In this Monday's edition of The Times, the BBC economics editor Robert Peston writes movingly about the profound effect the death of his wife (at the comparatively young age of 51) has had on him.
He goes on to describe the way in which some colleagues – notably male ones – found it difficult to know how to deal with the situation on his return to work.
And there, I think, lies the problem. Because of the perceived 'rules of engagement' in the workplace, difficult (even taboo) subjects such as bereavement are dealt with as 'situations'.
Instead of taking the opportunity to engage with people on a personal level, colleagues often avoid difficult issues or deal with them clumsily. A colleague of Peston's even said to him, "Lucky you – you can find yourself a girlfriend."
But why does the workplace drive this type of reaction in some people?
In a word: fear.
Fear of how the other person will react, fear of how I will respond, fear of emotion, fear of not knowing what to say next. Fear is one of the greatest causes of poor communication at work, and yet the very situations that make us fearful often present us with the greatest opportunities to come into our own as managers.
If you really don't know what to say, then say so. You'll be appreciated for your authenticity.
If you truly feel uncomfortable, admit it. People will admire your honesty.
What we think about an issue drives our feelings about it – and our feelings drive our behaviours. Therefore, however hard we try go disguise it, our thoughts and feelings will leak out in the way we speak and through our body language. Better, then, to say what's really going on for us in an open and honest way.
Whilst bereavement is, perhaps, at the extreme end of the spectrum of sensitive topics managers have to deal with, there are many, more commonplace ones that become areas to avoid. Performance appraisal meetings, negative feedback discussions, 'you didn't get the job' conversations – all of these can drive the same type of fear that resulted in that insensitive 'find yourself a girlfriend' comment.
So, come on. What are you frightened of – and how does it show?
Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong / FreeDigitalPhotos.net