How To Have Difficult Conversations At Work Without Crying

Hi, I’m Nicola from The People Mentor and today, I want to talk about difficult conversations, and in particular, how to have them without crying.

One of the things that many people worry about when they have to have a difficult conversation is that they’ll lose control of their emotions. They worry about exploding with anger, getting frustrated and saying something they’ll regret, or even breaking down and crying.

Crying is something we can often feel ashamed about. How many times have you got upset and apologised for crying? Or then there’s the classic ‘boys don’t cry’ line that men are fed from a very young age.

Crying is a normal response to feeling hurt, frustrated, sad, or angry. It can be helpful in conveying how deeply we feel about something or that we need extra care.

However, there are times when crying can be a barrier to meaningful and productive dialogue. In this podcast, I’ll be looking at strategies that will help you have those difficult conversations at work without crying, as well as knowing how to deal with difficult emotions in others.

So tears…they’re tricky, aren’t they?

Think about how you feel when someone starts to cry in front of you.

You might feel uncomfortable, or you might feel moved to comfort them or address their needs in some way.

But here’s the thing, if a person reacts to feelings of stress, anger, or any other strong emotion by crying, it can mean that their emotions and needs become the priority. Meanwhile, the other person’s needs don’t get met.

If you’re about to head into what you know is going to be a difficult exchange, how do you have that difficult conversation at work without crying?

It’s hard not to get worked up when you have a difficult conversation.

The feeling that you’re under attack or you’re going to have to give up your power to some extent can put you in fight or flight mode. Your heart rate increases, your breathing gets faster and shallower, your muscles tense, and here’s the biggie- your capacity for rational thinking goes out the window.

This doesn’t exactly put you in the best place to have a difficult conversation.

Then there’s the fact that the person you’re speaking to will notice the signs of your emotional discomfort too. Your face may redden, you might raise your voice, and the tears may come. Often what will happen is that this will trigger something in the other person and they’ll feel uncomfortable too.

Thankfully, it is possible to put yourself in a better physical and emotional place to have a difficult conversation at work without crying. Here are some helpful tips.

My first tip would be to take time to reflect on the kind of conversations that tend to trigger strong emotions in you.

Maybe you feel if someone launches what you feel is a personal attack on you. Or you feel upset if someone tells a lie about you. All kinds of things can trigger tears.

Is the difficult conversation you’re about to have one that is likely to trigger your tears? Understanding this can make you feel a bit more prepared and aware of your emotional responses.

The second tip for having a difficult conversation at work without crying is to make sure you’re in the best shape to have it.

What I mean by this is:

Make sure you’ve had enough sleep.

I know I can get emotional and irritable when I haven’t had enough sleep. So make sure you’re well-rested if possible.

Another thing that’s important is to make sure you aren’t hungry.

We all may joke about getting ‘hangry’ but when your blood sugar levels drop, it can affect your mood and it can stop you from thinking clearly.

So once you’ve identified the type of conversations that trigger you and you’re sure that you’re physically okay to have the conversation, the next step is rehearsing what you’re going to say.

Making notes can help.

If you go over what you want to say in your mind, or out loud, you can pay attention to how you feel when you’re speaking. Are there points in the conversation where you feel like the tears may come?

If so, pause and take a deep breath. Run through your conversation ‘script’ a few times and it can help to reduce the triggering effect of the words.

Of course, there’s no way of knowing how the other person will react, but at least you’ll hopefully feel a little bit more in control of how you react.

Another helpful and very simple thing that we often forget to do when we’re having difficult conversations is to just breathe.

When you notice yourself getting tense, focus on your breathing. If you’re tense, your breathing is probably shallow, so focus on breathing as deeply as you can, in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to make your exhaling longer than your inhaling.

This sounds very simple, but deep breathing can calm your nervous system and give you that pause that you need.

As well as focusing on your breath, you can bring a bit more mindfulness into play during difficult conversations by focusing on your body.

If you’re sitting on a chair, notice how your body feels. Feel your feet planted firmly on the floor. Your back against the chair. Notice any sensations in your body. This can be quite grounding and it can help if you need to stop an endless train of anxious thoughts.

Speaking of thoughts, the thing to know about them is that they’re not facts. For example, telling yourself that your team member hates you and wants to make your life as difficult as possible is not going to help you while you’re having a difficult conversation with them.

Instead of letting your thoughts and emotions take over, try acknowledging them and giving them a name.

So instead of telling yourself that your team member hates you and wants to make your life a misery, tell yourself something like “ I’m feeling angry because I’m having the thought that my team member just wants to make my life difficult.”

This is much more empowering for you because you’ve labelled the emotion and thought as just that. Neither are facts. It also allows you to put some space between you and your emotions which is a handy thing to have, especially if you want to have difficult conversations at work without crying.

This brings me nicely to my next tip. If things get too much, take a break.

Sometimes, things get a bit heated or intense, and it helps to take a break. A good thing to do is apologise for interrupting and say you’d love to get a cup of coffee before continuing the conversation.

Ask if you can get them anything because you don’t want them to think you are just desperate to escape.

That brief break from the intensity might be just enough to stop you from crying or exploding. While you’re getting the coffee, use the time to gather your thoughts or go through the things you need to say again. Use this time for breathing exercises too.

Remember that difficult conversations are called difficult for a reason.

