Dealing with Bosses and Coworkers/Co-Worker Cries, Daily
We have a co-worker who has been with us a few months now. She is in her mid 50's and started out being a very sweet woman. However, she quickly became the saddest person alive. She cries every single day. She gets upset if everyone doesn't say good morning to her or ask how her day is or take time to stop in her office to chit chat. She is deeply hurt if there is a conversation in someone else's office that she is left out of. It's beyond ridiculous. We have all tried to go out of our way to make her feel acknowledged and valued but it doesn't seem to make a difference. We've been open for an hour and eleven minutes as of writing this, and she's already cried twice this morning. Once because she put something on our boss's calendar and our boss told her not to do that and the second time because she mistakenly signed up for the wrong training on our CBT site. What should we do? We want everyone in our office to be happy and most of us are already at our wits end with walking on egg shells and running out of tissues.
Uh, well, here is the irony – I teach empathy, respect and the preservation of dignity toward others, and how to resolve the messiest of conflicts and verbal abuse situations and you seem to have covered the initial bases already. The real irony is I just had another question with almost the same criteria in another country.
If you will allow me a supposition; the harmony of the group is going to become a more important dynamic than the psychological welfare of an emotionally-fractured co-worker. The inevitability if she does not get professional help she will be eventually let go. There is a downside and you must take care not to get caught up in this deeply, I beg of you. Any emotional connection you have will manifest in serious guilt if after he dismissal when finds misfortune, physically or financially. It will be felt by all who have a heart and most will be able to place the guilt on a shelf and leave it there with the rationalization is the circumstances are not their problem. Sadly, they are correct in a logical and business like atmosphere. But, we are human beings and we feel for those who are hurting and that is a good thing because the world needs empathy if we are to all co-exist. But you are also in a business environment so work must be the driving factor and if she cannot keep up then difficult decisions are afoot.
First, does the company have mental health benefits? If yes then she must seek them out and use them at least to a point. The use is pragmatic and humane. Humane because it might help her and pragmatic because it eliminates, or at least reduces liability. You also need to speak with the company’s legal representation and carefully navigate her dismissal if it should become a necessity. Personally, always remain polite and superficially helpful but do not get pulled into the drama. It will have a positive impact that you were there to help in a limited capacity but she must understand she has an individual obligation to seek help. There is no dishonor if you choose to point her in the right direction and then let her take flight on her own.
Now without getting into details, assistance could come from just a session of talk and a lot of listening. It works and I have solved many co-worker/employee/supervisor problems using the strategy of LEAPS which I will cover in a bit. The situation however becomes problematic as people reveal a part of themselves in such conversations and I found I had now almost adopted those I assisted. They now came to me to resolve things they should be dealing with on their own. It is a matter of passing the decision making to another to avoid accountability. Indecision is in all of us and providing a sounding board is a good thing, being the driving force in how people make decisions is not.
Let’s look at the medical angle first then move to something I can help with as a professional. Depression can manifest in a lot of ways and sudden emotional outbursts of sadness or tears are not necessarily uncommon. They can be treated and the root cause of the depression found. Suffering from depression was the dirty little secret we in the USA did not want to admit for so many decades because we were the cornucopia of countries in the world. We had it all and if we were depressed how must the rest of the world feel? I was in the military for a long time. I did tactical work for some of those years. I watched depression (we didn’t call it that back then and I did not have the skills and knowledge I have now) manifest itself into juvenile behavior, physical risk taking, binge drinking, and a host of other questionable actions. Now we are more aware. Now we are better able to cope with the acceptance and move on with productive lives.
Next step – maybe she does not suffer from clinical depression but has recently experienced a life changing event she cannot shake off. It haunts her days and nights. The lingering thoughts cause short term memory to occasional falter, the temporary disruption of job competence, and it can even go so far as momentary physical paralysis. I kid you not. It is managed by accepting what we can change and what we cannot and knowing the difference. Again, it helps to have a professional both diagnose and help in the adjustment. It can be temporary and it might pass on its own. How long do you have until your patience or the egg shells you all walk upon begin to crack? The mind can only handle so much at any given time and those with broad shoulders carry the bigger load, and sometimes others until they are better again. What can I say?
