4 questions to ask when someone is upset

When someone in your life is upset a partner, a team member, or a coworker it can be hard to know how to handle it. There might be a desire to fix or solve the problem that caused the upset. You might feel defensive or scared based on their emotional state. You might even want to avoid the person or situation entirely hoping it will resolve itself. But few of these responses create the space to hear someone who’s upset or get to a place of repair that will help you and them move forward. 

So here are the steps I try to follow when I’m being with someone who is upset. 

1) Do I have space for this and do I want to hold space for this? 

Just because someone is upset doesn’t mean you HAVE to make them feel better, try and fix their problem, or even be upset too. 

You might feel a natural sense of empathy or a desire to help the person who is upset. But even if this is your initial impulse it helps to check in and see how you’re doing. If you’ve got space and want to hear or help the person go for it. But it’s also totally ok if you don’t have space. 

You can lovingly start by saying, “I’m really sorry you’re upset right now, I don’t have the space right now to hold you in your upset.” 

Then you can offer to be with them at a later time OR you can simply decline to hold space. 

You might say, “I’d be happy to talk to you about this once I’m off of work.” 

Or “I’d be happy to talk to you about this once you’ve calmed down a bit.” 

Or “I hope you can find someone else to talk to about this.”

Or “I hope you can find someone else to talk to about this, but if you can’t you can check in with me later.”

This kind of loving boundary might be hard for people to hear, but it’s better than trying to be there for someone when you simply don’t have the space. 

2) Is this about me? 

When someone is upset about someone or something there can be an instinct to either try to calm them down or fix what’s wrong, which is why it’s first important to discern if the upset is about you. 

If someone is upset about someone else or something that’s happening in their lives it’s very likely they just want to express themselves and be heard. They may want a solution at some point but only after they’ve cleared out some emotional space. 

If the upset isn’t about you, the best space to start is to just listen to them and reflect on what you’ve heard. This is also true if it’s about you, but because it’s so easy to make other people’s upset about you I think this is an excellent place to start. 

If it’s about you, you can hold space and reflect on what you hear while trying not to get defensive or combative. If it isn’t about you, don’t make it about you. Let them be upset. It might be hard, but as much as possible don’t try to fix them or their problem. Remember it’s not even about you. They just need a space to be upset. 

3) It’s about me, now what do I do? 

If it’s about you, the best thing to do is to start by hearing the other person. It’s possible they’re going to say things you disagree with, feel unfair to you, or that you think are wrong or upsetting. While it’s important you don’t let someone verbally abuse you, short of that you’re going to be better off if you can avoid taking things personally and just listen to the person. 

Take a deep breath and see if you can simply listen to what they are saying and from time to time reflect back to them what you’ve heard. 

This is KEY! Just because you’re reflecting back to someone what they heard, doesn’t mean you’re agreeing with them, or that you’re saying what they are thinking is true. 

The first need most people have when they are upset is to be heard and to have their feelings validated. Even if what they think you said or did isn’t what you said or did, it’s often better to just honor them and their feelings. 

Whether or not you agree with what they thought happened their feelings are real, so simply reflect what you’re hearing as closely as you can. 

“So when I showed up at 9:05 you were upset because you thought I was late and you hate having to wait on me.”

“So when I went to class without you, you were mad because you felt like I didn’t care if you were with me or not.”

Bonus points if you can tell them their feelings made sense. Remembering that someone’s feelings can make sense based on what they experienced even if what they experienced was different from what you thought or experienced. 

4) What do I have to apologize for or own here? 

The final question to ask yourself is what do you have to apologize for or own. It’s very likely that if someone is upset with you, something you did play a part in it. You may not have intended to hurt them, to say something unkind, or to do something they didn’t like. But your intentions only matter in part, what ultimately matters is your impact on people, so if you can apologize for the impact you had on them or any mistake you made. 

“I’m sorry I was late and didn’t text you. I was trying to text you and it didn’t go through, but that doesn’t really matter, what matters is that you felt dropped by me.”

Bonus points if you add what you’ll shift next time and thank them for sharing themselves with you. 

“Next time I’ll pause as soon as I know I’m going to be late and send you a message. Thanks for helping me better”