When I’m facilitating leadership development workshops or coaching executives, I often find that participants – who are often very high performing individuals — really struggle with how to handle emotions that arise during important conversations. I’m not even talking about those really difficult situations where someone has an angry outburst or is crying in their office. I’m talking about the conversations that happen every day. It may be those times when a new mandate comes down from corporate that causes disruption and frustration. It can be when the individual has made a mistake. It’s when deadlines are tight, and tension and stress run high.
For many of these leaders, the natural reaction is to jump in and act, to focus on tasks, figuring out what needs to be done move things forward or fix the situation. The problem with this approach is that the emotions get in the way. Until someone feels their emotions are recognized and addressed, it’s challenging to just push through or get on with it.
We need to start those conversations with empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand the other person’s experience, perspectives and feelings. These five tips can help you become more comfortable with and skilled at putting feelings first:
Check in on yourself. How do you feel about engaging with you team members about their emotions related to work situations? Are you aware of what you naturally do when presented with others’ emotions? Do you go right to task? Do you just try to avoid the conversation until the emotions go away? Are you naturally empathic? The starting point for increasing your empathy is to start with understanding yourself.
Increase your social awareness. How good are you at picking up on how people are feeling? It comes naturally to some people and is difficult for others. One way to do this is be present in the conversation with the person. Don’t be thinking about the meeting you just had or what is on your to-do list. Do a gut check with yourself. Are you completely focused on this individual and this conversation right now? This can take practice. If this is a development area for you, keep practicing.
Recognize the emotions the person is feeling. Call out what the individual is experiencing. Say something like “that sounds really frustrating” or “these deadlines are stressful. I’m not surprised that you feel overwhelmed.” Many times, people feel like their emotions aren’t recognized enough, especially at work. Speaking to the emotions will help the person feel those emotions are important.
If you don’t know how they’re feeling, ask. Rather than shying away from emotions, ask about them. A simple question like “how are you doing with the change that was just announced?”
Recognize when someone feels really good about something that you may need to say no to. To this point, my tips have focused on negative emotions. Sometimes people come to us with really positive emotions connected with something that can’t move forward. Rather than simply telling them it can’t be done and why it can’t be done, recognize the positive they see in it. Saying something like “I can see why you would be really excited about that idea. Unfortunately, we can’t move forward with that for two reasons.” This recognition of how they feel will keep the individual from feeling embarrassed or unrecognized by having an idea turned down. Also, remember: do NOT use the word “but” after you recognize it. The word ‘but’ is interpreted as nullifying everything said before it.
By recognizing emotions that impact how people are feeling about their work, their team and the work environment, you can then more effectively move to the task at hand.