They can provoke strong emotions and sometimes, despite taking the time to prepare and rehearse what you’re going to say, you can still end up in tears.

If this does happen, know that all is not lost.

If you cry, acknowledge it to yourself and the other person. Tell them that getting upset was not your intention and if it seems appropriate, ask if they’d be willing to have the conversation at another time.

Learn from how it went and hopefully the next time you attempt the conversation, the emotions may have settled and there’s a chance that you’ll be clearer in your mind about what you want to say.

Now let’s turn things around a bit.

What if you manage to have a difficult conversation at work without crying, but it’s the other person who gets upset?

In any tough conversation, you have to keep in mind that you’re not the only one who’s upset or feeling intense emotions. The other person will probably be angry, anxious, frustrated, or sad too.

Your first instinct might be to tell them to breathe or take a break, but it may be that they just want to vent. You can end up on the receiving end of their tears or anger.

In this situation, don’t meet their negative emotion with your own negative emotions. Show that you’re listening to them and you care that they are upset.

So what should you do if you’re met with a team member’s difficult emotions when you’re having a conversation?

Even if you want to run for the hills, don’t. Here are some tips on how to handle someone else’s difficult emotions.

Let’s start with what to do if someone starts crying.

Crying is a natural response to hurt, disappointment, sadness, stress, or even anger. If you’re having a difficult conversation with someone and they start crying, allow them to take a moment. Stay calm and quiet, and wait for a sign that they are ready to carry on.

If you have tissues, offer them.

If the crying is uncontrollable, offer to reschedule the discussion. Only do this if giving them some time to compose themselves hasn’t worked though. You don’t want to make them feel embarrassed or ‘wrong’ for crying.

The next common emotion someone might have in a difficult conversation is embarrassment.

Don’t offer glib remarks to make them feel better. Again, give them a moment, then when you sense they are ready to carry on, ask questions about what they have learned from the situation and what they will do differently from now on.

Instead of placating or even worse, shaming them, encouraging them to learn from the situation will help them grow.

Another very common response you’ll get during a difficult conversation is anger or defensiveness.

It’s very hard not to meet fire with fire sometimes in the face of someone’s anger. But it is important not to fan the flame.

Of course, if you feel that the situation is putting you at risk of being harmed, you should leave as soon as possible. Otherwise, try to rationalise how the person is feeling. Try to see their anger as a natural reaction to something they’d rather not have heard.

Allow the person to vent, then if they start to calm down, try to get down to discussing what the real issues are. Make sure you make them feel listened to and give helpful responses, not defensive ones.

If they remain too angry for a constructive discussion, suggest rescheduling the meeting.

Another emotion you may encounter with someone else is fear or confusion.

If the person you are talking to is fearful or confused, listen to them. Ask questions about their fear or confusion, and tell them that you want to understand it so you can offer support.

If you show you care and you make them feel listened to and understood, they are more likely to open up to you.

Once their emotions hopefully start to lose their intensity, try to help them get to the bottom of why they are feeling the way they are. Find out what support they need to move forward.

The final emotion I want to look at is resistance to change. I used to see this quite often because as you probably know, most people tend not to be that fond of change.

They can be afraid of it, angry about it, or disappointed about it.

If you’re having a conversation with someone who is unwilling or unable to embrace change, your job as a manager is to find out what is at the heart of how they feel.

What do they feel they might lose as a result of change?

Why don’t they feel ready for it?

There’s a chance that the person might not know why they feel the way they do, so you can help them explore that in a caring and curious way. Help them realise that they do have choices going forward.

Before I finish this episode of The People Mentor podcast, I want to give you some food for thought.

Firstly, when you’re having a difficult conversation and someone gets upset or angry, try to avoid judging people for how they react.

We are all only human and we can never control someone else’s emotions or behaviour. You can control your own though, so your priority should be managing your emotions first and recalling what you know about this person when they are at their best.

Secondly, remember that you aren’t a counsellor or psychologist.

If it becomes evident during the conversation that the person needs help that you can’t provide, signpost them to appropriate help.  If you want to find out if there’s anything you can do, ask.

Lastly, I want to leave you with some encouragement about difficult conversations. Yes, they can be very emotionally demanding, but they are part of life, especially for managers. Done properly, they don’t ruin working relationships, they strengthen them.

Even when they don’t go as well as you hoped, they are still an opportunity to learn and grow. Sometimes they even get easier with practice!

Do you feel like you need some support with having difficult conversations?

When it comes to thinking about what to say and how to say it, do you feel way out of your depth?

Are there issues that desperately need to be addressed but you can’t seem to rip off the plaster and have that difficult conversation?

My ‘Making Difficult Conversations Easier’ mentoring programme is all about helping managers have the confidence to deal with problems, hold difficult conversations, and build engagement to create an open, honest, and high-performing workforce.

Imagine having a team where nobody is scared to speak up about something, that performs better and is productive, engaged, and profitable. Imagine that everyone wants to work together for the good of the business and no issue is insurmountable.

It’s all possible.

Book a discovery call here

That’s all from today’s podcast. I hope it gave you some food for thought and that it makes some of those difficult conversations you’ve been dreading feel that bit easier.

Goodbye for now, and see you next time.

Want to explore difficult conversations more, listen to this podcast/blog

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