Communicating with emotional employees

These strategies can help you have supportive conversations with employees and avoid triggering negative reactions.

Effective communication involves clarity and collaboration. When employees are dealing with health or life stressors, it’s even more important for communication to be psychologically safe.

If all employees had the same experience, upbringing, current emotional state and literacy levels, you could learn one approach and stick to it. The reality is, not only do employees differ greatly in terms of how they’ll react to what you say, their individual reactions can differ during times of distress.

To be most effective, you need to develop a toolkit of communication techniques that enable you to do a few things more effectively. This includes learning to:

  • Listen first to understand the employee’s perspective and emotional state. Seek clarification to ensure your understanding of their perspective is correct. Do not agree or disagree. Simply confirm that you understand their perspective.
  • Engage the employee to focus on solutions that support them to do their job well. While your role as the leader is to ensure the solutions also meet the job role’s goals and objectives, employees are much more likely to commit to long-term outcomes when they take a lead in developing solutions. 
  • Choose the most effective communication style for the situation. Becoming adept in choosing from a variety of approaches allows you to pivot when your chosen style isn’t working effectively. Learn to take responsibility rather than blame for communication difficulties by acknowledging the conversation is going in the wrong direction and asking if you can try again. At this point, choose a different approach to reset the conversation in the right direction. 
  • Prevent triggering when giving negative feedback. Most people will respond emotionally to perceived criticism or judgment. Learning to provide negative feedback more constructively can help you reduce the intensity. 
  • Review specific approaches for the situation, such as resolving conflict, managing performance or responding to issues, like burnout, organizational change, dementia, suicide, newcomers to Canada, implicit bias, violence, impairment at work, and mental health issues
  • Teach leaders how to refer employees to resources using the tactful words to use when referring employees to mental health resources for a variety of reasons. 

Ultimately, your goal is to support employees develop a plan for their own success. Your language and communication style are critical to doing this well. Use any of the following activities and tips to help you.

Listen first to understand

Learn to listen and reflect. When an employee is upset or in crisis, listening to understand their perspective can help you avoid increasing their distress. This can help you more accurately understand not only what they’re saying (verbal communication), but also to read non-verbal communication.

Ask open-ended questions. If you want to help elicit useful information or build trust with an employee, asking open-ended questions rather than closed-ended can help – especially when employees are under stress. Check Respond to those who are emotionally distressed to learn more.

Recognize different needs and views. Remember that, when we’re stressed, it’s not unusual to struggle to say exactly what we mean. Effective listening can help you better problem-solve and generate solutions that come closer to meeting everyone’s needs. When you acknowledge perspective or how the employee feels, without agreeing or disagreeing with what they’re saying, you send a strong signal that you understand how they feel about the situation.

Engage the employee to focus on solutions

Get commitment instead of compliance. A critical component of effective communication with an emotional employee is making sure you have an exchange rather than a monologue. This is important if your goal is to get commitment rather than compliance. Compliance is a sense of a solution being imposed by force, whereas commitment means the employee is willing to work towards sustaining a positive outcome.  

Improve listening and speaking skills. When trying to manage distressed workers, and negative workplace emotions in general, it can be challenging to know exactly what to say, suggest, or do to “fix” a situation.

Develop a plan with employees rather than for them. In Developing an employee plan for leaders, you’ll learn which questions to ask, and you’ll be able to view a sample plan.

Choose the most effective communication style

Know your communication style. It’s important to understand different communication styles to help you monitor your communication and minimize your use of non-assertive patterns. It’s particularly important to be aware of your communication style when interacting with a distressed worker.

Have tough conversations. It’s inevitable that you’ll have to discuss difficult topics with employees. Addressing topics, like negative job performance, poor work ethic, sloppy appearance or inappropriate behaviour, may be a challenge. Learn to discuss difficult topics effectively. Review the Supportive conversation library for questions and strategies to help you have a supportive conversation about difficult topics, like mental health, stress, addiction, anger, abuse or lying.

Prevent triggering when giving negative feedback

Elicit feedback to help employees speak up before a situation becomes a crisis. They may not be comfortable providing feedback unless you request it. Even then, they may hesitate, suspecting that the call for feedback isn’t wholly genuine and that they’ll anger you by speaking out.

Stop using blame. Blame and shame aren’t just ineffective in motivating desired behaviours, they often backfire.

Before you say no. Learn how all employee requests or behaviours are actually attempts at meeting a need. Learn how to ask "why" before you say "no" and get to the root of the issue.

Giving negative feedback can be uncomfortable. A number of factors can get in the way of providing negative feedback to others. Typically, such barriers relate to how the recipients will feel or react emotionally, both within themselves and directly outward. It’s common to be apprehensive that recipients may turn against you.

Give negative feedback positively. Critiquing is a large part of managerial work. It can help guide workers to better performance and ultimately benefit the whole team. Learn how to Provide negative feedback constructively.

Learn to how to respond to crying and whining. Many people feel uncomfortable with these displays of emotion. Learn how to respond in a more effective way.