Difficult Conversations – Dealing with tears


What makes a conversation difficult?

Each conversation is unique, but there are often common reasons why they are difficult.  These common reasons include:

  • Human nature – I always try to avoid
  • Embarrassment – I don’t like awkward situations
  • It might all go wrong – I could end up with a grievance or worse
  • It might become emotional – I can’t deal with  tears
  • It will take too long – Isn’t it HR or someone else’s job anyway?

What should I do if the employee starts to cry?

If an employee starts to cry during a conversation, the first thing you need to consider is whether it is appropriate to continue the meeting or adjourn to allow the employee to compose themselves.

All situations are different.

Sometimes tears are used as a way of avoiding the conversation but can also be a result of embarrassment, frustration or genuine sadness.

You need to assess each situation and decide whether it is preferable to pass some tissues and continue or adjourn to allow the employee to compose themselves sufficiently for the conversation to continue.

Maintaining your composure and professionalism are key.  You do not want to overly sympathise with the employee, however, showing a level of empathy and understanding can help get the conversation back on track.

Remember, in most cases, the employee will be more uncomfortable about the tears than you are.

Always ensure that you:

  • Document the meeting as soon as it is over
  • Ideally have a witness present at the meeting to be an independent pair of eyes observing proceedings
  • Prepare well.  Have all the information you need to hand, consider the likely responses you will encounter and how you might react.
  • Be clear on the outcome that you want to achieve from the meeting.  This will enable you to be better able to manage your reaction to events as they unfold

If you would like to know

  • What can go wrong?
  • How you ensure your message is heard and accepted?
  • How you can reduce the risk of things going wrong?

Read our Difficult conversations Blog


Deal with matters as they arise, don’t leave until they become a problem

Approach issues on an informal basis first

Prepare well, gather evidence, articulate key points, devise questions & responses

Ensure you document the conversation in case matters are not concluded

Be prepared to adjourn and continue the conversation at another time, place or with expert help alongside you

Be prepared for the unexpected!