Managers: what do you do when your teammate shares their grief?

Originally posted Oct 29, 2020

Most of us aren’t taught how to respond when someone shares with us a really heavy piece of information.

My mom is a pastor, so growing up, I watched her model how to have tough conversations about grief, loneliness, and despair. Though I haven’t always gotten it right, this informal education helped me navigate conversations with direct reports as they shared tough news (e.g. a parent dying, miscarriage, divorce, or needing to leave the country). These days it’s helped me more and more with friends who are processing old trauma, and new grief.

It occurred to me that it might be useful to share some tips for managers who want to feel prepared to handle these kinds of conversations. There are a number of potential failure modes: we try and problem-solve for our teammate, we make this about ourselves/our similar experiences, our worry about hurting this person keeps us from responding, sometimes we don’t set effective boundaries.

So what can—or should—we do instead?

Have a handy, simple response ready

When someone shares with me a difficult thing face-to-face, I know that I need a few moments to process it before I can adequately respond. As my brain spins up the right questions and responses (and decides which things to NOT say), I need to still demonstrate that I’m listening and opening to talking more.

So I’ve got a few handy, immediate responses that I can say, which buys me time and creates an open space for this person to share more, if they’d like:

For each of these responses, I recommend saying them and then waiting for the person to respond. Give them as much time as they need. You don’t need to fill in the awkward silence (more on this below!). Some folks need to take their time before they say the next thing; give them that time by mirroring their energy and using affirming body language (more on this below, too!).

If you’ve received this information via email or another asynchronous medium, I recommend opening with “Thank you so much for sending me this” or “Thank you so much for letting me know.”

Don’t hop into problem-solving mode, and don’t make this about you. Ask open questions instead.

Everyone needs different things! The person opening a difficult conversation with you might already know what they need, or they might just be clueing you in to what they’re going through. Your job is to absorb information, and then make sure this person has what they need at work.

Instead of immediately suggesting next steps, try asking open questions to understand what would be most helpful for your conversation to focus on, or what they need right now. Feel free to steal any of these if they feel relevant and appropriate for you:

There’s a wide array of responses you might hear:

When someone tells you specifically what they need, it’s great—you can now problem-solve together. They might ask for time off, or for more information about how extended leave or relocation policies work, or what kinds of accommodations you or the company can provide since their work might be affected for a bit. It’s always smart for you to research the resources your company provides for employees TODAY so that you’re equipped for these conversations in the future.

But often, this person doesn’t know what they’ll need—they’ll have a guess, or they’ll say they don’t know. Then, you can offer different approaches to figuring this out:

Keep your tone and body language open and welcoming so that it’s clear that you’re not shutting down the conversation, but rather lending support to them in the form of extra time and space, so you can both figure out the right next steps.

The other pitfall to avoid is making this about you. I’ve written about how to avoid this here, but simply: avoid putting your teammate in a situation where they have to try and make you feel better. Saying “I’m so sorry” is okay, repeating this over and over is not. Saying “I’ve been there; I feel for you” is okay, sharing the details of your similar story with them right now is not.

Mirror their energy, use affirming body language

“Mirroring” here means matching. If this other person is talking energetically, you can respond energetically, too. If their shoulders are slumped, they’re talking quietly and not looking at the camera, take your energy down fourteen notches to match theirs. I picture turning a dial up or down; I want to make sure that I’m mirroring their energy levels, so that the focus of the conversation remains on them and not on me.

I learned about affirming body language from Paloma Medina. She teaches that affirmation consists of signals that tell another person, “I do hear you, I do want to understand—your perspective matters to me.”

Here are three ways to communicate using affirming body language:

  1. Gently nod at the pace they’re talking at, or slightly slower. It shows you’re following and tracking what they’re saying.
     
  2. Make soft eye contact. Hard eye contact is intense, eyes wide—it’s a little creepy. Soft eye contact is more like a Tyra Banks “smize”—a subtle relaxing of your face muscles that shows you’re not ready to pounce as soon as they’re done talking. Don’t worry about keeping constant eye contact. As Paloma taught me, research shows you can break eye contact every 3 seconds naturally, then connect again, and this still feels attentive and affirming to the other person.
     