Last step(s) – and where I can help. I have taught conflict resolution and stress management for over thirty years and studied the effects of the circumstances that cause both for most of my life. If you want to be a friend then set limits. Decide what will constitute the edges of your conversations and whet becomes too sensitive – too personal, because if you do ask what is truly wrong and she trusts you enough to actually tell you, it will be the opening of a flood gate.
I want to offer two parts of a program I teach world-wide to effectively deal with sensitive encounters. They both easily adapt to what you are confronted with now. Use L.E.A.P.S. and a Five-Step Approach for managing the encounter. They were initially developed from the work of Dr. George J. Thompson, the creator of Verbal Judo. The LEAPS module is dialogue magic, simple in design, ordered perfectly, and extremely effective. The Five-Step is designed and articulated in the order necessary for mediation, negotiation, generating compliance, or gaining cooperation on a voluntary level.
L.E.A.P.S. (Listen – Empathize – Ask – Paraphrase – Summarize)
When you listen maintain the idea there are four levels in the process starting with being open-minded. Often we are required to hear things we don’t want to hear because they are said to us by people we don’t like or respect. In this case what you hear might be the uncomfortable part. It is the equal to an emotional bleed out. But it is critical to the listening process. The second stage is to hear initially what the other is saying to us and then interpret what the other meant by the words and tones they used. The last stage is to act appropriately upon our interpretation of their meaning.
Keep in mind the use of tone is the verbal attitude of people when they speak. People can sound angry and even be angry, but does not always mean they are angry at you. Sadness does not mean suicidal, and under stress we are all capable of lashing out. It is rude, but it happens.
The Empathize is to simply understand how you would feel if you were in the other’s position. When you ask questions look like you are sincere and listen carefully to the answers. Here is where you must develop a kind of poker face. Be polite and sound polite and look polite, even if you would rather be having a root-canal as a choice.
When you Paraphrase you are not mimicking words back but the meaning in your own words and with a different tone than used by the other. Tone can change the dynamic of the entire encounter is you can stay positive. And lastly, use a summation of the main points of the conversation to show the other you did actually listen and you got it. Here is the other side of the coin where you also make the other accountable for what they said and the expectations he has for you.
Listen carefully to not only what people say but how they say it, by reading their tone of voice and their body posture while speaking... When you ask questions draw people into talking by asking general and opinion-seeking questions because the other will speak from their own opinions and thoughts, revealing a part of their personality. Direct questions are confrontational and demand a yes or no response. People often feel trapped by direct questions but they are useful when confirming a point (combined with paraphrase), and of course fact-finding questions are useful in gaining insight as you probe using leading question to narrow the angle and then paraphrase what you heard back to the person. This is not mimicking but taking their words and interpreting their meaning, then saying back their meaning in your own but different words and tones. They will be able to judge if the message has been delivered correctly.
You save on hassle and problems and they save face. Just as importantly, they will be held accountable for what they have said or what they have agreed to do in the future. Summary is merely taking the main points of a conversation and condensing then into a brief statement for agreement.
The absolute key to all of this will be empathy. If she feels people care she will work with you on getting to the source of the problem and work toward a mutual resolution. When you listen, do that and only that - listen. Do not offer suggestions until asked (and I can give you a thousand cautionary tales of advice gone wrong), offering only the occasional nodding of the head and the necessary cultural eye-contact limits. I have often found that people do not want me to solve their problems but only provide a sounding board.
