotions and frustrations, you can foster an environment that allows people to show up more fully at work. This tends to increase trust, collaboration, productivity, and innovation.

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