How to Remove Frustration and Invite Connection

by Alli Polin on August 12, 2014

Leaders break through frustration to the heart of the relationship

I thought I was dying.  The pain in my arm had been there for days and even though it was my right, not my left, I still worried about heart attack, blood clots and other terrible conditions.  After googling all possibilities and working myself up, I headed to the ER, only to sit and wait for hours. By the time I met with the doctor, I was frustrated and embarrassed.  Luckily, my doctor did the one thing that could remove my frustration and immediately improve her ability to help.

Did she ask me to describe my symptoms?  Of course.
Did she ask me to show her where it hurts?  Absolutely.
Did she ask me if I recently did something to cause my pain?  Certainly.

At this point, she could have kept treating me and doing her job despite my terse remarks but she paused instead. 

“I sense you’re frustrated,” she said.  “Do you want to talk about it?”

Instead of continuing to embrace my anger, I started to share how I was really feeling.  I thought it could be a heart attack since many women don’t have classic symptoms.  Clearly, I was the only person in the building that was concerned, because if it was really life threatening, I wouldn’t move from waiting area to waiting area but would be a priority patient.  I was frustrated because I took my Saturday evening to sit and wait for hours when there’s really nothing wrong.

“I hear you.  I understand.”

In that moment, I did feel heard, respected and a lot less frustrated. I told her I respected her judgement and if she thinks all I need is Tylenol and rest, I believe her.  She said that she respects proactive patients and wanted to do an EKG because she wants me to not only be cared for at the hospital, but also sleep well at night.

Our relationship changed in that moment from a detached doctor-patient to a healthcare team.

What about you? Ever try to help someone and clearly sense their frustration?  What do you do? Do you pull out an “I’m the leader and I said so” or do you know how to remove frustration and turn around the situation?

Follow these steps to remove frustration and invite connection:

1.  Acknowledge Frustration

When people are clearly bottling up frustration, say something instead of pretending that you don’t notice.  The idea that you don’t have the time to deal with frustration is simply an excuse to avoid a potentially tough conversation.  Letting frustration grow is a sure-fire way to tank any chance of significant shared success.

TIP: Avoid being accusatory: “Stop getting so frustrated!” Try opening a door: “I can tell that you’re really feeling frustrated.”

2.  Ask about Their Frustration

Hit the pause button once you make your acknowledgement and invite them to talk about how they’re feeling.  Be clear that you’re on their side by not getting defensive in your questioning.  Remember, you may sense their frustration yet you may not be the source.

TIP: Avoid blaming questions: “What am I doing that’s so frustrating?”  Try a conversation starter:  “Do you want to talk about it?”

3.  Listen

This may seem obvious but listening requires you to stop talking.  This is the time to understand, not solve someone’s frustration through your brilliance and leadership savvy.  Be kind, gentle and curious rather than time-pressed, judgmental and demanding.

TIP:  Zip your lips, sit on your hands and hold back your desire to go into fix-it mode.

4.  Acknowledge Feelings

If someone is vulnerable enough to share the reason behind their frustration with you, acknowledge them and acknowledge their feelings. If you think they are being ridiculous, remember that they are giving you their trust and their feelings are very real even if you don’t share them.

TIP: Ensure that they know that they’re being heard and you care.  “Thank you for being honest.  I appreciate your willingness to speak up.”

5.  Engage 

If you really want to turn frustration into connection there is a final step that’s all about you engaging and taking action.  It’s one thing to say,  “I hear you.” and another to make a change based on their needs and feelings.  This is your chance to show them that you’re on their side and not only focused on getting things done.

TIP: People matter.  Leaders build bridges and are willing to cross them to deepen relationships and create shared success.  Try: “I hear you and here’s what I”m going to do…”

How have you removed frustration to invite connection?  What tips can you share?

For coaching, consulting or speaking Let’s Connect!


{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

John Bennett August 12, 2014 at 9:17 am

As I quite often do, I view your pieces from an educator point of reference. I am very aligned with student control and differentiated instruction. So the points you list make great sense and I always watch for such frustration with empathy the goal along with individual assistance. Given I’m very much a PBL advocate as well, I get regular feedback on team cohesiveness – to identify early those teams needing my help.

My questions as I read your excellent piece (as usual) have to do with the one student in the class currently frustrated. First, I’d guess there are more than one; after understanding, is it better / worse to bring them together with others similarly frustrated? With others having this topic comfortably under control? In a team, to talk with the team to get their assistance with their teammate’s issue? Indeed, what about seeking “whole-class” discussion – after careful thought on your part and student input?

I can argue these different ways and am wondering what you / others think?


Alli Polin August 13, 2014 at 1:18 am

Great questions here, John which add a lot of depth to this topic. Without knowing more, here are some of my initial thoughts. I’d love it if other readers weighed in too.

