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How to Manage Strong Emotions in Retrospectives (6 Examples)

Nora St-Aubin
By Nora St-Aubin
Published on July 3, 2024
How to Manage Strong Emotions in Retrospectives (6 Examples)

Have you ever been in a retrospective meeting where someone got visibly emotional? Maybe they rolled their eyes, raised their voice, or even started crying… Or maybe you have a retro coming up, and you’re concerned that tensions will rise or someone will lose their cool.

Moments like this can be difficult and uncomfortable for the whole group. And as a facilitator, it’s important to be equipped to handle these situations effectively.

Retrospectives are key moments not only to celebrate wins and troubleshoot blockers, but also to build the team’s foundation of trust, transparency, and safety. And managing people’s big emotions—even when it’s awkward—is a way to support the group in achieving those goals.

In this article, we’ll go over 6 common emotions that might flare up in your retrospectives, as well as indicators of how you can spot them and their potential causes. We’ve also included some tips on how to address these emotions in the moment—but keep in mind, every situation is unique, and depending on your team’s dynamics and circumstances, you might choose to respond in a different way.

Then, we’ll review some retrospective best practices to encourage sharing emotions in a healthy and productive way. Let’s get it started!

  1. Addressing Frustration

  2. Dispelling Confusion

  3. Releasing Resentment

  4. Defusing a Defensive posture

  5. Welcoming Sadness

  6. Channelling Anger

  7. Our tips for facilitating constructive retrospectives 

  8. Make emotions a team strength!

1. Addressing Frustration

People usually get frustrated when they hit roadblocks or feel incapable of achieving something.

How to spot it:

  • Eye rolling, loud sighing, and huffiness or exasperated hand gesturing,

  • Interrupting others or speaking over them, or trying to drive home their point,

  • Giving short responses, skipping their turn, or not participating at all,

  • Complaining or venting, and possibly seeming disinterested in finding solutions,

  • Crossing their arms, pacing around the room, or even rage quitting the meeting.

Potential causes:

  • Inefficiencies with projects or a lack of structure in processes or workflows,

  • Unresolved issues with projects or colleagues,

  • Lack of clear goals or direction, or shifting goal posts and frequent pivots,

  • Unrealistic expectations, facing tight deadlines, or managing urgent tasks,

  • Communication issues within the team or with stakeholders.

How to address it: Call out the elephant in the room. Say out loud: “I’m sensing some frustrations, and I’d like to understand what’s behind them so we can troubleshoot the issues and move forward in the meeting. Should we take a moment to share our current frustrations?”

If discussions start to run long or become repetitive, cut in and say: “I can see you all feel strongly about this. Should we schedule a follow-up discussion on this point, or come back to it at the end of the meeting if we have time?”

2. Dispelling Confusion

When someone is unsure or conflicted about something, it typically leads to confusion.

How to spot it:

  • Asking lots of questions or expressing uncertainty,

  • Furrowed brows, glancing around the room, or quizzical glances at peers,

  • Whispering or having side conversations with other participants,

  • Hesitation to participate or giving noncommittal or vague responses.

Potential causes:

  • Managing complex problems or projects without sufficient support,

  • Unclear instructions or expectations from stakeholders,

  • Conflicting messages or misaligned visions from stakeholders,

  • Ineffective change management at the team or company level.

How to address it: Don’t hesitate to call out confusion by asking something like: “Is there anything that’s unclear or hasn’t been addressed that we can clarify together?”

Depending on the person and how well you know them, you might ask them directly, or pose the question more broadly to the group. If one person is confused, chances are they’re not alone. Providing more clarity will generally benefit everyone, even if it’s just a reminder.

3. Releasing Resentment

Resentment often builds over time as people feel repeatedly slighted or treated unfairly.

How to spot it:

  • Sarcasm or passive-aggression towards others,

  • Gossiping, whispering, or side glances with peers,

  • Being cold or distant towards a team member or avoiding engaging with them,

  • Trolling, inappropriate laughter or joking around in a distracting way.

Potential causes:

  • Unfair workload distribution or ‘picking up the slack’ for others,

  • Perceived favouritism or feeling that people are treated differently on the team,

  • A sense of competition with a peer, or being pitted against each other,

  • Repeated disagreements or conflict with team members.

How to address it: In this case, it might be best to meet individually with the person or people involved after the retro. Say to them: “I’m sensing some tensions on the team and I want to hear your perspective on it. What have you noticed?”

Keeping it open-ended allows them space to share their point of view and helps to avoid defensiveness. Sometimes simply giving someone space to voice the issue out loud and making them feel heard can help clear the air.

4. Defusing Defensiveness

People tend to get defensive when they feel threatened or unsafe to show vulnerability.

How to spot it:

  • Denying responsibility, justifying their actions, or over-explaining themselves,

  • Blaming others or external circumstances for failures,

  • Becoming confrontational, raising their voice, or showing aggression,

  • Not acknowledging other perspectives or dismissing other points of view.

Potential causes:

  • Feeling blamed or attacked by others in the group,

  • Failing or having unexpected results from their work or choices,

  • Insecurity about their personal performance or the results of their work,

  • Feeling undervalued, unappreciated, or disrespected by others,

  • Receiving unconstructive criticism or critical feedback.

How to address it: You might address the defensive person directly and reassure them, or ask the team to chime in with words of encouragement if you think that will work well with the group dynamics. 

If they’re being targeted by one or more other people in the group, try redirecting the conversation to another topic to take the heat off them a bit—you can always say ‘let’s come back to this topic later on’. 

It might also be a good moment to remind the group that you’re all on the same team and striving towards the same goals.

