Lawyering can be emotionally taxing for a number of reasons. Couple the stress of the job with unsettling events in the world or a difficult personal situation and any professional is bound to encounter a colleague who is having a bad day. Since many invisible boundaries are implicated in office relationships, it can be difficult to know the best way to proceed. But colleagues also grow close over time, and they naturally want to be supportive of the people they see every day. Here are some tips for approaching these inevitable tough situations:
1. Lend an understanding ear.
People experiencing an emotional crisis often just need someone to listen to them for a brief period so they can “vent” and feel a sense of relief. It is difficult to walk around all day in an office filled with friendly faces and keep a difficult situation to yourself. If you sense a colleague wants to share something, ask if he or she would like to go somewhere private. That space does not have to be an office with a closed door. In fact, it might be better to go outside for a walk around the block to get some air and talk away from the concerned glances of other colleagues.
You do not have to offer advice. Unless you work as a licensed therapist, you are not qualified to give professional advice! This should take some pressure off you as a concerned friend. Be prepared to see some tears, and let your colleague know you care about him or her. If you are willing and able, you can offer to help out with any work tasks that need to be attended to. Approach these conversations as simple listening exercises. Usually, within the space of a few minutes, your colleague will have collected him or herself and will be eager to return to work.
2. Be prepared with resources.
If you work in a large law firm, you may have in-house resources for support. Those of us in small law firms, however, should either know—or be able to find—information about organizations such as Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers. Depending on the type of issue your colleague is facing, offer to find and share some useful resources with him or her. Sometimes, that initial step is the most difficult for someone in need. After making these suggestions, step back and urge your colleague to reach out to one or several professional organizations.
Remember that there is a fine line between supportive and becoming overly burdened yourself. Only take on tasks that you are able to accomplish given your own workload and willingness. Since you are not a mental health professional, it is important to protect yourself and ensure that the workplace does not become a draining space for you. If your colleague’s emotional state is not improving or if he or she continues to worsen, you may need to involve someone better equipped to intervene.
3. Share what you are comfortable with.
In the context of work-related mistakes or failures, it can be comforting (particularly for a young lawyer!) to hear from a colleague that everything will be okay. Although your colleague may believe he or she is on the verge of a malpractice lawsuit, many mistakes can be fixed with the right kind of attention and effort. In the midst of a work-related crisis, your colleague’s distress may render him or her unable to map out the correct path towards resolution. If you’re comfortable doing so, it may be helpful to share a similar story and explain how you worked your way through it. Offer to brainstorm solutions, and check in the following day to see how your colleague is doing.
Dealing with strong emotions in the workplace is challenging and confusing, and the process can sometimes muddle professional relationships. But with the right boundaries and resources, it is possible to be a supportive colleague without taking on a role you aren’t equipped for. Moreover, if you strive to be a supportive colleague, your co-workers will be there for you when you face your own difficulties. Simply lend an ear, a resource, and a story.