What to Do When a Colleague Needs Emotional Support in the Office

While coworkers are close physically, we are not often close emotionally. But when one of us experiences a personal crisis, we are forced into unfamiliar roles — and this distance can be awkward and, at least for the aggrieved, unhelpful. Professional relationships are anchored by hierarchy, politics, obligation. Emotional support needs waters that aren’t muddy. It requires purity and simplicity. And to achieve those things you need enough humility to understand that your job is not to alleviate the burdens of grief. Your job is to alleviate the burdens of work.

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First thing: Acknowledge the hardship. This is most of it. This is the point. And yes, it’s hard. I think the main anxiety we have comes from talking to people who may not want to talk. So…email. Really. But don’t avoid looking at the person when you pass in the hallway. Really. The problem isn’t reaching out; it’s that we try to do too much. And “too much” is what the aggrieved is already experiencing. Don’t add too much on top of too much. Don’t demand information by asking “How are you doing?” or “What can I do?”

Upon the death of her husband Dave Goldberg, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, took to the social media site to talk candidly of her pain. She returned to work hoping for normalcy, but people avoided her or looked frightened whenever she approached because they were unsure how to act or what to say. People often lean on hopeful statements, like, “Everything will be OK,” or filler questions like, “How are you?” But in her first Facebook post after her husband’s death, she warned that these often lead to further pain and uncertainty. Instead, Sandberg says, “Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not.”

A related point: Acknowledge that the hardship has happened to them. Acknowledge that you don’t know what the hardship feels like. The two most practical, helpful, loving, nonjudgmental comments are “I heard what happened” and “I can’t imagine what it’s like for you,” says Russell Friedman, executive director of the Grief Recovery Institute, which trains people to help those who have suffered loss. Of course you know grief. You know how you felt when a similar thing happened to you, but you must avoid the attempt to identify.

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Don’t be a therapist. Or a cheerleader. Taking on either of these roles is self-aggrandizing. You can’t make things better, but you can make things worse.

Stop talking. Friedman suggests being — and those of you who, like me, have an aversion to cute metaphors will have to forgive me for reflecting this one — a “heart with ears.” (Sorry, everybody.) The point is: Grieving people need to be heard, not spoken to. When you’re offering advice, you’re doing the opposite of listening. What’s happening is: They’re hearing you. And this isn’t about you.

Don’t ask what you can do to help. Say what you are going to do to help. Or just help — no talking required. A request for permission involves the task of answering the question. Don’t create tasks. Instead, relieve them of tasks. They aren’t incapable of doing their jobs, of course, but their jobs will be made much more manageable if you remove tasks in the short term. We’re talking meetings, projects, softball team management…

That said, maintain their privacy. Before you enact some plan to help the aggrieved staffer get her work done — or deal with less work — run it by her first. The plan might involve other colleagues, and she might not want everybody knowing what’s going on in her personal life. Also, some people prefer working through tough times to distract themselves.

Finally: Do the thing. I don’t know what the thing is. Maybe it’s flowers. Maybe it’s setting up a cooler on the person’s porch so people can drop off food (without requiring anyone to answer the door). Maybe it’s your presence at the funeral. Maybe it’s a card. Maybe it’s finally sending the email you wrote three days ago. Go. Do. Hit send. Despite all the warnings about overstepping and overburdening, err on the side of doing the thing. When it comes to helping, too much will always be better than too little.

Of course, sending the second-to-largest gift basket, not the largest, will do just fine. Let’s not get carried away here.

Don’t say…

“You shouldn’t take it so hard” or “You’re overreacting.” Because this is criticism.

“It could be a lot worse” or “You’ll get over it.” Because this downplays suffering.

“You need to pull yourself together” or “You need to be strong.” Because you’re asking the person to reject their feelings.

“Everything happens for a reason.” Because this is stupid.

“I know how you feel.” Because you don’t.

“What can I do?” Because it requires the person to make a plan for you.

“Did you see Scandal last night?!” (Not now.)