Difficult People

by Suzanne Neville

Handling emotional reactions

How do you handle the situation where the individual shuts down, argues every point or starts to cry during a discussion? It’s natural for an employee to feel defensive if you are discussing their behaviour; it’s equally natural for you to feel a bit unnerved by these reactions. Understanding that both of you may feel a sense of discomfort or insecurity is the first step to managing emotional reactions

When emotions overwhelm a discussion, defensive behaviours can cause you or the employee to back down, lose control or change focus. Here are some hints and tips to help you to keep the session focused.


These steps can help you to handle emotional reactions effectively:

Seek to understand

Neutrally point out the defensive behaviour you’re observing that represents the emotional reaction and ask to discuss it. Ask open-ended questions to learn the source of the defensiveness, and stay neutral about the employee’s explanation.


You may need to take a break at this point.

Acknowledge emotions

Although your discussion may be about a work-related problem or behaviour, the current problem is that the individual’s emotional reaction has derailed the discussion. Address the feelings you’re sensing from the other person and ask them if your sense is accurate.

Focus on outcomes and needs

Once the individual is able to discuss the source of their emotional reaction and feels their reactions have been acknowledged, focus on what’s most important, to them and to the outcome of the original discussion.

Encourage alternative behaviours

Promote ways to keep communication open and honest and prevent defensive behaviours from derailing the discussion again.