Picture this – you are in a meeting. Things are going ok. Then, suddenly, someone bursts into tears. What do you do? Ignore it? Address it? What’s your next step?
Tears. How do you deal with them?
In my experience, there are several ways to understand tears.
First, tears can be a legitimate sign of a person being overwhelmed by emotion. By all accounts, when tears appear it might be a legitimate way of expressing empathy or frustration or hurt or anger.
If you’re in an in-person meeting, you can say, “hey, here are some tissues,” or you can subtly slide the tissues down the table without saying anything aside from letting them know you’re ready to continue when they are.
If it is an online meeting, you can privately message the person. Ask them to take a minute to take a breath and ask them to let you know when they are ready to rejoin.
You will find that usually people dab their eyes, take a minute, and continue. By taking this approach you simultaneously acknowledge the emotions and avoid elevating the drama.
There are other times, unfortunately, tears are used to “play the victim”. Usually, people would resort to manipulative tears to get you to back off, change the subject, or gain sympathy. In times like this, you can acknowledge that the topic “seems to be a sensitive one”. You take a breath. Suggest that they grab a tissue or a drink before continuing with the discussion.
Remember, you can guide the conversation regardless of the motivation behind the tears. If you think tears indicate sincerity, give the person a minute to compose themselves. Ready a box of tissues. Give them time to catch their breath, process their emotions then get back on the agenda.
The next time you find yourself in such a scenario, try suggestions above. See how it works. You may find it surprising that the conversation can continue despite the tears.