Last week one of my friends was concerned about something happening at her son’s school. She wrote out what she planned to say to the school principal and sent it to me to read. Her letter was long, with lots of unnecessary details. I read five paragraphs before understanding what the situation was even about. I revised her letter. My version was three sentences and easy to write. Why? Because it’s not my child and not my situation.
One of the things that makes giving feedback and making requests particularly difficult, is our emotional involvement. We’re invested in the outcome. The stakes feel high. And that emotion makes everything harder.
If you’re struggling with a message you need to deliver, get some help. The person who helps you craft a succinct, specific, and unemotional message doesn’t have to be a feedback expert or a manager. The person just can’t be involved. As long as the person isn’t emotionally involved, they’ll be helpful.
When you ask for help, don’t ask for advice. Instead of asking a friend or colleague, “What would you do in this situation,” ask, “What would you say?” These are very different questions. You want the specific words to resolve whatever you’re struggling with.
Asking someone for help planning a challenging conversation or message begs the question, isn’t asking for that type of help a form of gossip? It could be. So be careful who you ask.
When asking for help planning a message or conversation, ask someone in your organization who is at your same level or above (title-wise) or ask someone outside of the organization. Change the names of the people involved; protect people’s anonymity. And be clear if you are asking for help to plan a conversation or if you are venting. They are not the same.
The most effective feedback and requests are unemotional, factual, and succinct. Sometimes we need other people who are not involved to help us get there.
When confronted with a challenging conversation or situation, everyone has a reaction of some type. Some people laugh nervously. Some people get quiet and retreat. Other people turn red. Others yell. And some people cry. All of these reactions are normal and natural.
If people didn’t have emotions we’d be androids. And while there are probably days you wish your coworkers acted more like Siri, if the people you work with don’t think more critically than your iPhone, they aren’t of much use to you.
The problem with expressing emotions at work is that it makes people uncomfortable. And often when people are uncomfortable, they don’t know what to do. They just want the situation to go away. And unfortunately in this situation, that means they want you to go away, which is not how you want your boss, coworkers, or customers to think about you.
Avoid crying at work. It makes the person across from you feel uncomfortable and helpless. Men and women alike don’t know what to do when someone they work with cries. They just want the person to stop crying or leave.
I’ve heard some people describe criers as manipulative, as if they cry to orchestrate a certain outcome. I don’t believe that. I think people who cry at work do so involuntarily. It’s their natural reaction to stress. That said, crying at work is not good for professional reputations or relationships.
Here’s what you should do if you have a crier in your office:
- Hand the person a tissue.
- Know that you are responsible for how you deliver information. You are not responsible for the person’s reaction.
- If the person can continue the conversation, keep talking.
- If s/he can’t continue the conversation, end it and talk another day. Say something like, “I can see this is very difficult, and I’m very sorry about that. Why don’t we finish the conversation another day.”
- If the person doesn’t leave your office, stand up and open your door. That will prompt the other person to stand up.
Here’s what you should do if you’re a crier:
- Don’t have difficult conversations when you’re tired, stressed, or are having a bad day.
- Practice potentially difficult conversations so you feel more prepared and in control.
- Know that nothing is personal.
- If you sense you are going to cry, get out of the meeting before you do.
- Take a walk outside to burn off stress.
- If you cry in a meeting, apologize and try to stop.
- If you can’t, excuse yourself from the meeting and circle back to the person when you’re more composed.
None of these suggestions are intended to sound cold or unempathetic. Instead, they’re intended to help criers manage their professional reputation and career. You don’t want someone to be afraid to give you bad news because they fear your reaction. Anything that gets in the way of telling you the truth makes it likely that you won’t get real feedback. And without consistent, candid feedback, you’re working in the dark.
Not knowing how you come across and how your work is perceived are the things that lead to being fired, overlooked for projects, and laid off. Make it easy to tell you the truth by managing your emotions during difficult conversations. As hard and at times seemingly unrealistic as it seems, leave your feelings in your car.