Handling Emotions At Work

How do you react when a colleague is struggling emotionally? Some people ignore it because it’s uncomfortable to see others express emotion. Others ask what’s wrong but freeze up when they receive a vulnerable answer. And still others try to fix it, even if that’s not the request.  

To truly be the best supporter of those experiencing emotional challenges, you must take care of your own mind first. 

Recognizing Emotional Challenges in Others 

People go through many emotional challenges, some of which have occurred in higher rates since the COVID-19 pandemic started in March 2020. Some examples: deaths in the family, cancelled plans, financial difficulties, political unrest, job changes, and being forced to work from home and experiencing isolation.  

How one person handles or reacts to a situation will differ from how someone else reacts. Some clues to look for include: 

  • Personality changes 
  • Mood swings 
  • Physically showing negative emotion 

These signs can show up unexpectedly or build with time. A minor triggering event may set them off, and these events could be anything—conflict, overwhelm, a news article, a piece of mail. These triggers reveal that there’s still an emotion to process. 

Personal difficulties affect performance in the workplace and vice versa. Impacts include reduced work performance, increased distractions, complacency, injuries, and turnover. 

Dealing with Your Emotions First 

People need to feel safe to approach you and the others on the team; safe to enter a dialogue about what they’re dealing with. They need to trust you and that can’t happen if you don’t have control over your own emotions. 

A key point here is that nobody and nothing is responsible for how you feel except you. This is a radical idea for many people and contrary to how we were taught growing up, but this concept puts all the power of your emotions back into your hands. 

Here are four ways to manage your own emotions: 

  1. Be the Watcher. Be curious instead of judgmental about your feelings. Humans are the only creatures on earth capable of metacognition, or the ability to think about what you’re thinking about. 
  2. Practice Self-Awareness. Pay attention to your thoughts, emotions, actions, and how those create the reality you live in. Ninety-five percent of people think they’re self-aware, but only 10-15% truly are.  
  3. Have Compassion for Yourself. It’s normal to feel self-judgmental and critical after we’re aware of how we’re thinking and why. But it’s never useful. Learn how to have self-compassion, and that will translate to compassion for others. 
  4. Show Vulnerability. Vulnerability is not weakness. According to Dr. Brené Brown, it’s uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. You don’t get a choice if you feel vulnerable. But you do get to choose how you respond to that feeling—by opening up to it and embracing it, or by pushing it away and avoiding it. 

Dealing with Their Emotions Second 

After you have a handle on your emotions, it’s time to handle theirs. This is uncomfortable. There’s no way around it. Uncomfortable emotions are uncomfortable, and it is okay to let them be uncomfortable. There is nothing wrong with feeling uncomfortable. We’re just not used to it. Society has conditioned us to believe that if we’re uncomfortable, something is wrong. This is not true. 

Here are four ways to handle someone else’s emotions: 

  1. Hold Space. Set aside judgment, criticism, advice, and opinions. Practice presence and commitment to what’s best for them, not what you think is best. There’s a difference. 
  2. Listen. Listen with the intent to understand—and don’t interrupt to say your piece. Most people don’t get to talk about their challenges without the other person trying to fix it. 
  3. Empathize. It’s hard to empathize and judge someone at the same time. If you were in their shoes, how would you want to be treated? 
  4. Ask. Some people don’t want you to fix their problems. They just want someone to share the burden with. Ask before acting. 

Multiple tools exist to help you and your colleagues through these phases of holding space for others. NAES HR provides an excellent EAP program available for all NAES Employees.  Attached is the poster with the needed information to utilize the NAES EAP program for additional resources.