How supportive leaders approach emotional conversations

The past two years of heightened emotional stress have made it increasingly clear that managers need to focus on satisfying and supporting the emotional well-being of employees. It’s no longer enough to simply provide the tools and operational resources for your team to function – you must also create psychological safety for it to thrive. It means feeling comfortable with uncomfortable conversations.

It can be difficult to know what to say when someone reveals something painful or emotional to you. For example, one of our clients, Evie*, an IT manager, had a miscarriage while working from home a few years ago. Her boss, Mike*, realized something was wrong and called her to check in and see how she was feeling. When he called, she knew she couldn’t lie, so she took a deep, brave breath and shared, “You know, to be completely transparent with you, I want to let you know that I’m currently doing a fake diaper and I really struggle with that…mentally and physically. Mike was silent for a long time before finally saying, “Well…do what you have to do” and quickly ending the phone call. Mike’s reaction has stayed with Evie to this day, years later. In a moment of loss and pain, she felt totally unsupported. Was that his intention? No, but that was his impact.

As leaders, it is imperative that we take the time to learn how to present ourselves for our employees, no matter how uncomfortable the situations they face may be for us. For productivity and innovation to thrive, we must create environments where the team members we serve can thrive. Kelly Greenwood and Julia Anas, who surveyed 1,500 American adults in full-time jobs, describe the benefits of supporting employee mental health in their article “It’s a New Era for Mental Health in the Workplace.” They write:

Respondents who felt supported by their employer also tended to be less likely to experience mental health symptoms, less likely to underperform and miss work, and more likely to feel comfortable talk about their mental health at work. Additionally, they had higher job satisfaction and intentions to stay with their company. Finally, they had a more positive view of their company and its leaders, including having confidence in their company and being proud to work there.

Shortly after the shutdown began in 2020, we heard a client say his executives were asking him how he was doing more often, but it was clear he didn’t know how to respond to the responses, which ranged from “OK” to “struggle” to “drown” and beyond. Recording is an important first step, but it’s how you react to what’s shared that creates the ultimate impact. Using emotional supportive language is an important part of this.

What emotionally dismissive language looks like

Many leaders are unaware when they are using emotionally dismissive and potentially dangerous language with their employees. What we have seen in the hundreds of leaders we have served is that unintentionally dismissive language often comes from a place of benevolence. They want to support the person, help them through their problem, minimize their pain. Sometimes, in an attempt to minimize the pain, they also minimize the person.

On the other hand, some leaders believe that emotions have no place in the workplace. This lack of empathy can prevent them from understanding who the person is and what they are going through. They ignore the reality that emotions inform decision making and problem solving, and they fail to tap into the opportunities for growth that emotions can create. Ignoring emotions does not make them go away.

Let’s look at some common scenarios that arise when people share mental and emotional struggles:

  • dismissive sentence, like “Why do you have to be sad?” or “You shouldn’t be sad, you have a great job/family/etc.”
  • Minimizationwhich can range from “Everyone feels like this sometimes” to “It’s nothing to worry about”.
  • Negation, which usually sounds like “Hey, it could be worse!” or “It’s just a ‘first world problem’.”
  • Prescribe solutionslike saying “You shouldn’t worry” or “You just need to get some more sleep”.
  • toxic positivity, which may sound like: “Just look on the bright side!” or “Everything happens for a reason!” A positive perspective can be helpful, but can become unproductive when it’s the only perspective offered.

Using dismissive language in this way can send a message to the recipient that their feelings and difficulties aren’t real or are unnecessary, and it can even amplify any shame already present. If someone comes to you because they’re in trouble, the last thing you want is for them to leave unseen, heard, and unsupported.

What emotional support language looks like

Becoming a more emotionally supportive leader requires emotional intelligence. Farah Harris, wellness expert and founder of WorkingWell Daily, described emotionally intelligent leaders to me as “comfortable with emotions, whether they arise in themselves or in others. They create a sense of belonging because their behaviors allow their team members to be seen and heard.

Emotionally intelligent leaders don’t hide behind a shield of detachment when someone presents them with a struggle. They can regulate their own emotions and help others to do the same.

Here are six ways to be supportive when someone shares an emotional situation or challenge:

Validate their experience.

Validation can be as simple as recognition – for example, “I can see why this is exhausting.” Especially when experiencing mental health issues, people can feel lonely and even broken. By validating someone’s experience, you’re not just saying “I see you,” you’re also saying “I believe you,” which can provide comfort during a difficult time.

Seek to understand.

Give your team members room to elaborate if they want. Coming from a place of curiosity can be powerful – for example, “Tell me more about this.” When we seek to understand, we show the other person that we care about them, that we want to support them, and that we want to know more so that we can do more.

Guide emotional and physical support.

When someone is struggling, you might ask, “How can I best support you right now?” or “What would be useful right now?” In a moment of intense emotion, it can be difficult for someone to think or see what can be helpful to them. Asking this question can help them determine and name what they need.

Offer specific support.

Sometimes people don’t know what they need, may be afraid to ask, or may not know what options are available to them. You might ask, “Would X be useful?” Offering a specific way to support them can make it easier for someone to say yes to help.

Invite the prospect instead of prescribing a solution.

If you’ve had a similar experience as a member of your team, don’t assume you understand and that what worked for you will work for them. Knowing that someone else has had a similar experience can be comforting, but everyone is on a different path. Assuming you know what’s best, you can downplay the other person’s needs, center the conversation on you, and leave them feeling unsupported. Instead of saying, “I’ve been there, here’s what you should do,” try, “Would it be helpful to hear what helped me in a similar situation?”

Acknowledge them and appreciate them.

Thank your team member for coming to you – for example: “I see this has been difficult. I’m here for you. Thank you for trusting me with this information. This signals to you and them that conversations like this are important and build a sense of security for future situations.

Emotional support in action

As leaders, we often want to help soothe and eliminate discomfort. If we’re being honest, there are also times when we want to remove discomfort not only for our team members, but also for ourselves. It’s not our job to heal, but to make sure they can share safely and provide whatever support we can. It’s okay if you don’t know what to say – in fact, just acknowledging that it can be powerful too.

In 2013, I was diagnosed with panic disorder, which meant I had repeated episodes of panic attacks. I was new to my business at the time and desperately trying to hide this new challenge and quickly clean up any residual tears before meetings. My company’s CHRO pulled me aside and asked how I was doing. After a pause, she then asked, “How are you really?” Standing on the edge of her door so I could escape if I needed to, biting my lip and nervous about sharing, the tears flowed. She listened, confirmed how scary this must be for me, and assured me that the company would support me in any way I needed. Finally, she thanked me for sharing. At a time when everything felt heavy, work unexpectedly became a place where things were a little lighter.

As we continue through new chapters of navigating pandemic, racial injustice, division, and constant uncertainty, do you want to be the leader that adds weight or the one that takes it a little lighter? Learning how to have uncomfortable conversations can help you set up your team members to thrive.

* Real names have been changed.

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