If you have to work with someone who is constantly overreacting, work can quickly become a stressful place.
Whether it’s your boss, a colleague or one of the employees on your team, dealing with people who have a tendency to overreact to everything can take an awful lot of energy.
On the one hand, there’s usually a need to maintain a functional working relationship. On the other hand, it can become very heavy to carry this burden of having to deal with someone who turns every little issue into a huge drama.
Although people need a space to be able to raise their concerns, there is also a line that is crossed when this becomes unproductive.
So how can we manage these situations?
1. Always try empathy first.
People often get caught up in vicious cycles of offloading negative emotions because they don’t feel heard. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the drama of it, your tendency might be to do what you can to shut the conversation down. I know that this can still happen to me instinctively when I’m getting overwhelmed by someone else’s negative outburst.
The easiest way to shift the dynamic is to respond with empathy. Use words that show the other person that you hear what they are saying. For instance, trying something such as “I can understand why you’re so upset about this” might help. Or even if you disagree with what the person is saying, you could say something such as “I can see you’re really upset at what happened”.
2. Set clear boundaries.
Everyone has moments where they need to vent unproductively. But when this pattern happens again and again, with the same person, it’s time to look at setting limits around what will be tolerated.
Setting clear limits about how much you are (and are not) willing to listen to will help. For instance, you could say something such as “I think it’s important that we discuss these concerns that you’re bringing up. I can see you’re really upset. I don’t think it is a good time to have this discussion right now. Let’s set up a time now when we can talk about this more.”
Or it could be something such as “I’m open to discussing this issue with you, but I want to keep the conversation focused on what we can learn so we can move forward”.
And if nothing works, simply “I don’t want to discuss this right now” may be needed.
No one phrase works for everyone, as it depends on the personalities and communication patterns of both parties.
The key is really to notice when the conversation has shifted into that toxic zone of constant complaining and emotion dumping. And to set clear limits that you don’t want to engage in these types of conversations.
3. Let others manage their own reactions.
Managing our reactions to difficult emotions can be challenging work. Some people may feel completely overwhelmed when difficult situations arise.
I’ll admit that for a good part of my life, I was one of those people. I wouldn’t be aware of things that were bothering me until my emotions would get so intense that they would inevitably erupt and spill over.
The people around me were oftentimes the unfortunate casualties of my emotional volcano.
I’ve also been on the other side, where I’ve been the one receiving the emotional eruption. In many ways, I’d become the person who was always there to help others navigate their difficult situations.
And ultimately, it led to a dynamic where I unknowingly drew people in to becoming dependent on me to help manage their emotions.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with being there for someone who’s going through a tough time. In fact, there’s a lot of good in it.
But if you find yourself in a situation where the same person tends to unleash their pent up emotions during conversations with you again and again (whether directed at you or not), then it may be time to take a step back and look at how you might be inadvertently facilitating this difficult dynamic.
Ultimately, if that person knows they can always come to you for you to help them to talk through the problems and calm them down, they’re never going to learn those skills on their own.
4. Encourage other people to solve their own problems.
When someone knows that they can always come to you to fix any problem they encounter, guess what inevitably happens? They end up coming to you with more… and more… and more problems.
Which also means that when people are upset about a situation, they’ll be likely to come to you to get you to help fix it. They’ll bee-line straight to the person who can help calm them down and resolve the situation.
Which will only reinforce their sense that they aren’t able to fix problems on their own. It may lead to an expectation over time that you will be increasingly available to them, every time they encounter a problem.
The easy (yet not always so easy to implement) solution is to ask questions that will foster their problem-solving skills, rather than solving the problem for them.
When someone comes to you with questions about what they should do, put their question back to them, rather than answering it. For instance, you could try something such as “what do you think we should do differently next time?” or “what’s your opinion of what the next step should be?”.
Stimulating their ability to think through various solutions and the consequences to various decisions will pay off for both of you in the end.
But does that mean just being laissez-faire when people are upset?
It’s important to be supportive when people are experiencing challenges in the workplace. However, when the intensity of support needed starts to infringe into your ability to get your own work done, or to maintain an emotional balance, that’s when it’s time to draw the line.
Sometimes, making decisions that encourage others to develop the skills needed to manage their big emotions on their own is the kindest thing you can do. Particularly if it’s approached with both empathy and clear limits.
If your curious to find out whether or not communication challenges are affecting your team’s performance, take this quiz to find out.
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