How to Respond to Emotional Outbursts
“Please, Daddy, please? Can we open our presents from you now?”
It was the third night of Hanukkah and my wife Eleanor, our three young children, and I had just come home from a holiday party.
“Didn’t you guys get enough presents at the party?” I asked. Dumb question.
“OK,” I relented. “Go ahead.”
They ripped through the wrapping paper to expose their gifts. Little fairy-tale lanterns.
As they began to play with their lanterns, one of my daughters began to notice some differences between her lantern and her sister’s. She began to cry.
“My lantern door doesn’t open. And it doesn’t play music.”
How ungrateful, I thought and took a deep breath to stave off my angry response. I immediately regretted letting her stay up so late, eat so much sugar at the party, and open that last gift.
As she began to fall apart, I shifted from anger to reason. I told her that both gifts were nice and she should feel happy about getting so many presents.
“I know, Daddy, I’m sorry. I usually love my gifts. But this time…I don’t know. Why doesn’t my door open?”
She wasn’t angry, she was sad, and that softened me enough to hear Eleanor’s voice in my head:Just validate. Repeat back what you’re hearing. Be a mirror. I slid from reason to compassion.
“I’m sorry you feel so disappointed with the gift you got. You usually feel good about your gifts but not this time. You’re sad the door doesn’t open like your sister’s.”
She kept crying. But to my utter amazement, what she was crying about abruptly changed.
“I was teaching everyone to make origami and everything was fine but then Tammy* started to teach them and I grabbed the origami from Tammy. I don’t know why I did it. I couldn’t control it. I lost my temper and then they didn’t want to me to teach them. They didn’t want to play with me.”
“Are you talking about the party, sweetie?”
“Yes,” she said between sobs, “at the party. I don’t know why I did it. And then they made a band but didn’t want me to join but I really wanted to.”
Now I was crying with her. She wanted so badly to have friends and she tried so hard but it was tough for her.
That was why she cried when she received the present. It wasn’t about the present. She’d been working hard all night to keep it together and she just couldn’t do it anymore.
I used to wonder why my daughter would often break down at home – what are we doing wrong? But what I’ve come to realize is that she might be breaking down because of something we’re doing right.
The world can be a punishing place. It can feel unsafe to expose our feelings to others. Home — with Eleanor, with me — is a safe place for her to feel. To fall apart, take a deep breath, and rebuild. To have her feelings met with love, acceptance, and understanding.
This is a story about my home and my child, but it’s also a story about your workplace and your employees, manager, colleagues, and clients.
Love, acceptance, and understanding in the workplace? Really? What’s that got to do with performance?
An organization performs best when the people in the organization know they can trust and depend on each other. Then they break out of silos. They take accountability for their own mistakes instead of blaming each other. They surface problems before they become major obstacles
But if people spend their energy hiding their feelings, that energy will leak out in negative and insidious ways, sabotaging your efforts and theirs.
If I’d stayed with reason instead of understanding, my daughter would have felt worse about herself. We never would have gotten to her sadness about the party, and I wouldn’t have been able to help her with her real issue, namely, how she was getting along with her friends.
Uncovering the real issue happens when people feel safe enough to be vulnerable.
How do you do it? It’s actually very easy. Take a deep breath and just validate. Repeat back what you’re hearing. Be a mirror.
If it’s easy, why don’t we all do it all the time? Because there’s a hard part too: Managing your own discomfort. Can you be OK with the feelings of others? Can you listen without judging? Can you listen even though you might feel threatened?
As I was putting my daughter to bed she asked me to lie down with her and talk, which we did for a while. She apologized for her response to the gift even though, she told me, she still wished her door opened.
“I know you do, sweetie. I’m sorry it doesn’t open. And I’m also sorry you had a hard time at the party.”
She turned over to face the wall and shut her eyes. There was a moment of silence as she was beginning to drift off to sleep. Then she reached behind her and took my hand, hugging it to her chest.
“I love you dad.”
“I love you too.”
And, as we both feel asleep, her final gift of the night — acceptance — had become my gift too.
*Names and some details changed
Peter Bregman is CEO of Bregman Partners, a company that strengthens leadership in people and in organizations through programs (including the Bregman Leadership Intensive), coaching, and as a consultant to CEOs and their leadership teams. Best-selling author of 18 Minutes, his most recent book is Four Seconds. To receive an email when he posts, click here.