TEARS Undermine Your Influence

Manage Crying Response

During workplace communications, some of us have a tendency to tear up during tense situations. If your eyes spring a temporary leak – that is, you find yourself caught with your emotions showing in the form of tears, realize two important concepts:

1. Even though not everybody has the habit, it’s a normal reaction to cry in certain circumstances. It need not cause you to feel embarrassed or defeated.

2. You need to be able to control your tears, because no matter how understanding others appear to be, crying in the workplace has a negative impact on your ability to communicate with influence.

To Handle a Tearful Reaction

There are several strategies you can employ:

Take a short break with a calm, but firm announcement. “I’m having some feelings and don’t want them to interfere with our discussion. I’m going to take a ten minute break and then I’ll come back and we can complete our business.” Go out of the building and breathe outside air while you walk rapidly for a couple of minutes. Then wash your face with cold water.

Breathe deeply, starting by first exhaling completely – push all the air out of your lungs. After pausing for at least three seconds, take two deep breaths through your nose, hold the breath without closing your air passage, and then exhale evenly. Taking deep breaths means pulling air into your lungs so that it pushes your stomach out. A ‘breath’ that merely lifts your shoulders is not really deep.

Press your finger firmly against your upper lip, right below your nose. You don’t have to look like Charlie Chaplin, just assume a thoughtful pose. Pressing your tongue against the roof of your mouth may also work.

Move your eyes all the way to the left, then all the way to the right. You can do this with your eyes open or closed, but closing them may help remove tears.

Take a drink of water – slowly. This is particularly helpful if you’ve got a lump in your throat to get rid of.

Blow your nose or yawn and stretch.

Squeeze the ‘v’ of skin between your thumb and forefinger – a hard pinch in conjunction with those deep breaths.

Have a short power meditation that you can recite to yourself – perhaps a personal affirmation like

“I choose my emotions

and do not give others permission to push my buttons.”

Or a line from a favorite story or poem that evokes an image of being in control – such as Maya Angelou’s

“Come, you may stand upon my

Back and face your distant destiny,

But seek no haven in my shadow.

I will give you no hiding place down here.”Help Others Regain ControlIf it’s the person you’re having a conversation with that’s being sabotaged by tears, offer what you can from this same list. A simple choice that will help them feel in control is good:  “Would you like to take a couple of minutes right now to collect your thoughts? Or would you rather get back together right after lunch?”Another good choice to offer is control over the environment. “Is this a good place to talk? Or would you be more comfortable walking outside?”

Never forget that you’re in a professional environment and the rules about behavior and respect are still in force. You can soften your voice, extend a box of tissues, or offer a glass of water, but this is not a time to reach out and touch someone.

Empathy is a good quality, but don’t agree that the situation is more than they can control. It is imperative that tears be temporary and that the person with the crying reaction be treated as an adult capable of managing their emotions.

There are three typical reasons an employee might start crying at work.

  1. Their tear-trigger is uncomfortably close to the surface and they start crying when their emotional buttons have been pushed even a little bit.
  2. They’ve learned through experience that people don’t know how to handle crying, so it frequently gets them out of an uncomfortable situation.
  3. It has nothing to do with work. A personal issue is dominating their thoughts.

In any event, there’s a limit, and it comes with a box of tissues (standard equipment for any supervisor’s office). The question is, “Would you like just a moment to collect your thoughts, and then we’ll proceed? Or if you think it would help to have more time, we can take a break now, and pick this up first thing in the morning.” (Or at whatever appropriate time you decide.)

The key is that you’ve given them a choice they get to control, while making it clear that the discussion will continue. If they return to tears in the follow-up discussion, just acknowledge that, “I can see this bothers you, and we’ll get through it now so that you don’t have to worry about it any more.”

Your key is calm acceptance of their problem – no blame for crying – while maintaining absolute clarity that the topic under discussion will be completed and tears won’t get in the way.

If the tears are a leftover from something outside of work that’s bothering them, you’ll need to be soft first, and then firm. Understand that sometimes things come up at the wrong times, and give them time to work through it. Before you finish, however, they need to give you their plan for keeping their focus on work and leaving their personal issues out of work.

Sometimes, you’ll feel that somebody just needs some emotional support. As kind-hearted as you may be, that is not the supervisor’s job. You can ask if there’s a co-worker who would be good to have on hand for ten minutes to help. But the supervisor must maintain a professional distance, because the supervisor’s job is to handle a work-related problem – not to be the employee’s weeping shoulder. Should the problem get out of control and you must terminate an employee for inability to focus on the job, there must be no possibility for them to say, “They fired me because my boss knows all about my problem,” or “The boss kept hugging me.”

Tears are natural, and it is up to the person in charge to make sure they don’t go beyond their natural limit.