What to Say When Someone Cries at Work

What to Say When Someone Cries at Work

When someone cries at work, showing curiosity and compassion, even if you’re uncomfortable, is core to being an emotionally intelligent leader. What should you say to someone who’s crying at work? Try something like: “Let’s pause for a moment here. I can see you’re crying. Would you like to take a break or keep going? It’s up to you.”  This is neutral language that gives someone the opportunity to choose what they want and need next. Or, say: “I’m going to stop our conversation for a second to check in with you. Can you tell me what’s going on for you right now?” This demonstrates compassion and curiosity for the person, without dramatizing or overplaying concern. Or, try: “You’re crying, so let’s pause. What would be most helpful for you right now? I’ll follow your lead.”  This acknowledges what’s happening, while empowering the person to take control.

I was recently coaching a leader who asked me, “Is it OK for me to tell someone on my team that they can’t cry at work?” Normally, as a coach, I would respond to her question with a question of my own:

“What makes you ask that?”

“What about crying feels like it shouldn’t happen at work?”

“What might the impact be of telling them that they can’t cry at work?”

But instead of taking a coaching approach, I responded instinctively and firmly, “No.”

We know from Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own that “there’s no crying in baseball,” but no movie that I’ve watched has given us a clear answer on what to do about crying at work. And there is crying at work — whether we like it or not. It may be the result of a feedback conversation that feels hard, a career planning session that’s disappointing, a difficult conversation about unrealistic expectations, or it may even seem like it comes out of nowhere. And for many of us, seeing someone cry can make us feel uncomfortable, guilty, and anxious. Why do we have that reaction? For several reasons:

Helping someone who is crying at work takes emotional intelligence, especially in the form of self-awareness and self-management. Self-awareness requires that we recognize that someone else’s emotional expression is having an impact on us, and are able to articulate what that impact is (fear, concern, anger, etc.). Self-management requires that we control our emotions in the moment, and adapt to what’s needed right now.

And what’s needed right now, in most cases, is for you to say something helpful, supportive, and brief. What isn’t needed?

So what can you say instead?

Emotions are data, and the visible (and audible) expression of emotions, like crying, shouldn’t be ignored or minimized. Showing curiosity and compassion, even if you’re uncomfortable, is core to being an emotionally intelligent leader.

Deborah Grayson Riegel is a professional speaker, as well as a communication and presentation skills coach. She has taught for Wharton Business School, Columbia Business School, and Duke Corporate Education. She is the author of Overcoming Overthinking: 36 Ways to Tame Anxiety for Work, School, and Life.

What to Say When Someone Cries at Work

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