leadership development


Part 3 of 6 in a Series of Managing Five Common Emotional Reactions


Let’s face it, when someone starts crying during a feedback conversation, it can make even the most experienced manager uncomfortable. It’s hard to know what to do, and our own emotional reactions can get in the way of thinking clearly. Here are a few tips…

If you are having a feedback conversation and the other person begins to cry, be sure to pause and give them time. They may just need a moment to gather their thoughts or emotions. Be aware of your own reaction. You may be feeling uncomfortable with their crying which may compel you to say or do something inappropriate (such as touching their arm for reassurance when they actually don’t want to be touched, or you start to back off or sugarcoat the feedback to make them feel better). Become gentler with your tone of voice and show you care, but don’t shrink from your intention to have the feedback conversation with them now, or at some point.

Acknowledge that they are emotional but don’t assume you know exactly what is happening for them. Confirm your intentions and show some compassion. For example, “I’m sorry this conversation is upsetting for you. That’s not my intention at all. I know having a feedback conversation can be difficult. My intent is to be clear and honest with you to help you improve” or “I care about your success and want to help you to learn and develop your skills and behavior in any way I can. Sometimes this will mean having feedback conversations. I’m happy to give you a little time, if that’s what you need right now”.

Avoid saying things like “I know how you feel” (you don’t), or “Please stop crying” (that won’t help them) or “I’m sorry.” Don’t apologize for their emotion as you are NOT responsible for it. They are. You ARE responsible for creating a safe environment to hold the conversation, and for giving effective and appropriate feedback.

If the crying continues, attempt to discover specifically what they are upset about and use their name. For example, “Pat, I really want to make it safe and comfortable enough to have this conversation. Can you help me understand what is happening for you?” If you don’t get a response, after a pause try a second time. For example “Pat, it would really help if you could find a way to tell me what the tears are about? I really want to understand and I want to help.”

If the crying still continues, ask what they would like to do, “Pat, what would you like to do right now?” If they are silent, it may be a good idea to suggest a break and resume again in a while (the same day). “Would it help if we took a brief break?” This may give them a feeling of relief from the emotional charge of the moment. If appropriate, be clear this is temporary and stay firm in your convictions to hold the conversation at some point. For example, “Okay Pat let’s take a break then if that will help” then agree that you will reconvene, and if possible decide when that will be.

At some point, when the emotional charge of the conversation is resolved, ask for feedback about the process so you can understand what you can both do differently in the future to create the safety required to have these conversations. For example: “Pat I want to make it comfortable enough for you to have this two way conversation with me. Can you help me understand what each of us can do to make that happen? What can I do? And what could you do?” Share the responsibility for this, you don’t have to own it all.

Lastly, this may be obvious, but it never hurts to have tissues available and easily accessible. It’s usually okay to place the box near them without needing to say anything. This avoids the awkward scramble in the moment!

This is the third in a series of blogs to help you manage five common emotional reactions that can be triggered during feedback conversations:

  1. How to Deal with Emotional Reactions in Feedback Conversations
  2. How to Deal with Silence
  3. How to Deal with Crying
  4. How to Deal with Disagreement
  5. How to Deal with Taking Offense
  6. How to Deal with Anger

This series of blogs is adapted from our Great Feedback Workbook.  To learn more about our Great Feedback Training, contact us at [email protected].

Add Your Heading Text Here

Share this post: