“Tell me, what do you do when someone starts crying?” Mr. B. recently asked during one of my seminars. He had asked his colleague to improve some aspects of a task that she had completed for him. As a result his colleague had raised her voice. He said that she had accused him of never being satisfied with anything and had then burst into tears. Mr. B. told me that this had not been the first time. Therefore he had already formulated his criticism very carefully. He was feeling rather helpless now that he was faced with another emotional outburst.

If we are in the presence of someone who is crying this usually affects us. This is the case in particular if we feel responsible for the tears or even guilty of causing them. I vividly remember the time when our son was at the age when he really did not like his hair being washed. This mix of water and shampoo that is poured over your head and therefore usually also ends up in your eyes! Week after week, whenever it was time for him to have a bath, our son was crying bitterly. Each time, the washing of his hair was accompanied by whining and screaming – both on my part and my son’s. One evening, anticipating the upcoming fight in the bathroom, I said to my son – “Tonight we are washing your hair without any discussions. I am fed up with all this screaming!” My son responded – “OK mom, but can I at least cry quietly?” I had to laugh and gave my son a hug. In the evening I washed his hair. He did not cry.

I have learned a lot about leadership since I have had children, for example, about the possibilities and limits of what we call motivation and about the fact that we can like someone and at the same time say no to his ideas. We can’t always transfer the experiences made when raising children fully to leadership situations. After all, day-to-day leadership work is about adults. Also, nobody needs to parent anyone. With regard to tears I still see parallels, however. So what should Mr. B. do when his colleague is crying? On the one hand he is convinced that he has acted correctly and professionally by stating his criticism in a matter-of-fact way. In terms of the contents of his criticism he also has not changed his mind. On the other hand Mr. B. feels bad and helpless when he is faced with his crying colleague.

The neurosurgeon James R. Doty points out that “the compass of the heart is really a form of communication that exists between the brain and the heart through the vagus nerve.” There “are far more neural connections that go from the heart to the brain than the other way around.” This may be the reason why the mind frequently loses out to the heart and why we always respond emotionally to others. Something in us finds it hard to ignore someone who is sad. We want to turn to the person and comfort them. However, hugging his colleague may not be the best idea for Mr. B., especially in light of the #MeToo movement. After all, he does not want be accused of sexual harassment and lose his job. So should he just keep his criticism to himself in the future? That’s not an option either.

Change of scene.

In my seminars, I usually introduce the topic of conflict and emotion using a fictitious scenario of a marriage. We imagine that one of my participants – last week it was Michael – is married to me. At the beginning of our marriage we had established the following rule: once a week each of us gets to spend an evening away from the other. I enjoy going shopping with the girls (let’s stick with the cliché) and as a passionate FC Bayern Munich fan Michael goes to see a soccer match at the weekend. Last Saturday Michael went to see one of his friends and together they watched the away match against Dortmund on television. This week it’s Champions League. Today, Wednesday, Bayern is hosting Real Madrid – a classic match. The stadium has been sold out for weeks. It is impossible to get tickets. However, another seminar participant, Felix, was able to get his hands on two tickets. Felix asks Michael whether he would like to come to the match with him. Michael knows that his wife is looking forward to spending the evening with him. Despite this he really wants to go to the soccer match. The following dialog takes place:

Michael: “Honeeeeeey, it’s Champions League tonight. FC Bayern Munich against Real Madrid and the match is completely sold out. But now Felix managed to get tickets after all.” Pause. “Is it OK if I go to the match tonight?”

Wife purses her lips and says nothing.

Michael: “I know we had agreed to spend the evening together and I was already out last weekend, but this is a one-time opportunity. Bayern against Real!”

Wife, after some hesitation – “Well, I suppose so.” Silence. “I can spend the evening ironing your shirts then.” Silence. “It’s not going to get done otherwise after all.”

The seminar participants notice immediately: the situation is tense. Someone jokes – “Great, she said yes: Michael, leave quickly before she changes her mind!” I ask Michael to continue the conversation. He offers to take his wife out to dinner the following evening. However, the wife does not appreciate this offer. We are not able to process rational facts when we are emotional. To put it more bluntly: it is pointless to feed someone who is still throwing up. As the trainer I ask Michael to talk to his wife.

Michael continues – “What is the matter, honey?”

Wife in tears – “I know that soccer is important to you.” Pause. “And I don’t really mind if you go.” Pause. “But recently we really haven’t seen much of each other.” Pause. “I am afraid that we will grow apart.” Pause. “Sometimes I am terrified that we are destroying our marriage.” Pause. “Sometimes I don’t even know if you still love me!”

Deadly silence in the seminar room.

In my role as trainer I ask Michael – “What would you now do in a real-life situation?” Michael replies – “I would definitely not go to the soccer match,” which, by the way, the majority of seminar participants say. When asked – “What do you feel?” – Michael says – “I feel guilty.” Interestingly, Michael feels this guilt in his chest. It feels tight and makes breathing difficult. He notices a lump in his throat. The neural connections around his heart seem to be working.

Finally I say – “Michael, we are not married.” All seminar participants are relived immediately. Felix adds – “And I don’t have a ticket!” Michael first looks at Felix, then at me, baffled. It is as if he has woken up from a nightmare. The group bursts out laughing. Everyone is back in the real world. We are 12 people in a seminar room talking about conflict and emotions. There is no soccer game and no marital crisis. The whole thing just took place in our fantasy. And yet – Michael’s physical reaction feels very real.

This can be explained by the fact that our brain is not good at distinguishing between reality and fantasy. That is why we are at the edge of our seats when we are watching a thriller. That is the reason why our heart breaks when we watch Leonardo DiCaprio a.k.a. Jack drown in the icy waters of the North Atlantic in “Titanic.” Even if we are not at the movie theater, our mind keeps drifting off into fantasy land. When we see a person crying we want to end their pain as soon as possible. Normally we already learn how to do that at a very young age. A crying person causes us to feel a pain in our chest, which we often interpret as a guilty conscience. Who knows, maybe it is compassion or sympathy? Regardless of that, it is an ancient feeling and we often don’t know where it is coming from. It causes our brain to think about how the relationship with the person who cries “because of us” will progress. It is not looking good for a happy ending, unless we quickly take action. The brain jumps between the sad reality and an imaginary, less than rosy future. In this state it is difficult to find an adequate solution. If we had a little more distance to what goes on in our head we would realize that we are watching our own familiar movie rather than reality.

The good thing is that you can leave the movie theater when you realize that you are sitting in one. You can ask yourself what movie you subconsciously bought a ticket for. Do I really want to see this movie? Or do I feel bad watching it?

Regarding Mr. B.’s question, I specifically recommend to him – “If someone is crying, ask yourself whether your heart is feeling heavy. If yes, take a deep breath. Slow down. After a few deep breaths your body will already start to relax. In this way, you give the signals your brain is sending the opportunity to arrive where they can be converted to effective actions. Once you have a clear head again, look at your counterpart. What movie is your colleague currently watching? Is she disappointed because she thinks that she is not living up to her or your standards? That hurts and you probably know the feeling well yourself. Your colleague also needs a little time for the feeling to pass. You should give her this time. You can ask her if she wants to be alone for a little while. However, as we benefit from the calm and caring presence of someone else it will probably be OK for you to stay. It may help to offer her a tissue. If you both remain rational, you can talk about the facts. Without any movies in your head, very real, and probably also without any tears.”