We can all recall times when we have met colleagues who are on their way to one of those “difficult meetings.” More often than not, the hope seems to be that things don’t get too emotional. I think this generally means shouting or tears!

The hope that our encounter with someone at work is going to be a rational one is understandable but if we try and strip the emotion out altogether, if we fail to acknowledge the feelings that accompany any relationship between two people and if we try and keep each and every transaction purely on the intellectual level, we turn ourselves into idiot savants. We certainly don’t demonstrate leadership. So, what’s the minimum we need to know?

When a significant issue at work comes up, people experience one of two things – stress or pleasure. Stress is associated with the thought that something is dangerous, could hurt you or that you might experience loss. Pleasure, on the other hand, is generally connected with the expectation of satisfaction.

When we think of something as dangerous, we become frightened. When things hurt us, we generally feel angry and when we experience loss we feel sad: three primary emotions – fear, anger and sadness. Add a fourth primary emotion – joy, and we have the full set.

So, what happens with each? If we feel frightened, we want to run away. If we feel anger we feel compelled to attack and if we feel sad, we often close up and want less contact. Of course, if we feel joy, we tend to move towards things.

The next question, having acknowledged emotions, rather than tried to keep them out of the conversation, is what to do. Again, there are a limited number of appropriate responses. The frightened person really needs help and reassurance to stop them fleeing, emotionally or physically. The angry person needs to see that something is able to change and the sad person needs some consolation. And just in case we forget, let’s not leave out the happy person who really, really wants to share their positive feelings!

Just being aware of all of this would make a great deal of difference to many leaders. So next time we see someone about to have a difficult conversation, let’s stop before we just encourage them to keep the emotions out of the room!





Chris leads Serco Consulting’s Organisational Psychology and Change service line and is a Chartered member of the CIPD, a member of the British Psychological Society (BPS) and the European Coaching and Mentoring Council (EMCC) and an experienced management consultant and coach.

He holds a BSc. (Hons) in Psychology, an MA in Law and Employment Relations (Dist.), post graduate qualifications in Business and Executive Coaching and has over 20 years of HRM experience.