One Way Successful Decision Makers Deal With Emotionally Charged Situations


deal with emotionally charged situations

The group is attempting to resolve a difficult set of choices and at least a clear majority agreement is the outcome that everyone wants. Sometimes things can go ballistic. Someone raises their voice, OK they scream. Someone says something regrettable, OK they swear and accuse, and then stomp out.  We could have a roomful of people avoiding eye contact and whispering under their breath. Let us just say the meeting is impaled on a stake of embarrassment and big emotion. We may also have some two camp thing going here, the camp that agrees with the one who stomped out and the camp that agrees with the one who screamed. Then too we have those in the middle that wish we could get back to solving what we are here to solve. And crappola… , the room is looking at you.

How to Deal with Emotionally Charged Situations

The first step in any triage is to get things into perspective, to bring reason back into the room and to respect that there is something of import here. Get people to breath, even if that is, “OK, … yeah, let’s just take a breath before we do anything else”. Leaping to ending the emotion is not going to work. Us humans, we need to process that stuff. That takes time. If I insult the presence of emotion in anyway, instead of calming (waiting does wonders), it blows up more and this time I am the target of all that emotion. Chill and help them to chill too. Don’t dare to ‘tell them to chill’ as that will, for most people, send the message that they are wrong to feel as they do. We all have an ego. In such a situation the ego is the part in almost all others that we are dealing with. Remember that and you might just get through this. Forget it and you are probably toast.


The step that many ignore, is to wait. Let people experience normal people type reactions to high emotion. Wait. Be still, not in a deer in the headlights way, but in, ‘this is understandable, I get it, we are going to be OK’, sort of way. You don’t even have to smile (because you have emotion about this too and a smile may just come across as fake, which could inflame things). Simply be yourself and allow people to see that ‘you feel it too’ but also that you may just know the way out. Exude strong and with them but not above them. And wait.


Now, gently begin to get past the event. What I mean is give folks a chance to express (shed) what they feel about it all. If you do this by letting everyone ‘vent’ out loud, the effect can be to not only rekindle the issue but to stoke it. Do it in a way that is respectful of every person’s perspective. Express that as a goal with respect to this incident. Let them know you are dedicated to hearing from everyone. Name the space as full of emotion at this moment. With regard to what just happened, we can’t just ignore it. Let’s give ourselves a few minutes to come back into the discussion. I promise to speak with both parties later. For now, we have a difficult challenge to meet. Please take a break and be back in X minutes (less than 10 minutes).


Before reconvening the original meeting invite people to write what they wish about the ‘incident’, to fold up their papers and put those words into a hat or envelop that you take and place somewhere at the front of the room where all can see it. Tell them you will address it later and ask for agreement to continue with the meeting.


In summary deal with emotionally charged situations by:


  1. Stay, do not hide from what happened
  2. Wait, let time, especially silence, release the emotion
  3. Name it, admit that there is emotion (with you too)
  4. Acknowledge that time may be needed by most, so take a short break
  5. Invite them to write their comments about the emotional event
  6. Collect those in a way that respects confidentiality
  7. Place those notes in an envelope or other container and put them near you at the front of the room where all can see
  8. Promise to read them all later
  9. Invite them back into the work of the meeting
  10. Stay respectful; resist going too hard too fast. Leave some space