go to the balcony
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"Go to the Balcony" to Handle Emotional Interviews

Ask The Expert

By Barbara Mitchell

Q: Lately I’ve had applicants who get emotional during a job interview, and one actually broke down and sobbed. I had no idea how to handle it, so I sat there while she got herself together. Another applicant got angry when I asked what I thought was a totally appropriate question. In case this happens again, what’s the best way to handle these uncomfortable situations?

A: I sympathize with you. Interviews are tough enough without having to deal with emotional outbursts. I’ve seen this kind of behavior in other work situations, including performance appraisals and disciplinary meetings, and the same advice applies there as well.

Let’s acknowledge that people surprise us all the time. I remember one case when I was interviewing a man for a high-level technical position, and he broke down in tears partway through the interview. I felt myself tearing up as his tears flowed.

“Going to the balcony” is often used as a metaphor for adopting a detached state of mind, allowing you to see a scene clearly from afar.

I handed him a box of tissues (like any good HR professional, I always have tissues available because you never know when you’ll need them) and told him I would step out of the room for a few minutes to give him time alone. I waited for two or three minutes outside, then knocked on my office door, and he opened it. He was back in control, and we continued the interview.

When you find yourself in emotional situations, my advice is to “go to the balcony”—a technique used in negotiation and conflict management. “Going to the balcony” is often used as a metaphor for adopting a detached state of mind, allowing you to see a scene clearly from afar. The technique is often used when you need to take a time out from a heated argument or regain control of your emotions.

In that interview, I went to the balcony by leaving the room and letting the candidate regain his composure. It also gave me an opportunity to get myself under control. It doesn’t do any good to get emotional yourself. 

If this happens to you when dealing with a current employee—for example, if an employee erupts in anger when receiving constructive feedback—I suggest you do the same thing. Calmly state that progress won’t be made while he or she is upset and that you’ll take a break or reschedule the meeting to continue the discussion the next day.

If an employee constantly reacts with tears, anger, or other strong emotions, you may want to consider a referral to an employee assistance program (EAP), if your organization has one, so the employee can get help dealing with whatever is causing the emotional reactions.

Barbara Mitchell is a human resources and management consultant and author of The Big Book of HR and The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook. Do you have a question you’d like her to answer in “Ask the Expert”? Send it to [email protected].

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