What not to say to a stressed-out colleague

What not to say to a stressed-out colleague

You can change your relationship to stress and view its management as a skill


Stress affects us mentally, physically and emotionally.


Stress affects us mentally, physically and emotionally.


I was recently stressed out and sleepless because I had to tell a difficult senior colleague something he wouldn’t like — and I dreaded his pushback. An acquaintance listened to me and said: “People have yelled at me for far less.” His attitude shifted my perspective by normalising the conversation that lay ahead.

If you want to support a stressed-out colleague, it can be helpful to know what not to say. Here are five things to avoid.

1. No cliches, no platitudes: these just depress stressed-out colleagues because they sound empty.

2. No one-upmanship: if your intention is to help, a lot of “I” talk that makes a colleague and her concerns feel inconsequential won’t do it. Hold the story about how you bombed at the convention for another time.

3. No minimising: dismissing the issue doesn’t help someone else, but it does make us look small. It’s simply not helpful to say things such as “Don’t worry about it” or “You’re exaggerating this.”

4. No moralising: getting on your high horse isn’t helpful. Resist the urge to say things such as: “Well, if you had managed your time better.”

5. No lengthy commiseration: a short wallow lets your stressed-out co-worker vent. But when you commiserate, there’s no moving forward to something more useful.

Stress affects us mentally, physically and emotionally. Dealing with all of that is a tall order. Instead, pick something manageable, and help a stressed-out colleague to the degree you choose. Here are a few things to try.

Ask: “What would help?” If the reply is “Nothing” or “I don’t know,” sit quietly for 15 seconds. The quiet moment lets the person breathe and think about what, in fact, might help. Encourage. Say: “You can handle this. I’ve seen you come up with an offer that breaks a stalemate [or] navigate a tricky negotiation [or] rework the numbers on the spot in a tough situation before.” You are giving your co-worker a vision of herself that is true, and more functional, than the one she is caught up in. Exercise: offer to climb up and down eight flights of stairs, or walk across the parking lot with your co-worker, if alleviating stress by physical activity is your choice. Introduce a paradox: people get locked into negative thoughts and see nothing else. Opening a second view of her situation, side by side with her negative view, helps her escape that tunnel vision.

For many, stress becomes a familiar feeling. But this can change. The same approaches you use to help co-workers manage their stress can help you manage your own. When you change your relationship to stress, by viewing stress management as a skill, its grip on you weakens.


Holly Weeks is an adjunct lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and the author of Failure to Communicate: How Conversations Go Wrong and What You Can Do to Right Them.


Previously published in The Irish Times.


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