How to deal with an upset employee?

So you come to work today and find that an employee (could also be your spouse or kids) is very upset. You don’t know why, and you don’t know who they are upset at. You just know they are upset. Your job as the employer is to help them process the situation and deal with their feelings.

But how? One of the best ways is drive-thru communication.


How To Communicate With Drive-thru Communication


The rules for drive-thru communication are simple. Basically, just like placing an order at a fast-food restaurant’s drive-thru. One person agrees to start “inside the fast-food restaurant” (the “employer”), and the other is “outside in the car by the menu” (the “employee”). The employer says something like, “Seems like you are not your normal self today, is bothering you?”


The employee then expresses his feelings or his needs in the current conflict. Sharing only small amounts of information at a time. Making large statements or blending two ideas together can cause the employer to forget or miss something important.

The employer’s job is to repeat what is said by the employee, making sure he understands the “order” clearly, and he isn’t allowed to evaluate anything that’s said. For instance, “What I hear you saying is…”?


Drive-thru communication is successful because it helps the employee feel safe to express his or her needs and feelings. Safety develops when the employee trusts that your goal is to listen and understand, not to defend and challenge. That’s why, in the employer role, you do not evaluate, edit, or defend yourself. Instead, simply listen and repeat.


Remember, we call this method drive-thru communication because fast-food chains have spent millions of dollars testing their ordering methods. If they can satisfy millions of drive-thru customers every day, why don’t we use their knowledge to keep our employees happy and positive?


The amazing part of this method is how fast anger is dissipated. When someone is listening to you with great concern and valuing who you are, the anger just seems to drain away.

Once each person feels heard, understood, and validated, you can begin to look for solutions to the problem if necessary. You’ll be amazed, however, at how easily some arguments are solved after you both feel understood and valued.


To help you, here is a summary of drive-thru communication guidelines:


Summary of Drive-thru Communication Rules


Fast-Food Employee (employer)

  • This person’s job is to listen.

  • When receiving an order, you can only repeat back what you’ve heard. No editing, evaluating, or defending yourself. You can ask to have the order repeated if you did not understand something. However, this is only for clarity — you don’t have to agree.

  • Listen for their heart — their feelings, fears, and emotions.

Customer (employee)

  • This person’s job is to express needs or feelings using “I” statements. No bringing up past issues, starting a new argument, or making blaming “You” statements (e.g., “You always …”).

  • Offer “bite-sized” thoughts or information so the other person can remember in order to repeat it back correctly and understand your feelings.

  • Share your heart — your feelings, fears, and emotions.

General Rules

  • Repeating statements in the employer role does not mean you agree with what’s being said. Instead, the goal is to listen and validate the other person’s feelings and individuality.

  • You are not looking for solutions at this time. Solutions can be sought after each person feels heard and validated.

  • Agree to take a time-out if withdrawal, escalation, invalidation, or negative beliefs creep into the conversation.

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