Dealing With Pissed Off Employees, Colleagues & Clients — The 2-Letter Word You Must Avoid

By Alan Collins

Years ago, at work, a good friend of mine got passed over for a promotion to an HR VP position.  

Everyone considered him the number one, slam dunk candidate for this job.

And so it was shocking when the job was filled by an outsider.

A few hours after the official corporate announcement was made and everyone in HR got the stunning news, I found him sitting alone in his office.

His back was turned and he wasn’t moving, just staring blankly out the window.

When I got his attention, I could see he was absolutely seething.

Frankly, I didn’t know quite what to say to him.  It’s so easy to say the wrong thing to someone who you know is frustrated, angry and vulnerable.

So I sat down in front of him, I started babbling about how I, too, had been passed over for a promotion. 

In fact, I told him it had happened to me three times.  I conveyed that in one particular case, my boss actually told me I had locked up the job and to just be patient.  But then he came back later and told me the higher ups had changed their mind at the last minute and promoted someone else.

I just wanted him to realize that he wasn’t alone, that I’d been through something similar and that I could understand how he felt.

He wasn’t buying it.

Not at all.

After I related this story, my good friend looked at me and snapped, “Okay, Alan, you win. You were passed over more times than me. You had it worse.  And, I guess according to you, I should be jumping for joy that I was passed over only ONCE…even though I worked my ass off, neglected my wife and kids for two years and was lied to and screwed over.  Thanks a helluva lot.”

“No, no, no,” I interjected, “that’s not what I’m saying at all, Mark.  I just meant that I know how you feel.”

He answered, “No, Alan, you don’t. You have no idea how I feel.” 

“And, if you don’t mind, I’d really like to be alone right now.”

Stunned, I stood up and lingered for a few seconds, and then walked away.

And I felt like a jerk.

I had totally failed one of my closest friends at work.  I had wanted to comfort him, and instead, I made him feel worse.

But the truth was, he was absolutely right.  I didn’t understand what was happening inside of him at all.

He understood HIMSELF and HIS EMOTIONS much better than I did.

But when facing him and his angry raw feelings, I felt uncomfortable.  I didn’t know what to say and so I defaulted to a topic that I was comfortable with…


In other words, I may have been trying to empathize, but what I really did was draw focus away from HIS anguish…and turn the attention and spotlight to that deadly TWO-LETTER word


A few days later he told me that he really needed to vent to someone.  Anyone who could LISTEN and understand the pain HE was feeling…how hard HE had worked for this promotion…only to have HIS aspirations flushed down the toilet.

He wanted someone to fully appreciate the magnitude of HIS loss.

That’s what he wanted from me.

Instead, I asked him to stop for a moment and listen to MY story of rejection.  

I had no idea.

But I understood.

From that day forward, I started noticing how often I responded to other people’s stories of rejection, loss and struggle with stories about me.

When an employee got a bad performance appraisal, I noticed that I’d respond by telling them about my own experience with the annual review process and how unfair it could seem at times.

Even at home, if my son told me about clashing with a kid at school, my first instinct was to talk about a girl I fell out with in college.

That’s when I began realizing that this incessant focus on ME, in situations when others are feeling frustration, didn’t work too well.

When in pain, what all of these people needed FIRST from me was to hear them out and acknowledge their pain and what THEY were going through.

Instead, I forced them to listen and focus on ME.

Sociologist Charles Derber describes this tendency to insert yourself into these types of conversations as “conversational narcissism.”  It’s the desire to take over a conversation, to do most of the talking and to turn the focus of the exchange to yourself.

This is common and is often subtle and unconscious.

Derber regards conversational narcissism is common as part of our me-focused, Instagram-obsessed, attention-getting society in America.  It occurs in informal conversations among people both at work and at home…and especially among people who tend to talk constantly about themselves.

He believes there are two types of responses in dealing with angry or frustrated people:  a shift response and a support response. The first shifts attention back to yourself, and the second supports the other person’s comment.

Here’s a simple example:

Shift Response
Susan: I hate doing all this thankless grunt work.   
Jamal:  Me too. I’m totally overwhelmed. 

Support Response
Susan:  I hate doing all this thankless grunt work.  
Jamal:  What’s up? What are you working on that you dislike? 

Here’s another:

Shift Response
Kate: I need a new job.  
Marcus: Me too. My boss is a jerk.  

Support Response
Kate: I need a new job. 
Marcus: Oh yeah. Tell me what’s going on?  

Here’s yet another:

Shift Response
Jose:  Damnit, Bob pisses me off. 
Mary:  Yeah, he makes me feel the same way.  

Support Response
Jose:  Damnit, Bob pisses me off.
Mary:  Why, what’s been going on between the two of you? 

Shift responses are a hallmark of conversational narcissism. They help you turn the focus constantly back to yourself.

But support responses encourage the other person to continue their story and can be much more effective as a coaching tool in these types of situations.

Today, I’ve changed my approach.  I try to be more supportive and more aware of my natural instinct to talk so much about myself.

A confession:  I’m not perfect.  Like lots of people, I have an ego and can be self-centered.

