Have you ever had a breakdown at the office, or tried to face a colleague who was upset? Maybe you cried because you were overworked, like Mark, who had to cancel dinner plans on his birthday to work overtime, or Gibson, who shed a tear when his colleague didn’t contribute to his company project. Or maybe you cried because you were happy, like Samiah, who convinced her company to award $10,000 in scholarships to young women of color.
Regardless of your experience, emotions are a fact of life—extending beyond our personal lives to the workplaces in which we spend our time. Acknowledging the role they play is the first step to creating a positive and sustainable workplace environment.
The Role of Emotions at Work
In No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power Of Embracing Emotions At Work, co-authors Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy break down the myth that suppressing your emotions at work is key to professionalism. Instead, they argue, embracing our emotions can help us foster a better workplace experience and enable us to lead more fulfilling careers. For example, recognizing feelings of envy can teach us about our aspirations. Disappointment or frustration, such as after missing a deadline or receiving negative feedback from a higher up, can give us the clarity and motivation we need to achieve our goals.
The trouble begins when we let ourselves become overwhelmed by too much negative emotion at work. It can seem difficult to manage these emotions in a healthy or “professional” way, so we often suppress them instead, letting them build until we act out.
If you find yourself navigating an uncomfortable situation at work where emotions are running high, follow these strategies to stay calm and turn that negative energy into something more productive.
Understanding Others’ Emotions
Pay attention to nonverbal cues: You’ll often notice a change in behavior before an employee admits that something is wrong, or has an emotional outburst. Look out for signs of negative emotions—frowning, crossed arms, withdrawal, avoiding eye contact—so that you can anticipate an employee’s needs and address them early on.
Listen to what they have to say: Don’t be judgmental or attempt to trivialize the issue. Instead, support the individual by giving them the space to vent, and don’t interrupt while they do so.
Acknowledge their feelings: Acknowledging another person’s thoughts and feelings doesn’t have to mean that you approve or agree with them. Phrases like, “I’m sorry that happened,” or, “That must have been a very frustrating experience,” allow the person to feel heard and ultimately understood.
Ask them what they need: Ask the person what they need to feel better. Do they want to talk about what happened? Would they prefer to step out and take a break? Ask them why they are feeling what they’re feeling, and (if you can) help them find the root cause of the problem and start thinking about a resolution.
Set expectations: If you’re a manager or in a position of authority, it’s important to set expectations about what behavior is acceptable and what’s not welcome in your workplace. There’s a difference between crying in the bathroom and screaming at another employee in front of a team.
Understanding Your Own Emotions
Identify what you’re feeling: Are you angry, sad, or stressed? Acknowledging your emotions can lead to understanding, personal growth, and even change. Don’t suppress them!
Excuse yourself: We all react differently when we’re upset. Some of us sweat, some of us get red in the face, some of us cry or shake. Whatever your reaction, take some time to acknowledge your physical responses to the emotions that you’re feeling.
Try some deep breathing or counting exercises. Take a walk around the office or step outside for some fresh air. Do what you need to do to calm down and get yourself back in control. This doesn’t have to draw attention or cause a scene, either. Simply asking, “Do you mind if I step out and get a drink of water?” can remove you from the situation, get your mind focused on something else, and allow you to regain your composure.
Communicate: Avoid communicating and making decisions until you’re no longer heated. Then be honest about what upset you to help prevent a similar occurrence from happening in the future. If someone upset you directly, try to have a conversation with them about it, or write down your feelings if that’s more helpful for you to prevent further escalation.
If you were getting emotional due to a particular project or other work-related stressor, set up a one-on-one meeting with your manager to talk through what’s working and what isn’t. Don’t hesitate to consult your Human Resources team if you need additional help, advice, or someone to act as a mediator.
Problem solve: Once you have a clear head, think back to why you became emotional, and ask yourself what can be done about it. Why do you think you reacted the way you did? What can you personally change, or what can be done to change someone else’s behavior, the project you’re working on, or the workplace as a whole? Your emotions can reveal a lot about what’s going well at work, and what can be done differently, if you’re willing to embrace them.