If it’s a single individual, I’d reach out to them to better understand how they’re feeling and how discuss how you can help turn it around. I’d also invite them to step up and be a leader. Ask them to come to you when they’re feeling challenged so you can help instead of waiting for their frustration to grow.

If you suspect that many people are frustrated, an open, facilitated group discussion could be effective. However, I’ve seen some of those meetings go better when the facilitator was an unbiased person versus someone connected to the core of the frustration.

Lastly, bringing everyone together clearly has some pros and cons. I’ve seen people oblivious to the frustration of others be confused when invited to hash things out. However, part of creating a healthy team is checkpoints to talk about what’s working and what needs to change. Again, strong facilitation skills are critical in addition to clear ground rules so the discussion stays on point.

I could write a ton more on this and I know that your are thoughtfully thinking through every angle. I think you’re on the right track… seeking input, deepen your understanding of the situation and then discuss as a group about how to move forward.



Terri Klass August 12, 2014 at 9:18 am

Wow, I am glad you are ok and in need on just tylenol and TLC! Take the time and breathe and feel your body. Sounds like a bit of overload.

I just had this crazy encounter with a pest control guy this morning who did just what you said. I am having a “bee issue” and the company can’t quite resolve it. The supervisor finally got back to me this morning and apologized profusely. He said he took the blame because he forgot to call me back yesterday. I was taken off guard. I started to become less frustrated and agreed to have him come back for a look. But he listened and acknowledged my concerns and connected-what you recommend!

Thanks Alli and feel stronger! 🙂


Alli Polin August 13, 2014 at 12:36 am

Looks like a pinched nerve. Painful but soooo much better than any of the alternatives that I pulled up on google!

Really appreciate your bee story, Terri. It’s truly disarming when someone takes responsibility before we even dig into our anger or frustration. Stories like yours remind me that we always have opportunities to improve the situation and our relationships.

Thanks so much!


Cynthia Bazin August 12, 2014 at 9:37 am

Wow Alli! I am SO glad you are okay! Thanks for sharing your experience. We must be VERY aligned because my next writing coming out tomorrow is about ‘connecting’. I appreciate you my friend…. {{Hugs}} You have the BEST writing….


Alli Polin August 13, 2014 at 12:38 am

Look forward to your newest piece! Connection makes the world richer, happier and makes life more satisfying too.

Appreciate you!


Bill Benoist August 12, 2014 at 9:46 am

I recently read about some studies that demonstrated curiosity can actually generate new t-cells. This makes sense if you think about new neurological pathways being formed in our brain when we consider new approaches to common challenges. So, I think if we can challenge our frustrations – and turn them into curiosities, it’s a win-win situation for us 🙂


Alli Polin August 13, 2014 at 12:50 am

Wow. Interesting! Talk about the power of curiosity!

Thanks so much for sharing that here and hopefully it will spark a little less reaction and a whole heck of a lot more curiosity.

Thanks, Bill!


Tom Rhodes August 12, 2014 at 10:21 am

I guess being unemployed could be and often is a continuous frustration. Thankfully I have friends who ask if I am ok and mean it enough to listen with empathy. Empathy is such an under used and important people tool. It can ease so many frustrations. In the wake of the passing by suicide of a man who we would have thought had everything, Robin Williams, we all have to realize listening with empathy and trying to feel what’s on the inside may be the key to saving a life.
Glad you are ok. Thank you for another wonderful post.



Alli Polin August 13, 2014 at 12:52 am

Truly: “Empathy is such an under used and important people tool.” Stopping to connect and care… it’s what being human is about.

We can either let our frustrations bring us down or put them aside for the learnings underneath. I appreciate that you inspire me to do the latter.


LaRae Quy August 12, 2014 at 11:04 am

I could really relate to this post, Alli!

I had something similar happen to me—I was under an incredible amount of stress for months, and then one day I had pains run up and down my left arm. I went to the emergency room thinking I was having a heart attack. I, too, had to wait long hours but when the doctor saw me he explained that I was having a panic attack! He took the time to explain to me why I was feeling pains and that they were not harmful.

I never experienced those pains or another panic attack again, but it was because the doctor took the time to explain to me in clear terms what was going on.

Loved this post!


Alli Polin August 13, 2014 at 12:56 am

I think if my doctor tried to explain what she thought to me, without making a connection, I would have blocked out most of what she was saying.

I’m sure you were like me, concerned and in pain, and the fact that your doctor took the time to explain what was happening instead of diagnosing and moving on made a huge difference. I’m sure it would have been an easier choice, but it would also have been a poor one to make.

It can be so scary when something like this happens! I’m so glad that you never had another panic attack and you did not have a heart attack! I have a pinched nerve and for now, I’m choosing to live with the pain before heading back for more tests or therapy.

Thanks for sharing your experience too, LaRae!


Cathy Weaver August 12, 2014 at 1:42 pm

I loved this post. Likewise, I agree that that connection made when one is heard , understood, and valued is a bond not easily broken.


