Leaders must manage emotional confidences tactfully.

Leaders must manage emotional confidences tactfully.

A leader carries a broad mantle of actual and ascribed roles. Boss, teacher, colleague, friend, listener, visionary, and problem-solver are the most prevalent. Frequently, an employee will turn to the manager as mother/father confessor—someone he or she feels can be trusted to keep a confidence.

Frequently, it’s a complaint about a co-worker or seeking advice on how to be a better manager. Sometimes the confidence they seek concerns a family member—such as an impending divorce, or the need to care for an elderly family member. Other times it might be about financial problems. Many leaders are formal and informal mentors and provide valuable growth experience to those who report to them.

However, when the person starts to cry, figuratively or literally, the leader has some decisions to make. If the individual just needs a sympathetic ear for a few minutes, this may be an opportunity for the manager to give needed support—and that will be the end of it.

On the other hand, if this is a regular diatribe about a non-work-related situation, you might provide a referral for counseling or other assistance. Becoming the go-to person to unload on is ill-advised at best.

How to Manage Emotional Discussions Tactfully:

  • Limit the conversation. Make a decision about how much time you will allow for what’s coming at the beginning of the conversation. “I can spare ten minutes, Mark, but then I need to make a call.”
  • Listen with a third ear. Are there any indications of potential harm in what you hear—to the person in the chair or to those around them?
  • Decide where to sit. When you usually move to a less formal place for conversations but stay behind your desk for this one, it can subtly (or not so subtly) convey the idea that you are not welcoming an intimate conversation.
  • Remember your role. Keep a sign inside your eyeballs that reads “I am not a trained therapist” (even if you are!) Have a stock of phrases ready to gently but firmly end the conversation, steer it in another direction and/or send clear messages when needed; e.g., “I’m sorry to hear how much you are hurting Janelle, but I’m not the person who can help. I’d like to suggest that you seek professional help.”
  • Be careful how much you probe. There are some things people have on their minds that you don’t want to hear. Many new leaders are shocked to learn what highly personal, inappropriate topics some of their employees choose to bring them.
  • Have an established procedure for alerting others, not only for possible assistance but also as a witness—particularly if this is a male to female encounter. It’s rare, but it could happen that someone loses control in your office and threatens you. Some would advise never to close the door when the two people are of the opposite sex. I disagree unless you are dealing with an unstable person; that seems like overkill and an enormous barrier to trust.

Sooner or later, every manager will encounter an emotional situation with a direct report or a peer. There is no harm in being a good listener—to a point. Being prepared to manage the outcome as tactfully and as strategically as possible is an important tool in the leader’s toolbox.

How do you handle tricky emotional situations?