  3. Lean in, literally. When we’re uncomfortable, we sometimes unconsciously tip away from the person in whatever way we can. Make sure you’re squarely facing the camera, and lean slightly—even as little as 1” will do the trick! I like to make sure my elbows or wrists are evenly resting on my desk.

Create lots of silence and space

As you talk, your teammate might start crying, or pause speaking. I’ve learned to curb the instinct to start talking and fill the space—it’s important to prioritize their comfort, rather than fix my discomfort. Stay focused and keep up that affirming body language while they take the time they need before speaking again. They might apologize—tell them it’s okay.

You can also say things like:

The first time I shared with a manager that I was being sexually harassed in my job, I started crying. I remember him being stunned and clearly wanting to make this conversation end as quickly as possible—he cared for me and was ready to take action, but he was clearly terrified of my tears.

What would have helped most is for us to sit in silence until I could speak again, so that we could figure out the next steps together. You can totally be a better supportive manager for your teammates by simply creating silence and space during these tough conversations.

Consider: what’s your role?

Take a moment right now to think through: what’s your expertise, and what’s your role in these kinds of conversations? As managers, we each have our own skills and perceptions of what our work is; you can’t be everything to everyone.

Some managers want to provide safe spaces for their teammates to vent and process. That’s okay! Other managers are really uncomfortable with conversations like these. That’s also okay!

This is why it’s important to consider now what the boundaries of your role are, and what your expertise is. Therapists are trained to do a whole subset of work that’s different than manager work. Coaches, too, are trained to do another whole subset of work.

Brainstorming right now will help you identify the specific ways you can be helpful to your teammates. It will also help you figure out what the line is between your role as a manager, and what’s beyond your role or expertise.

When I feel ill-equipped to help someone on a coaching call, I’ll say something like:

“Gotcha. I think I understand. [Restate what I heard in my own words.] Is that right? Cool.

“So I’m actually not equipped to help with [an aspect of what they’ve shared, like ‘processing what happened’ or ‘helping to figure out what your future looks like without them’], but I still want to support you in every way I can.

“I’m totally here to [a different way you can help that leans on your expertise/skills/role, like ‘do all the research on which programs our company provides to support employees going through this’ or ‘make sure you have all the time off you need’ or ‘listen, if talking through it some more would feel helpful to you.’]”

If it feels appropriate at any stage in the conversation, it is TOTALLY OKAY to say that it feels like we’ve moved more toward therapy territory, which is a different expertise or training than what you have. Sometimes I’ll say exactly that, and then reframe the conversation to be work-focused or future-focused, like:

I’ve done this A LOT. It’s universally gone well. Usually, the other person says “oh, yeah, that makes sense” and then we go back to talking about work-focused or future-focused aspects of this topic.

Sometimes, the person drifts back into therapy territory, at which point I’ll nudge the conversation back towards what I’m equipped to talk through. If it happens multiple times, I’ve paused the conversation and said, “I really want to make sure you have the support you need. [XYZ aspect] is something that a therapist or counselor is trained to help with.” And if your company provides an EAP (employee assistance program), let your teammate know that that’s an option!

Following up

When someone has taken bereavement leave or other extended time off, sending cards is my go-to follow up method, because they don’t require a response. I’ve recently started sending monthly greeting cards to close friends who have experienced some new trauma or grief. Etsy’s an amazing resource for excellent, informal, and sometimes hilarious sympathy cards!

Please DO NOT share what your teammate is going through with others—unless your teammate has explicitly said it’s okay to do so. If they’ve explicitly said it’s okay to tell others on the team, sending flowers or a care package from the whole team can be really sweet. Again, this is a one-way form of letting your teammate know that you care about them and are here to support them, and it decreases the burden of them feeling the need to respond.

In the next few one-on-ones, you can take a really quick temperature check with your teammate:

They might want to process more, they might have more specific actions that they need your help with, or they might not want to talk about it. All are totally valid options, and I trust that you’ll be ready to support them in whatever way makes sense.

Lara Hogan

Author, public speaker, and coach for managers and leaders across the tech industry.