Alli Polin August 13, 2014 at 1:27 am

Many thanks for adding to the conversation, Cathy! Beautiful add that when we listen and connect, we are truly building bonds that matter.


Blair August 12, 2014 at 1:54 pm

I’m so glad you are okay too! How scary! (the connection between frustration and fear . . .that’s another post. . . )
You outline 5 key points in how to diffuse frustration and invite connection instead. I was just in the hospital as someone’s advocate, and I wished I had read them before!
I feel like I can use these skills in tricky situations with doctors, with pest control peeps (thanks Terri) and even in my intimate relationships.
Asking the question “What’s so frustrating?” is so much more productive then just reacting to the frustration. Thanks for this (yet another!) enlightening post.


Alli Polin August 13, 2014 at 12:59 am

It’s so easy for frustration become a rampant infection – taking over everyone and everything in its path. Stopping, asking, listening and responding can take the tension out and open the door to productive communication and team-based synergy.

It was scary but also super annoying the longer I sat and waited, and waited and waited 😉

Thanks, Blair!


Samantha Hall August 12, 2014 at 2:08 pm

When did this happen?! That had to be just absolutely nerve-wracking and frightening! I hope everything has been sorted out and you have a better idea what is or was happening behind the pain?

Excellent list of insights my friend. I could have used them earlier today but hadn’t read your post yet! (grins)

I hate it when people minimize what I’m going through. I had someone who was trying to be of help (although I didn’t ask for it). Told them about an experience I had and instead of any empathy whatsoever for a huge financial loss I had experienced over an issue that wasn’t my fault, the person tried to make me feel better by telling me that maybe it happened because of something I did in a past life.


Not exactly the ‘bed side manner’ I’d care to pay for nor was it professional. But people ‘buy’ into it nonetheless.

Thanks for sharing a piece of your REAL life with us once again Alli!


Alli Polin August 13, 2014 at 1:04 am

I can’t stand it when someone minimizes my experience. It’s so easy to acknowledge the feelings and emotions, why belittle with a remark that tries to solve and push aside my very real concerns?

Sometimes “being with” someone is a more powerful way to help than to jump in and fix what’s wrong.

This was just a few weekends ago and despite my lingering pain, I’m not freaking out about what “could be”. I’m glad this doctor did an EKG because she DID help me sleep better despite my pain.

Thanks so much for your insightful comment and well wishes too!


Jon Mertz August 12, 2014 at 9:56 pm


I hope you are feeling better! Acknowledging someone’s frustration is such a key action to take. This action demonstrates empathetic leadership, especially as they take the next steps you highlight. This is another insightful lesson for us to take a breath, acknowledge, and learn.



Alli Polin August 13, 2014 at 1:08 am

Many thanks, Jon! I know I’ve felt people’s frustration and chose to ignore it because it felt easier at the time. However, it didn’t go away… it continued to grow and grow until there was an explosion that could have been easily avoided.

Empathetic leadership makes a connection that matters.



Karin Hurt August 14, 2014 at 7:21 am

In the customer service world this is so vital. I’m always amazed at how easy it is to deescalate a frustrated customer by just listening with empathy.


Alli Polin August 14, 2014 at 7:48 am

Totally agree. Little genuine empathy… long way.

Thanks, Karin!


Hoda Maalouf (@MaaHoda) August 16, 2014 at 4:13 am

Hi Alli!

I just saw your post & I’m so glad you are Ok!!
Please take good care of yourself & rest!!



Alli Polin August 17, 2014 at 7:41 pm

Thank you, Hoda! I am happy it’s nothing serious and can now see that the root of my frustration that night was fear that melted and I was still letting go. Pain’s still there but I’m OK! Appreciate your well wishes and concern.



Jandis Price August 17, 2014 at 2:32 pm

Hi Alli,
I always enjoy reading your Posts – you are a gifted and entertaining storyteller 🙂

I am so thrilled you are okay and I can totally relate. Relax, Deep Breathe & Take Care of YOU!



Alli Polin August 17, 2014 at 7:42 pm

Many thank, Jandis!!

Deep breathing goes a long way, doesn’t it? 🙂

With appreciation ~

xo Alli


Chery Gegelman August 18, 2014 at 3:20 am

Wow Alli! I am so glad you found a wise and compassionate doctor that took the time to listen and earn your trust and work with you. (I am even more glad that you are ok.)

The tips you outline are so simple, but not always so obvious. I immediately saw an opportunity that I missed in the last 24 hours to tap into someone’s frustration and just listen.

Thank you for the reminder!


Alli Polin August 19, 2014 at 5:38 am

Chery – She was both wise and compassionate and also just recently out of med school. It gives me hope that the rising generation of doctors will bring empathy and exceptional bedside manner in addition to strong medical skills and knowledge.

I’ve noticed opportunities where I can use these approach to strengthen my relationships recently too. Listening goes a looonnnnngggg way.

Thanks so much for your comment!


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