Understanding ‘The Negative One’

In Retrospective Antipatterns, author Aino Vonge Corry details how some participants can become negative or hostile towards the practice of retrospectives in general. 

She recommends dealing with these types of participants by:

  • Meeting with them one-on-one to let them know that their negativity is affecting the whole group

  • Making them a ‘Champion Skeptic’—tell them you see the value in their perspective and want their help figuring out what’s working and not working in the retrospective process

5. Welcoming Sadness

Loss, disappointment, or difficult experiences can lead to feelings of sadness.

How to spot it:

  • Crying or being visibly upset, such as holding back tears or sniffling,

  • Not participating, or being quiet and withdrawn (if unusual for the person),

  • Lack of enthusiasm or energy, especially if they’re normally high-energy,

  • Being late or not showing up at all, or leaving early or abruptly.

Potential causes:

  • Failing or being disappointed with work or results,

  • Lack of support from their peers, manager, or stakeholders,

  • Feeling disconnected or ostracised from the team or group,

  • Dealing with personal issues or difficulties.

How to address it: We couldn’t have put it better than Esther Derby et al. in Agile Retrospectives, Second Edition:

“[I]f you’re in person, offer a box of tissues. If you’re working with a virtual team, give the team member a bit of time. Show patience. Ask if the group needs a break.

When the person is able to speak, ask, ‘What is happening for you? Would you feel comfortable sharing it with the group?’ Pause. Give them time and understanding. A tearful person often will share a heartfelt (and very relevant) comment about the topic. Those comments may shift the thinking of the whole team.”

6. Channelling Anger

Perhaps one of the most volatile emotions on the list, anger often comes up when people feel wronged or displeased.

How to spot it:

  • Aggression or hostility towards others, including raising their voice or shouting,

  • Making accusations against team members or placing blame,

  • Animated gesturing, pointing fingers, crossed arms, or even rage quitting.

Potential causes:

  • Interpersonal conflict or disagreements with others,

  • Feeling disrespected or undermined, or being treated unfairly,

  • Being blamed for undesirable outcomes or failures,

  • Managing high stress or pressure from the team, manager, or stakeholders.

How to address it: Here’s what Simon Chauvette, a Team Development Consultant at Ubisoft Canada, had to say:

“If I feel like things are really getting out of hand—if someone screams at or insults another participant—I might call a break. I’d speak with the participants who are involved individually and try to see if the situation can be resolved in the moment, or if people need time to process outside of the meeting.”

Bring Feelings to the Forefront

Want to encourage your team to share their emotions more openly? Try Neatro’s Glad Sad Mad Retrospective Template, designed to get participants to open up their hearts and share their feelings—in a productive way, of course!

Best Practices for Facilitating Constructive Retrospectives

Emotions are healthy—and we all experience them! So how can you create a safe space for your team to share their emotions in a healthy and constructive way during retros? Keep these best practices in mind for before, during, and after your retrospective meetings:

Before the Retro

Leading up to the meeting, it’s important to prepare sufficiently and share the plans with the team so they know what to expect. This way, everyone will arrive prepared and ready to participate. Here are a few ways to prep for a productive retrospective:

  • Create a meeting agenda with clear time blocks and share it with the team in advance. Feel free to use a ready-made template to help you shape the perfect retrospective experience!

  • Specify what Sprint, projects or initiatives you’ll cover in the meeting, and ask for the team’s input on what they want to discuss.

  • Reflect on the current team dynamics at play—you can also send out a survey (or a team radar with Neatro) to check in with how everyone’s feeling ahead of the meeting.

During the Retro

Once you’re all in the room (or virtual room) together, you want to keep things on track and running smoothly. Start by going over the agenda again and align everyone around the shared objective of the meeting—ie., the Prime Directive of retrospectives

Beyond that, keep these tips in mind for a great facilitation:

  • Start things off on the right foot with an icebreaker question. These are a great way to get people to open up and feel a sense of connection and safety with the group.

  • Establish some ground rules for communication, like:

    • Writing down ideas individually before sharing them to avoid groupthink

    • Sticking to time blocks so everyone gets a chance to share

    • Allowing for anonymity to encourage people to be open and honest

  • Make sure everyone gets a chance to share their opinion by voting on topics for discussion and which action items to tackle.

  • Speaking of action items, make sure you set some! Use the SMART goal framework to make sure your team is well-equipped to achieve the agreed upon initiatives.

After the Retro

After the retro, you can give yourself a pat on the back, pack up your bag, and head home for the day. Just kidding—it doesn’t end when the hour is up! Of course, congratulations on a well-executed retro, but on top of that, here are a few things you can do to drive home the value your team just created:

  • Ask your team for their feedback about the retrospective meeting. You can send out a survey or ask for a 1-5 rating on their return on time invested (ROTI).

  • Send out a recap of what’s been agreed upon, including the action items set and who’s owning them.

  • Follow up individually with team members if emotions do bubble up, and give them space to share their feelings one-on-one. Encourage team members to speak with one another to resolve any conflicts or tension.

Want to run your retrospective meetings like a pro? Neatro is a collaborative, intuitive platform with everything you need to make retros fun, easy, and productive—and to help you follow all of the best practices outlined in this section. Start your free trial or book a demo to learn more!

Make Emotions Your Team’s Superpower

Something to consider when it comes to navigating emotions at work is that when people express their feelings, it shows that there’s something at stake. In other words: if people didn’t care, they wouldn’t get emotional. Showing our emotions shows that we’re engaged.

Why is this important to keep in mind? Because if you can harness the power of emotions—instead of letting them spiral out of hand or become counterproductive—they can empower your team to reach new heights. The more practice your team gets with sharing their feelings, being heard by each other, and building foundations of support, safety, and trust, the stronger they’ll become.

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