In order to learn and grow, employees need to receive feedback. But some people don’t realise this. Often, these employees had negative experiences of feedback in their younger years. This then influences their reactions to performance feedback at work. For people who experience feedback as a threat, it is natural to react defensively. Tears are a common defense mechanism in this situation – so managers are likely to come across them when giving feedback. Here’s how to handle them.
Manage your own state
When a staff member cries in response to feedback, you might feel upset or guilty. This is because watching someone else cry triggers a mirror neuron response – you begin to ‘catch’ the staff member’s feelings of distress. But it’s important that you stay calm and manage the situation assertively. Remember that as long as you delivered a fair and constructive feedback message, you have not done anything wrong.
So how do you stay calm when someone bursts into tears after receiving feedback? First, manage your physical reaction. Adjust your posture, so that you are holding yourself in a calm, open way. Take a couple of deep breaths. Take a moment to allow your heart beat to slow down. Then, go and sit beside the staff member.
Give them time
Next, explain to the employee that you going to give them some time to collect themselves. For example, say:
- I’m just going to sit with you a moment
- We’ll sit here for a while together
- I’m going to close the door and then come back to sit beside you
- Take all the time you need. I will stay with you
Pause for however long you need to. Allow the staff member time to work through the intensity of their feelings. Dealing with people who cry means working at a pace that is comfortable for them. Some people want to talk at this stage. Others just want to sit and cry. Whatever they do, follow their lead. If they need time alone, step out of the room for five minutes. If they want to talk, focus on listening and reflecting back their key points. Don’t push your feedback message, simply allow the staff member time to manage their emotions.
Once they’re in a more resourceful state, express empathy for the staff member’s feelings. This lets them know that you’re okay and that when someone starts crying it isn’t the end of the earth. Gently acknowledge the staff member’s feelings. Then, when appropriate, explain the benefits to them of receiving feedback. For example, you can use the following statements.
- I can see this feedback has upset you. My intention is to give you information that will help you improve. Let’s talk about what we can do about the situation.
- I’m sorry to see you’re upset. I’ve given you feedback so you can learn how to do this task more effectively. Would you like some suggestions on how to do that?
Create an action plan
Next, shift the conversation towards action planning, so that the staff member has a clear understanding of steps they can take to improve. Wrap up with a summary of the action plan. Thank the staff member for working with you to resolve the situation. Then set a time for reviewing their progress. Always end these conversations on a positive note, by reinforcing the employee’s ability to change in response to feedback.
Knowing what to say when someone starts crying will help you manage tricky feedback situations. Remember that tears are a perfectly natural response to stress and that often all you need to do is give the staff member time to digest your message. If you show empathy and respect when giving feedback, it is likely you will receive positive responses to the effort you’ve put into helping your colleague or employee improve their performance.