3 Steps for Responding to Emotions at Work


A consultant was meeting with an executive recently when the executive opened up about his stress and anxiety. The consultant was in a dilemma. He had an agenda and goals for the meeting, but this executive clearly had a need to be heard.

Maybe you’ve been in a similar situation—on either side of that conversation. Sometimes people talk about what’s really weighing on their minds, but it’s a rare thing, especially in the work environment. We protect ourselves and don’t think others really care. When it does come out, though, it can be hard to control, like releasing water under pressure.

The way in which we respond to others’ opening up will either drown us or float us to a new level of trust.

flood gate

In the meeting between the consultant and the executive, there were two agendas at play, and it seems to me that the word “agenda,” is a good place to start when considering how to respond. Try looking at these three perspectives on the word to effectively blend the competing agendas in the conversation:

  1. Suspend your agenda. One definition of agenda is “the underlying intention or motives.” When the other person is vulnerable, it’s important to move your intentions down a rung. In any situation, it’s hard to go wrong by caring more about someone than what you are trying to accomplish. To adjust your mindset, consider questions like: What are they feeling? What do they need? What does the world look like through their eyes
  2. Clarify their agenda. The second definition of agenda is “a plan of problems to be addressed.” Helping someone process what’s weighing on their mind is one of the greatest gifts that we can give. Last year I wrote about the difference between asking guiding questions and leading questions. The goal isn’t to lead the witness but to guide them forward by asking questions that help them process and plan. Ask broad questions like: What do you want? How do you want to this to end? Where do we go from here
  3. Honor your agenda. The third definition of agenda is “a list of items to be discussed at a meeting.” Monitor your own capacity and needs for supporting another person’s emotional process, and give yourself permission to establish boundaries and end the flow so that you don’t drown. You can say things like: This is really important and difficult. Since we just have 10 minutes left in our meeting and two agenda items to cover, is it OK if we keep going?

When the floodgates open and the emotion is released, the way you blend agendas will make all the difference. Which definition of agenda is most difficult for you to manage?

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