Crying at work is more common than we believe it to be. Yet, it’s an act linked to embarrassment. Though crying gives us a sense of release, research shows that why we cry and who sees us do it appears to make a difference in whether crying helps or hurts our emotional state. Given the pandemic, the uncertainty, and unrest the world is experiencing, we are more likely to witness someone cry now than ever before. What can we do when a colleague cries?

  1. Manage your discomfort first. Most of us view crying as an intense emotion, and when we cry, need privacy. So, when we see someone cry, we feel awkward and uncomfortable. We worry that it might escalate into something bigger and that we might not be able to help. We wonder if we did something to contribute to it or might want to fix the problem.

But, if we’d like to help someone, we have to manage our feelings. Says Deborah Reigel, author and speaker, “Helping someone who is crying at work takes emotional intelligence in two forms – self-awareness which requires we recognize that someone else’s emotional expression is having an impact on us, and are able to articulate what that impact is (fear, concern, anger, etc.). Self-management which requires that we control our emotions in the moment and adapt to what’s needed right now.”

  1. Know that not everyone is sad. While it’s true that people could cry when they are sad, significant gender and cultural differences are at play here. A 2008 study found that 2% of American males cry due to anger as opposed to 51% of women. Crying while fighting with a loved one appears more acceptable for women, perhaps because they feel less free to express anger openly than men. Then there are mental health challenges, and also tears of joy – when people feel overwhelmed with good news. Thus, there are many reasons why people cry.

So, what do you say when your colleague is crying? “Let’s pause for a moment here. I can see you’re crying. Can you tell me what’s going on for you right now?” This shows compassion and curiosity.

  1. Don’t tell them how to feel. When we are not able to manage our discomfort, we tend to fix people’s feelings. We say things like, “That’s no reason to cry!” or “You know better than to react this way,” or “I know exactly how you feel because (share personal story)”. In all these instances, we are telling people what to do or feel. That reduces trust and safety. Instead, just say, “I see you might be having a hard time. I’ll be with you and we can talk when you’re ready.” Or, “Please tell me what would be most helpful right now.”

Managing emotions are a great way to strengthen relationships and build psychological safety. Start with your own and then extend a helping hand to others.

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