Once you have gained the necessary information then act accordingly. Remember that what is said to you is not private if it concerns company well-being. A reason I caution you in getting in too deep. A way to set a parameter for what you can talk about and what you need from her can be obtained with the Five Step, originally established to deal with compliance to negotiate a truce, but also effective in giving demonstrating clearly you will NOT get what you want. Here is the rub; what will you do as an action if you cannot get your desired outcome? It would help to know and have a contingency in place. You can get to the end and simply not act out of survival and still use the Five-Step as a manner to demonstrate you tried to get along, play nicely, and be a member of the “team” toward the company’s interests. Your call and you are ultimately responsible to the actionable portion. Again, this all might be a job for her manager or HR. Feel free to offer them the Five-Step as a tactical outline. Nothing in these five steps goes against the grain of any HR policy or protocol in the last thirty years that I have come to note.
1. ASK for what you want. Know what that is… Courtesy, civility, more pay, being left alone to do your work, reassigned, paid more, etc… In this case, her ability to hold it together while in the workplace. You can help, some, but she has to be able to pull it together. You can ask this and not sound like a bad person but someone looking out for her well being. Empathy is a powerful force in shaping behavior. Sometimes people find strength by seeing strength in others.
2. SET A VERBAL CONTEXT for what you are asking. This is a connection to what you want and the company rules which allow you to ask for it. Remember, you can ask for anything and it need not be reasonable (probably should be legal) but if unreasonable then I suggest not holding your breath for satisfaction.
a. Here is where you accept she already understands what is expected of her and she just needs to be reminded she may need to seek some alternate assistance. She will likely understand the consequences of not changing her behavior so there is little need to mention it as the fear of being fired is pretty much in mind with a lot of people all the time, anyway.
3. CREATE AND PRESENT OPTIONS (CHOICES). You need to create the proverbial ground they need to use to stand and become reasonable. If the other is angry or disgruntled, stressed, or arrogant with power (keep also in mind that people who flaunt their presumed power in the face of others are usually frustrated with their current situation, lack the leadership skills to mediate with others, or cannot handle the insecurity of the position they find themselves), typically have a lot of doubt. The OPTIONS you create are because they cannot see past their own failings (it is possible they are also just a bully and like to push others around and feel no shame or remorse in doing it. They can even self-rationalize it as a tough love kind of leadership. The military used it as a motivational tool for centuries, but even in the service of a country it is changing). By using Empathy from LEAPS you can imagine what you would need if you were in the lead position and reverse the thinking into an idea which will sound non-threatening. This is the stage where you envision objections to compliance and then find a solution to circumvent the block they initiate in your path to your goal. Here
a. Here is where you set the stage for professional help.
4.CONFIRM. The confirmation of what is said in steps 2-3 is the evidence you need to see what comes next in this scenario. Here is a sentence you can paraphrase, or use directly, “Is there anything I can say, or you can suggest, or I can do that would allow us to work out a more accommodating (mutually satisfactory) arrangement? I would like to think so…” You can change the wording but keep the components. They place the burden of the next suggestion upon the other; they set the platform for an action; and they are polite, respectful, and demonstrate superior mediation skill. It is hard to be viewed as the problem when you are the one offering concession and openness to fixing the problem. She will probably not be able to come up with even what is really bothering her but it will get her thinking.
5. ACT. Be sure you do not act of sadness or rashly. When people are in pain it is difficult for them to focus. They will always see the negative first and rarely much in the positive column.
The above five steps are set as fairly non-committal on your part so you can help and not become engulfed in the drama. They can help but will not be enough for the total resolution. I truly apologize for stating that I do not have a solution for your situation because I do, but it is not one I can advise on such a forum without risking consequences for you and others.
There are many other thoughts here on the All Experts site in my responses to others and feel free to give them a once over to see the adaptability of the material in virtually every type of situation where conflict can be destructive without checks and balances. I sent this as quickly to you as I could so I apologize for any errors in grammar.
My best to you, and to your co-worker,
Lee Fjelstad, Vice President of The Verbal Judo Institute, Inc., (Pam Thompson, CEO)
In memory of Dr. George J. Thompson, PhD., Creator of verbal Judo and Founder of the Verbal Judo Institute, Inc.