Damage Control: Communicating Under Stress

Every morning when I leave my house, I say to myself, “Today I shall meet an impudent man, an ungrateful one, one who talks too much.  Therefore do not be surprised.”  Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius

Our philosopher must have worked around some stressed-out colleagues.  Given enough pressure, even the most articulate communicator can wind up screaming at a coworker or avoiding an interpersonal problem.  And we all know who gets to deal with these stressed-out workers — human resources.

What’s Your Communication Style?

People tend to relate to each other pretty consistently.  Some of us keep our emotions close to our chest, while others wear our hearts on their sleeve.  Some of us are quick to speak up, make decisions, take action, and pressure others to do the same.  Others tend to take a more methodical approach to decision-making and risk-taking, and are slower to confront or pressure others.

Our usual way of communicating is our “baseline.” In fact, emotional intelligence is, in part, the ability to identify and adjust to the “baseline” of the people around us and to recognize when the “baseline” shifts.  And, under stress, it will.

Survival of the Crabbiest?

There’s a good reason our communication styles change when we’re under stress; we shift into survival mode.  As a result, we’re less likely to effectively tune in to what others are saying and doing because we’re too busy listening to the alarm bells going on inside ourselves.  If we aren’t careful, our communications will be less dictated by the needs of the interpersonal situation and more focused on defending ourselves.  In essence, we resort to fallback mode, i.e., the communication style we learned early on that helped us survive difficult situations.

Our typical communication style may become exaggerated and inflexible.  For example:

  • the emotionally responsive, assertive person attacks
  • the bottom-line leader becomes controlling
  • the reserved, cooperative person becomes ingratiating
  • the quiet, analytical person avoids

This fallback mode is an extreme manifestation of our normal communication style. When I’m stressed, my husband calls me a firecracker.  And, while I defend myself profusely against this nickname, secretly I know that it’s true.  Given enough pressure, my normally expressive, assertive communication style turns into quick-tempered explosiveness.  Of course, he’s no angel; when he’s stressed, his normally efficient, bottom-line communication style becomes dictatorial.  Part of the reason we’ve been happily married for ten years is that we’ve learned to recognize the stress signals in each other and adjust accordingly.

Communicating Under Stress

One of the most difficult interpersonal challenges human resource professionals face is dealing constructively with stressed-out employees.  Companies undergoing either a downsizing or rapid growth may have whole departments in fallback communication mode, looking to you to help stop or repair the interpersonal damage this has caused.  To avoid becoming equally stressed (and unintentionally responding with your own fallback behavior), use these strategies:

1)       Don’t take it personally.  Easier said than done, I know.  However, if you understand that a fallback communication mode is a survival strategy rather than a personal attack or a plot against you, you will be able to keep your objectivity while you help others get back to a more effective communication mode.  .

2)       Think crisis, not strategy. Imagine you’re in the water drowning and the lifeguard is standing by the pool trying to help you figure out how you fell in the water.  There’s a time and a place for analysis, but fallback is not one of them.  Instead of having a heart-to-heart with an irrational employee, engage in crisis management.  For instance, review their workload to make sure it’s manageable and that the deadlines are realistic.

3)       Provide stress management training. Be creative in promoting wellness activities like exercise, good nutrition, etc.  Use your company newsletter to promote stress management and take advantage of the services your EAP program has to offer.

The Bottom Line

As human resource professionals, we are taught to link employee stress to workers’ comp claims or employee assistance utilization.  Rarely is stress viewed as a relationship issue that can erode interpersonal communication and wreak havoc on work relationships.  Yet, the reality is that excess stress can turn the most productive communication style into a nonnegotiable, “my way or the highway” style of relating.

Fortunately, human resources can play a critical role in helping managers and employees maintain effective communication, even under the most stressful circumstances.

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