But I’ve learned that in highly charged, emotional situations to try to ask questions that support the other person and encourage them to express what they’re feeling.

I’ve also made a conscious effort to listen more and talk less.

I do all this before making any minor attempt to offer any help.

As a reminder, I’ve created a mental image in my mind that looks something like this…

I’ve found that this helps.

Recently, I had a long conversation with a close cousin who had just experienced sexual harassment for the first time on her job.

We spent almost an hour on the phone and I barely said a word.

At the end of our call, she said, “Thank you for your advice. You’ve really helped me work some things out.”

The truth was, I hadn’t actually offered ANY advice at all. 

Most of what I said was ten different versions of:

“Tell me more?
“That sounds really tough and so unfair,  Amelia.”
“I’m so sorry this is happening to you.”

In this case, she didn’t really need any additional advice or stories from me.  She had already confronted her boss, filed a complaint, was getting great legal advice and assertively dealing with the situation.

She just needed to vent and be heard.

Here’s the takaway in all this…

As an HR pro, you deal with angry and ticked off folks all the time.

However, in situations when tempers flair and emotions get heated, sometimes being heard is what folks at work want from you FIRST….

BEFORE they’ll listen to your
point of view, guidance or advice.

So, make sure they know you “feel them” and give them the gift of being heard by…

   Avoiding that deadly two-letter word called “ME.”  

Make it about THEM.

And see how that works.



Feel free to share your thoughts about this article in the comments below by clicking HERE.

Want more success strategies for dealing with the difficult people you’ll face as a brand new HR leader?  Then check out:  THE NEW HR LEADER’S FIRST 100 DAYS: How To Start Strong, Hit The Ground Running & ACHIEVE SUCCESS FASTER As A New Human Resources Manager, Director and VP.  You can get more details HERE.

Want more success strategies for dealing with the challenging situations you’ll face as you advance your career forward in HR?   Then check out:  UNWRITTEN HR RULES: 21 Secrets For Attaining Awesome Career Success in Human Resources.  You can get more details HERE. 

About the Author: Alan Collins is Founder of Success in HR, Inc. and the author of a variety of best selling HR books on career advancement. He was formerly Vice President – Human Resources at PepsiCo where he led HR initiatives for their Quaker Oats, Gatorade and Tropicana businesses.

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19 Responses to “Dealing With Pissed Off Employees, Colleagues & Clients — The 2-Letter Word You Must Avoid”

  1. Lisa Says:

    Love this article! Really makes me think about how I respond to people.

  2. Cindy Says:

    JUST.GREAT.ADVICE. as usual

    As HR professionals this mode should be our go-to mode – but it is always good to get a reminder, thanks Alan.


  3. Susan Says:

    Great article, as always, Alan. This should be taught up and down the management chain, not jut HR.

  4. Danito Says:

    Find it so constructive,helps in the so pandemic sexual harassment issue.

  5. Kay Says:

    This article was so timely. Just after reading this an associate came into vent … it helped me pause and remember to focus on them and not me. Thank you Alan!

  6. Alan Says:

    Everyone: thrilled that you found this timely and helpful…?

  7. Raelene Turner Says:

    Great article Alan and a very timely reminder. I’m about to talk to a family member just rediagnosed with Cancer. Same principles apply I say. Thankyou.

  8. Alan Says:

    It absolutely does, Raelene. Sorry to hear the news about your family member. Hope your conversation goes well.

  9. Jimmy Masenda Says:

    Thanks very much for this article Alan it is top class, especially for me because I am a church elder as well. This article is a well of wisdom, by reading it I have just realised that one cannot comfort bereaved people by walking them through the cemetery to make them understand that it really happens and happened to someone. This does not take away pain. What they need is a shoulder to cry on.

    Thanks so much, this is a top drawer article.

  10. Deniece Says:

    This article was a true reflection of me. Thanks for the advice. It will be helpful.

  11. Winnie Says:

    Thanks Alan,
    Great Article. Very well articulated. It has made thinking on how i relate with my team. Listen, and Listen, then act.


    Warm Regards,

  12. Adélle Says:

    Wow! This is so true and really plays into the whole impact vs. intention conversation. Thanks for great article.

  13. Alan Says:

    Great point, Adelle. Thanks for making that important connection for us.

  14. susan musumeci Says:

    Excellent, excellent article and advice. I don’t always succeed but do try to find out what the issue is that is dragging the other person down and out. Great, as always, Alan.

  15. Alan Says:

    Susan, you’re absolutely right. It’s tough and while we don’t often succeed, it’s worth it in the end to climb into their world first. Well said.

  16. john keith Says:

    Thanks for sharing how basic interactions and listening with respect can make a positive impact.

  17. Alan Says:

    You’re welcome, John. Glad you found it helpful.

  18. Linda Peterson Says:

    Thanks for the examples Alan! An excellent way to communicate we KNOW one of the reasons we have two ears & one mouth!

  19. Alan Collins Says:

    Glad you found the examples & the article helpful, Linda. Hope all is well on your end.