“Use your words.”  It’s a line you probably heard as a child when you were getting agitated but not articulating what was wrong.  Your parents taught you that expressing your frustration in words gives you a shot at making things better.

Fast forward to adulthood and ask yourself how well you’re using your words to express your frustrations versus just getting more and more worked up to the point of losing it.

Recently, a woman approached me to talk about an episode where she had lost her composure.  She had seen my post about crying at work and wanted my advice about how to better control her emotions.  We had a great conversation.  The advice I gave her applies to everyone and every type of emotional reaction, so I thought I’d share her story here on the blog.

The Story

After several postponements, Sue finally got her project on the agenda for the team meeting.  She was eager to get time with the team because she had made good progress but needed their input to move further.  Sue had an hour for the presentation and discussion.  But as the meeting kicked off, Frank asked to add an agenda item about an HR issue with an employee. The team agreed to allow him some time to get their input and promptly dove into the discussion.

After almost 30 minutes on this ad hoc agenda item, there was little time left for Sue’s project.  She quickly tried to convey the information and to position the input she needed from the team.  In haste, someone gave feedback that came across as harsh and suddenly Sue found herself in tears in front of her teammates.

What could I have done differently, she asked me?

There are several points in the story where Sue had a chance to change the outcome. Which ones can you spot with the objectivity of an outsider?  Here are the ones I see.

1. When the ad hoc agenda item was raised.

Sue wanted to be a good team player and went along.  From that moment, her resentment grew.  Rather than going along with it, here are some things Sue could have said in the spirit of “using your words.”

    • “Is this something we need the whole team for or could some of us take this offline?”
    • “When do we need an answer on this?”
    • “Where on the agenda should we slot this in? I’d like to cover the planned agenda first.”
    • “How much time do we want to devote to this today?”
    • “I’m concerned that we won’t have sufficient time to cover the agenda we already have.”

2. When the personnel discussion dragged on past five minutes.

Urgent issues come up all the time and it’s ok to deliberately devote a few minutes to them.  But letting an item like that suck up your whole meeting just shows a lack of discipline.  Either the issue was too complex and required another meeting, or the team was being slow and sloppy in discussing it.  Either way, Sue had a few options at about the 10 minute mark

    • “We’ve now invested 10 minutes in this conversation, are we good to move on?”
    • “What else do we need from the folks in the room?”
    • “What more would we need to come to a decision on this?”
    • “Is this something that you are now comfortable to manage on your own?”
    • “Do we need another time set up to do this issue justice?”

3. When she started her presentation.

Thirty minutes into the meeting with the clock ticking, Sue finally had the floor. But this was now a frustrated, resentful, rushed, anxious Sue.  At the very least, Sue should have taken a moment to check in with herself and to reset her attitude before kicking off her presentation.  At best, she could have been transparent with the team.  Here are some options:

    • “Can we please take a quick break? I need to rethink how I will cover this material now that we have less time.”
    • “I’m kinda’ off my game because I expected to have the full hour and now we only have 30 minutes. Let’s talk about what we want to cover today and what we need to cover in another forum.”
    • “I’m concerned that this project isn’t getting your full attention. We’ve postponed twice and now used up half of the time on another issue. How should I interpret that?”

4. When her project was criticized by a teammate.

The most difficult time to use your words is once the emotional reaction has been triggered.  If you’re angry, frustrated, or hurt, you’re not thinking straight and most likely not talking straight.  If you can muster it, try to be authentic about your reaction.

    • “Wow! I wasn’t expecting that. That’s hard to hear.”
    • “I have to be honest, I’ve been trying to get your feedback for 2 months and it’s really frustrating to think that all that work was off track.”
    • “I’m sorry I’m getting emotional. You’ve really touched a nerve for me. Here’s what I was trying to do with this project…”

There were at least four moments where Sue’s story could have taken a different and more productive path.  In each case, concerns were left unspoken and eventually built to the point where Sue got emotional and backed away from the heart of the issue.  I felt terribly for her because at each point, she was doing what she thought was the right thing for the team. She ceded her time to a colleague with an urgent issue; she allowed everyone to be heard; she tried to stay on her game and deliver her presentation as planned; and she took all the ownership for getting emotional.

But your parents were right. Getting frustrated without expressing what’s upsetting you is not the right thing to do. Use you words.

Further Reading

Keep Calm and Carry On is Bad Advice

When Conflict gets Emotional

Dealing with Negative Emotions

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