What Should You Do When Someone Cries?

The best way to support someone when they start to cry.

Posted Oct 24, 2020

HayDmitriy/Depositphotos
Source: HayDmitriy/Depositphotos

What if crying didn’t indicate pain?

What if tears were the gift that allows us to wash away the past so we can more clearly see what’s possible in the future?

I have taught leadership and coaching classes in 41 countries. The most common question I am asked is, “What should I do when someone cries?”

Although the context in the classes explored when someone cries in a coaching or performance conversation, the best response applies to informal conversations as well – be quiet!

What do you do when someone cries? Do you suggest they come back later or do rush in to make them feel better?

When someone cries in a conversation, the other person often reacts out of their own discomfort. Their reactions are more harmful than helpful. If you rush in to soothe the crier, they might feel weak, embarrassed, or even guilty they made you uncomfortable. They might feel less understood or even disrespected.

You aren’t supporting them to process their emotions when you interrupt to render aid. The response you believe is “being supportive” could damage their sense of safety and trust. They no longer feel they can fully express themselves with you. They won’t feel comfortable reflecting on their experiences once their tears stop flowing.

They don’t need you to cheer them up. They need you to acknowledge they are okay no matter what they feel. And don’t run to get a tissue for a crier. After you give them a moment of safe silence, you can ask if they would like a tissue if one is available.

Although it is difficult to refrain from judging emotional reactions out of your own sense of safety, don’t judge crying as bad. Emotions are chemical and hormonal responses to stimuli. In your conversation, if the person reluctantly accepts a truth they had avoided facing, or they are sad about their past choices, they may cry. They need to feel safe to cry so they can process the experience and hopefully, move on.

When you don’t allow the full processing of emotions, you deny people the opportunity to fully be themselves with you. If you are coaching them, they need to feel safe enough to share all their thoughts, hesitations, doubts, and conflicts without worrying about being judged.

Can you appreciate tears as a pathway to learning? This will help them feel whole.

Empathic Concern– what you can do when they cry

Instead of feeling uncomfortable or afraid, allow yourself to sense the sadness, pain, or embarrassment they are feeling. When you share an emotional experience and feel compassion for the person, you are demonstrating  Emotional Empathy.1

However, don’t let these emotions sit in your body for too long. In their research, Sara Hodges and Robert Biswas-Diener differentiate empathic concern when you feel compassion and warmth for a person, from empathic distress when you embody their emotions over time.2 You need to breathe and release the emotions while still feeling care and respect for them. They will not only trust you but will emerge strong enough to continue the conversation.

If you follow these steps, they will feel psychological safe with you, a state that is necessary for both coaches and leaders to establish:3

  1. Recognize when you feel their emotions of sadness, embarrassment, or pain. Acknowledge the connection you feel with the person.
  2. Don’t hold onto their emotions. Exhale and relax your body. Release any tension you are holding. Let the emotion subside while still feeling compassion.
  3. All criers come out of it if you give them a safe space to process and relieve the stress that prompted their tears. They will indicate they are ready with a gesture or words, such as, “okay.” If they sit still for a long time, ask, “Can you share what is on your mind?” or “What is coming up for you now?”
  4. Once they are ready to talk about their experience, use compassionate curiosity to help them understand what their emotions might mean to them in the moment. Do they see themselves or their dilemmas differently now? Then ask how their insights relate to the outcomes they want to achieve.
  5. Accept their response. Again, use silence to let them think. Don’t push. They may not be ready to fully talk about it. What they are learning will emerge in time.

Remember, don't focus on stopping the crying by trying to make them feel better. Use this moment to help them see better. Crying may clear their view.

References

1. Jodi Clarke (2020). Cognitive vs. Emotional Empathy, Verywellmind.com.

2 Sara D. Hodges and Robert Biswas-Diener (2007). Balancing the Empathy Expense Account: Strategies for regulating empathic response. In T. Farrow & P. Woodruff (Eds.), Empathy in Mental Illness (p. 389–407). Cambridge University Press.

3 Marcia Reynolds (2016). What is Psychological Safety and How You Can Create It, Covisioning.com.