I was recently coaching a leader who asked me, “Is it OK for me to tell someone on my team that they can’t cry at work?” Normally, as a coach, I would respond to her question with a question of my own:
“What makes you ask that?”
“What about crying feels like it shouldn’t happen at work?”
“What might the impact be of telling them that they can’t cry at work?”
But instead of taking a coaching approach, I responded instinctively and firmly, “No.”
We know from Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own that “there’s no crying in baseball,” but no movie that I’ve watched has given us a clear answer on what to do about crying at work. And there is crying at work — whether we like it or not. It may be the result of a feedback conversation that feels hard, a career planning session that’s disappointing, a difficult conversation about unrealistic expectations, or it may even seem like it comes out of nowhere. And for many of us, seeing someone cry can make us feel uncomfortable, guilty, and anxious. Why do we have that reaction? For several reasons:
- Because we want to fix it. When we see someone crying, most of us have a natural instinct to want to problem-solve. And we don’t always know what the problem is that needs fixing.
- Because we worry that we caused it. We ask ourselves, “Was it something I said?” “Was it something I did?” “Did I make them cry?”
- Because we don’t know why they’re crying. The simplest interpretation is that they’re sad. But people also cry when they feel angry, happy, embarrassed, anxious, relieved, scared, frustrated, understood, tired, appreciated, hungry, lonely, etc.
- Because we don’t want to cry. Emotions are contagious, and we’re concerned that someone else’s tears might trigger our own — especially if we are particularly empathetic.
- Because we’re anxious that crying signals a bigger issue — and then what? We wonder if the crying is about something bigger than the conversation we just had. What if it signals a deeper personal issue — one that’s bigger than we know how to help?
- Because we fear that the crying will escalate. As soon as we see that first tear or hear that initial sniffle, we think to ourselves, “What if they start sobbing?” “What if they throw up?” “What if they start hyperventilating?”
Helping someone who is crying at work takes emotional intelligence, especially in the form of self-awareness and self-management. Self-awareness requires that we recognize that someone else’s emotional expression is having an impact on us, and are able to articulate what that impact is (fear, concern, anger, etc.). Self-management requires that we control our emotions in the moment, and adapt to what’s needed right now.
And what’s needed right now, in most cases, is for you to say something helpful, supportive, and brief. What isn’t needed?
- Interpreting, such as “you seem sad.” Remember that people cry for a variety of reasons, and you can’t know why they’re crying unless they tell you. (It’s also important to keep in mind that people don’t always know why they’re crying themselves.)
- Telling them what to do, such as “you should take a break.” When someone is crying, they often feel a loss of control. Dictating their next action, even when done from a place of compassion, can further rob someone of their sense of control.
- Judging them, such as “it’s not worth crying about.” Telling someone not to feel how they’re feeling reduces interpersonal trust, making people feel unsafe in their relationship with you.
So what can you say instead?
- “Let’s pause for a moment here. I can see you’re crying. Would you like to take a break or keep going? It’s up to you.” This is neutral language that gives someone the opportunity to choose what they want and need next.
- “I’m going to stop our conversation for a second to check in with you. Can you tell me what’s going on for you right now?” This demonstrates compassion and curiosity for the person, without dramatizing or overplaying concern.
- “You’re crying, so let’s pause. What would be most helpful for you right now? I’ll follow your lead.” This acknowledges what’s happening, while empowering the person to take control.
Emotions are data, and the visible (and audible) expression of emotions, like crying, shouldn’t be ignored or minimized. Showing curiosity and compassion, even if you’re uncomfortable, is core to being an emotionally intelligent leader.
You can find the original article here.