How to Talk with a Coworker Who’s Having a Tough Time
By Deborah Grayson Riegel in Harvard Business Review.
Everyone has bad days at work — and some of us have more than others. Whether you’re frustrated because you didn’t hit your sales numbers, or angry that your colleague was promoted instead of you, or sad that layoffs have impacted your department, negative emotions have a place at work, like it or not.
It’s one thing for you to feel sad, mad, or bad — and to know yourself well enough to predict that you’ll work through it and (hopefully) get over it shortly. It’s another thing when your colleague is having an extended tough stretch, and you’re thinking to yourself, “Shouldn’t he be over it already?”
While you may understand from an intellectual perspective that bouncing back from setbacks takes time, you might be feeling impatient. Why? Because your colleague’s disappointment or despair may be impacting the quality or quantity of his work, which impacts your work. Furthermore, research shows that emotions are “contagious” — and the longer your peer is feeling upset, the more likely those feelings are to rub off on you. In addition, your repertoire of supportive strategies may be wearing thin, and you may feel like you’ve run out of ways to feel helpful, empathetic, or even interested.
Nevertheless, as much as you may want your colleague to buck up — for himself and for you — you can’t rush his process any more than he can. You can, of course, make things worse, by ignoring him, judging him, confronting him, avoiding him, talking about him behind his back, or telling him some version of “enough, already!” As they say, the only way out of it is through it — so giving your colleague an opportunity to go through his emotional experience will actually move him closer to closure.
So how can you contribute to making things better? By acknowledging where he is emotionally right now, and by giving him an opportunity to reflect on how he feels, what he needs, or what’s in his way, as well as letting him brainstorm what he wants to do to make things better for himself. You can do all of this while engaging in “experiential acceptance” — a willingness to non-judgmentally remain in contact with negative emotions, and other difficult experiences. What does that look like?
Instead of saying “You’re making too big a deal about this,” try saying: “It seems like this is impacting you in a significant way. Tell me more about what’s going on…”
What makes this better: Rather than you sitting in judgement about the depth or breadth of your colleague’s reaction (which he is likely to feel, and not appreciate), you’re simply noticing the impact the situation is having on him, and offering him air time.
Instead of saying “Stop worrying so much,” try saying: “You seem very worried. What’s concerning you most?”
What makes this better: Rather than telling your colleague how to feel (which rarely, if ever, works), you’re acknowledging how he does feel, and then inviting him to explore what’s driving that emotion.
Instead of saying “You need to get over it,” try saying: “It sounds like you’re still thinking about it. What do you need to move forward?”
What makes this better: Rather than commanding him to stop being so uncomfortable (maybe because he’s making you uncomfortable), you’re letting him know that you hear that he is upset. And then you give him the opportunity to brainstorm his own solutions.
Insisting that someone stop feeling bad because it’s making you feel bad isn’t supportive. For as long as negative emotions show up at work (which is probably forever), you’ll be better off if you have some strategies to help your colleagues through it. And who knows? You might even need one of those tactics yourself one day.
Deborah Grayson Riegel is a principal at The Boda Group, a leadership and team development firm. She also teaches management communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.