Heads Up


So you’re having a difficult conversation and they start to cry. What do you do?

I get asked this a lot, because it happens quite often. When someone cries in a difficult conversation it’s awkward and in my experience most of us are unsure what to do and most of us feel guilty because we made them cry.

There are many reasons I think people cry in this situation:

  • Simply because they are upset at what they are hearing
  • They cry from the shock, the unexpected nature, of what they are hearing
  • No-one has ever challenged them or told them this before
  • Crying is a learned behaviour or strategy to make the conversation (this can be conscious or not)
  • A release that finally the issue is out in the open (it’s finally been said out loud and now we can deal with it)

And I’m sure you can think of more.

For us, the bringer of tears, we can feel incredibly guilty, annoyed (‘they always cry’) or surprised because we didn’t expect it. What usually happens is we hurry to end the conversation.

So what should you do?

My advice is to kindly give them some tissues and let them cry. Not out of spite or cruelty but let them have some space in the conversation to get the emotion out. This does two things for you:

  • It means you can have a more useful conversation once they are ready; after all you’ve both done the hard part in raising the issue so stick with it, it’s likely to get easier from here.
  • It means you won’t create or reinforce the behaviour ‘if you cry this conversation will stop’ which you will do if conversation ends.

You might want to offer to get them a glass of water and ideally go out of the room to get this. Getting someone water serves a basic human need and implies a deep level of care, going out of the room just helps you both have a few moments space.

Of course this is not a hard and fast rule, but in my experience and from what the hundreds of school leaders I’ve trained have told me, it works well.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences..

Have you signed up to attend The Successful Difficult Conversations Training Day? I’m running the event on 2 days (Fri 2nd Nov and Fri 26th Jan 18) so you can book your place depending on your schedule. Click here for further info.

‘Sonia Gill is a founder and director of Heads Up Limited, an education leadership consultancy which specialises in supporting schools become outstanding. Their training and coaching is recommended by the 100s of school leaders she has worked with. To find out more visit www.ukheadsup.com.’