Kelly Poulson
Coach. Career Navigator. Ass Kicker. Dog mom.

Just when you think you’ve got your whole work life figured out, your days are being hijacked by a colleague who is struggling. Whether or not they intend to do it, people’s emotions really impact those around them. Instead of allowing Debbie Downer to drag you with her, why not think of some ways to attempt to remedy the situation, making life easier for both of you in the long run? It’s not simple, but it is possible to reach out in a genuine way without being incredibly awkward.

1. “Tell me more.” You can see that your coworker is pissed. He isn’t hiding it. But he’s also not sharing and that’s not helping any of the team. Now is your chance to reach out and ask him to tell you what’s going on. Listening is as powerful as all get out. It seems simple and obvious, but doing it well is incredibly meaningful and not as easy as it may seem.

If someone that you’re working with seems to be going through something and you’re asking them to share, do it in the best possible way. Whether it’s asking them to grab coffee, a drink, take a walk, often getting them out of the environment can make it easier to encourage them to open up.  And be present. Pay attention to what they are saying. Ask questions and clarify what you’re hearing.

2. “That sucks.” Sometimes, one of the most valuable things you can do for someone beyond listening, is validating what they are feeling. If this person is overwhelmed, acknowledge it and let them know it’s ok. Any normal human being in the situation that they are in might be feeling the same way. They aren’t crazy. It’s amazing how much stress that can alleviate for someone. Just knowing that they are heard and aren’t alone.

3. “What can I do?” When people are feeling overwhelmed by emotions, it becomes difficult for them to see what’s truly occurring around them. They end up so caught up in their own story and perspective that at times they aren’t able to see options in front of them. You might be able to see and suggest options. Or, you might just be able to listen and let them get it all out so they can leave it behind (as long as you don’t end up all wrapped up in it too!) Or maybe you’re the person who gives them a shout out on a project. Or brings them their favorite candy. Generally taking some action that shows that you care and value them and their work.

4. “Knock knock….” As they say, laughter is the best medicine. I’m not one for knock knock jokes myself but...Depending on your relationship with this person, you might be able to say just the right thing to brighten their day. Is there a particular YouTube clip that gets them every time? IM that on over to give them a giggle. Telling them about how your dropped lemonade all over yourself and the elevator that morning could crack them up. Doing anything you can to lighten the mood.

5. “Kim in HR is awesome. Have you thought about connecting with her?” It’s not all on your shoulders. Though being a good colleague and friend involves trying in some way, there are some situations that are out of your wheelhouse. And that’s ok. There are professionals in your organization with this specialty for a reason. Often, even that extra nudge from a coworker makes the difference in whether or not an employee reaches out for help. Be the person to give that nudge.

Work can be complicated enough without all of the various personalities. Be one of the people who does your best to work with everyone and help them become better in the process. It will go a long way for them and for you!


Kelly is a human resources pro and coach who helps people find and achieve what they want career-wise and beyond. Coaching, training, recruiting – if you name it in the world of HR, she's done it in a variety of industries. Her advice has been featured on The Muse, Career Contessa, Levo, Workology, among others. Learn more by scoping her out at


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