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Emotions at Work: When It’s Someone Else

So far this month we have talked about how our emotions can show up at work and how to navigate them productively and professionally. This week, we expand our conversation to explore how to navigate, engage with or disengage from other people’s emotions in the workplace.

Before we jump into some tips for this topic, let’s remind ourselves that just as it is normal for us to have emotions in the workplace, it is also normal for others to experience them. It can be easy to attribute someone expressing emotions in the workplace as irrational or unprofessional. At the same time, let’s remember that we sometimes will act or communicate in the throes of emotions.

This reminder leads up right into our first tip.

Tip No. 1: Remember the Underlying Needs at Play

If you have been following along, we discussed two weeks ago that underneath unpleasant emotions are often unmet needs. When we see someone else at work reacting or responding to unpleasant emotions, there is an opportunity to be curious about what underlying needs might be missing or unmet for this individual. Perhaps they need respect and something happened that undermined their respect in the office. Perhaps they need to feel loved by their family and there was an incident in their personal life that undermined that sense of love and belonging. Or perhaps they just need some food and they worked through their lunch!

You don’t always need to know the exact need or even ask them about it (see tips 2 and 3 below). However, simply reminding yourself that there is likely one or more need at play underneath the emotion that is unmet or violated and perhaps contributing to their expression of emotion in the workplace can help you navigate the situation more effectively. This acknowledgement can allow us to stay grounded and clear-minded, to avoid making them out to be irrational or unprofessional, which can then lead us to respond from a similar place.

This tip is meant to be a private exercise to humanize another. When you notice expressions of unpleasant emotions, remind yourself that this is a human being prone to feeling and expressing emotions, which is normal. And ask yourself, what needs might be missing for this individual? What type of support might they need?

Tip No. 2: Show Support

When appropriate, you may choose to show support to the other person. Offering support to a highly escalated individual can sometimes feel like walking into the lion’s den, but it can also mean the world to the other person when done constructively and appropriately. When considering whether to offer support, first make sure that you are clear on if that is your proper role.

  • Would your offer for support escalate or de-escalate the situation?
  • Would your offer for support be supportive or would it create a different unpleasant emotion, like embarrassment?

When we experience an unpleasant emotion and react, we don’t often recognize the impact we are having. Offering support can also be a kind and gentle way to invite introspection of their communication.

When offering support, make sure to help them save face. Rather than call them out in front of others or point out that they did something irrational, reach out to them privately and share your observation that they seem stressed or managing a lot. This way it is not about their behavior but about them, their feelings and their needs.

Tip No. 3: When to Call People In

Sometimes, especially in more escalated situations or where there are ongoing patterns of behavior, you may choose to call people in more explicitly to their behaviors and communications. This is not always a safe option, and you will want to make sure that you either have a strong relationship with the other person or are able to frame the conversation in a way that is supportive.

Consider power dynamics, as well. You might not be the appropriate person to talk to someone two levels over your head about their expression of emotions in the workplace, in which case you may want to get support by talking to your supervisor about how it impacts you. If you decide that it is a safe relationship to have a conversation the person expressing emotions, do your best to a) separate the person from the behavior; b) explicitly draw a connection from the behavior to the impact; and c) make a request for the future.

For example, let’s say that my supervisor snapped at me in a meeting, which seemed like an overreaction. You may want to discuss it privately with them and share:

Step 1 - Separate the person from the behavior: In the meeting the other day, I felt like the way you communicated to me was an overreaction.

Notice above that it is not the person that overreacted, it was the communication that was an overreaction.

Step 2 - Share the impact of the communication: That communication really shut me down for the rest of that meeting and, to be honest, most of this week.

The impact to you should maintain the essence of Step 1 and be focused on the behavior.

Step 3 – Make a request: I wanted to talk to you about it and see if there is a different way we could have that conversation in the future .”

Finishing with a request helps the listener hear that you are not bringing this up to complain, but to identify a positive future agreement with each other. If you don’t have a request, you may want to ask yourself why you are bringing this up and be sure it is an appropriate workplace conversation.

Tip No. 4: Don’t Force It

If it doesn’t feel right to engage with someone who is escalated, it is OK to listen to your intuition. Sometimes that best thing you can do is give people space and getting involved may make things worse. If you do choose to engage, make sure you are thoughtfully setting up the environment to allow for the person to save face. Be clear about how you want to approach the other person in a way that offers support or to call people in (not out), while doing so in a way that feels safe for you.

If you have specific situations of navigating your own or other people’s emotions in the workplace, feel free to reach out for 1-on-1 coaching support.

Luke Wiesner is the UC Merced Conflict Resolution Coach , a private resource for staff members who are interested in having a partner to support workplace challenges or conflicts. This service is voluntary, and you can partner with the coach by yourself or with fellow university employees.