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What to Do When a Colleague Needs Emotional Support in the Office How and how not to help a colleague in need…

By Ross McCammon

This story appears in the February 2016 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Paul Sahre

While coworkers are close physically, we are not often close emotionally. But when one of us experiences a personal crisis, we are forced into unfamiliar roles -- and this distance can be awkward and, at least for the aggrieved, unhelpful. Professional relationships are anchored by hierarchy, politics, obligation. Emotional support needs waters that aren't muddy. It requires purity and simplicity. And to achieve those things you need enough humility to understand that your job is not to alleviate the burdens of grief. Your job is to alleviate the burdens of work.

First thing: Acknowledge the hardship. This is most of it. This is the point. And yes, it's hard. I think the main anxiety we have comes from talking to people who may not want to talk. So…email. Really. But don't avoid looking at the person when you pass in the hallway. Really. The problem isn't reaching out; it's that we try to do too much. And "too much" is what the aggrieved is already experiencing. Don't add too much on top of too much. Don't demand information by asking "How are you doing?" or "What can I do?"

Upon the death of her husband Dave Goldberg, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, took to the social media site to talk candidly of her pain. She returned to work hoping for normalcy, but people avoided her or looked frightened whenever she approached because they were unsure how to act or what to say. People often lean on hopeful statements, like, "Everything will be OK," or filler questions like, "How are you?" But in her first Facebook post after her husband's death, she warned that these often lead to further pain and uncertainty. Instead, Sandberg says, "Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not."

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