by Judith Bowtell, Albany Lane Consulting
Dealing with emotions in the workplace is a part of (adult) life. We work with people – and people cry, laugh and yell – expressing happiness, sadness, frustration, anger or grief. It would be great if we could leave these unsightly parts of ourselves at the door – but we cannot – and every now and then they rise up and take over our well-regulated life.
I once did an interim management role, and I did not even get to lunch on my first day without someone coming into my office and bursting into tears. While a thousand thoughts ran through my brain – including do I have any tissues – I managed to keep an appropriately straight face, allow the employee to express her emotion and frustration – and assure her I had heard her concerns. I then left the office to gather my thoughts on this one.
For HR managers, this can sometimes be a daily occurrence, especially when dealing with teams facing an uncertain future – changes in leadership, mergers, restructures and redundancy. These changes hit us in our most vulnerable places – our identity and security, our sense of self-worth, even our sense of belonging and community.
It is challenging for managers who are going through this process with their teams, to respond appropriately every time. As a coach and an organisational leader, I have practiced for many hours how to be with someone going through a whole range of emotions and upset, and these are my key learnings:
Allow the emotions to have space
Take on the mantra that there are no “wrong” emotions. Allow someone to cry, express anger or frustration, with their whole voice and body (within reason). If someone becomes aggressive or threatening you do need to intervene. However, in my experience if the emotion is given space, if we are allowed to express authentically what we feel in that moment, it can clear some of the built up energy, and allow us to move forward.
Respect someone to find their own way
Resist the urge to deflect the emotion, offer comment and even support. This could be by trying to turn the conversation, challenging someone to “cheer up” or “watch your tone”. It can also be by offering comfort – a hug or other gesture. Instead of becoming the rescuer or moderator – simply listen, without interruption, without commentary, without adding your own feelings or story. Respectful and non-judgemental listening is the most powerful tool you have to support someone to experience their emotion – and then move on.
Observe your own response
Being with someone in a moment of upset or anger will trigger something within us – and our attempts to soothe or shut someone down are often to protect ourselves from our own uncomfortable emotions. Practice observing your response to emotional triggers – starting with easy challenges like watching a sad movie or listening to a frustrating politician. Do not respond or react, but notice the physical cues that alert you to your emotional state – a warming in your eyes, a tightening in your chest, you may start to clench your jaw or purse up your lips. My husband knows when he has pissed me off when I start to make my “cat’s bum” mouth.
By regularly observing our emotions, through practices like mindfulness and meditation, we become more adept at being with others, without following or trying to pull them out of their own state. We learn to trust that each emotion is only temporary, and will like a light or dark cloud in the sky, eventually pass by.
Providing coaching or counselling after major changes are announced is sometimes too late to minimise the negative impact upset and anger can have in an organisation. It is closing the proverbial door after the horse has kicked in its stall, and run for the hills to bitch with all the other horses about how much you, your colleagues and even your clients suck!
Developing leaders with the simple but powerful tool to recognise, observe and acknowledge their own emotions, provides a basis for more effective communication of change and its individual impacts. It also gives the best chance for the effected employees to feel some respect and empathy from the organisation, to invite them to stay in an “adult” state of self-responsibility and not a child needing rescuing from an awful situation.
In this “adult” state we have the best chance to feel empowered even in difficult situations, to make choices from a logical and not emotional state, and to effectively communicate our needs to others.
It is not easy – and professional support will help A LOT. But if you start by encouraging your leadership team to develop this emotional capacity within themselves, you will have a basis for when the horse makes a pooh, and it starts to hit the fan.
Judith Bowtell is the Director of Albany Lane Consulting and a key partner of WiserLife. She brings years of organisational and coaching experience together with empathy and humour. If you’d like to know more about how WiserLife can support your leaders and managers to develop their emotional capacity, contact WiserLife on firstname.lastname@example.org.