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How to Deal With Other People's Difficult Emotions

Difficult conversations can raise awkward feelings. Here's how to manage.

When I teach coaching skills to leaders, there is always one person who asks what they should do if the person they're working with cries. Most participants say they would rather end the conversation at that point than continue it—but that would probably make the person crying feel even worse.

Here are tips for handing some of the emotions that could come up during difficult conversations:

1. Crying

Crying is a natural physiological response when someone feels hurt, disappointed, sad, or had expectations that weren’t met. It could be a result of stress or a buildup of disappointments. Allow a person to take a moment when tears come to their eyes. Calmly wait for them to signal they are ready to move on. Generally, if you tell a person to take his or her time and calmly sit in silence, he or she will let you know when they're ready to move on. If you have a tissue available, offer it. If the crying is uncontrollable, offer to reschedule the discussion, but only as a last resort. This is for the other person's benefit: It is always better to give someone a moment to recoup and move on than to make them feel wrong for crying.

2. Embarrassment

When a person sees or feels that he has been acting or believing in a way that has been harmful to himself or others, he may feel embarrassed. Do not try to alleviate or soften the reaction. Allow him a moment to catch his breath. When you sense you can move on, ask him to articulate what he has now discovered or learned before asking about what action he might take. Articulating a learned lesson helps a person feel stronger.

3. Defensive Anger

Defensiveness and anger usually subside after the initial response—if you don't fuel the fire. So stay calm. When you sense someone’s anger, you might reflexively defend yourself, get angry in return, or you shut down. Of course, if you feel you are at risk of being harmed, you should find a way to remove yourself as soon as possible. But if there is no risk, understand that the person's display of anger could be a natural reaction to information they didn't want to hear. Whether she is mad at herself or others, give her a moment to express herself. Let her vent to release the steam. Then when she starts to calm down, see if you can’t help look at the cause of her anger and sort out the truth from the speculation. Then maybe you can find some ways of dealing with the situation so she gains even a small sense of control. If the anger doesn’t subside, you might ask for another meeting when the person is emotionally prepared to look at solutions with you.

4. Confusion or Fear

When you face these feelings, listen. Ask about the fear and listen to the person's stories so you can discover what is holding them back. Do not try to diffuse or soften their emotions, or even tell them it is understandable to feel afraid; better to say that you would like to understand what's causing the fear so you can help them move forward with confidence. Then withhold your judgment when they respond. You might have to to encourage them to speak by asking a few questions that show you are curious—and that you care. If you do, it is more likely they will open up. Most people want to be listened to and understood. Listening with compassion will help them build their courage. Once the emotions start to dissipate, see if you can’t help them discover the roots of their emotions. What do they feel they have lost, or are afraid they will lose, based on the situation? Is the loss real or imagined? What do they need to take a first step forward? If they are ready to explore with you, this is the best way to help.

5. Resistance to Change

Try to understand what they are afraid of, angry about, or disappointed about that is keeping them from moving forward. Until you find out what is at the source of the person’s emotions—what he feels is at stake if he changes, or what he isn’t getting that he needs before he can embrace the change—your words will have minimal effect. It is likely that the person may not know what is driving his behavior either. An open conversation in which you are curious and care about the person's future can bring many things to light, giving the person more choices in how to act going forward.

Always remember: Avoid judging people for their reactions. Hold them in high regard during a difficult conversation. Watch for becoming angry or disappointed yourself, and recall what you believe they are capable of achieving. You want to see the person in front of you do his best with what he knows now, and do better in the future. From this perspective, you have a chance at holding an amazing conversation that could surprise the both of you.

More from Marcia Reynolds Psy.D.
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