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Always Regretting What You Did and Didn’t Say? How to Communicate Under Stress

How to CommunicateNo matter how clearly you get your point across in a work meeting, or how renowned you are for having the gift of the gab, if you are anything like the rest of us the second you find yourself in a stressful situation your communication skills can seem a thing of the past.

Family functions, running into an ex-partner, your boss calling you into his office…. the best of us can go tongue-tied or say things we later regret.

How can you communicate better when the heat is on?

5 Steps to Communicating Better Under Stress

Step 1 – Diffuse the Physical Stress

The reason most of us find communicating a challenge under stress is that our biology actually get the better of us. Stress causes the primal fight, flight, or freeze response, which means your adrenaline shoots up, your heart starts to pound, and you feel hot and possibly sweaty. All of this makes it harder to focus and can leave you feeling vulnerable or emotionally volatile.

One of the best things you can do to be a better communicator under stress is nothing to do with talking, but all to do with lowering your physical stress response. This allows you to think clearer more rational thoughts, and makes you far less likely to emotionally explode.

So how can you force yourself to relax when you are on an adrenaline high?

Focus on taking deep slow breaths, which slows your heart rate, signals to your brain that there is no direct danger, and removes your focus away from your anxious thoughts if only for a moment.

Relax your shoulder and jaw muscles where most of us hold our tension.

You can also try what is called ‘grounding’, putting your attention on you feet for a few moments. Again, it puts attention away from your panicky thoughts, and perhaps the metaphor of your feet on the ground can help you actually feel more stable.

If you know in advance the situation you are entering is going to be stressful, a physical prop can help. Wear a bracelet or ring you can use as a sort of touchstone, bringing you out of stress and back to reality.

Tensing, holding, then releasing muscles, a technique known as progressive muscle relaxation, has also been proven to lower both physical and mental stress. Of course don’t visibly clench muscles that might give the other person the wrong idea, such as your fists. Stick to unnoticeable ones like your toes or stomach.

Step 2 – Troubleshoot Your Body Language

Albert Mehrabian, a professor of psychology at UCLA, is know for his research showing that a minimum of 55% of communication comes from non-verbal elements, aka, body language. And if our words disagree with our physical cues? People were found to believe the non-verbal over the verbal.

How to CommunicateIf a conversation gets stressful, check to see that your body language is open and neutral and that you are not unwittingly causing the other person to feel threatened. This means uncrossing your arms and legs, relaxing your shoulders and jaw muscles, and unclenching your fists (unless, of course, they are under the table and you are practicing progressive muscle relaxation!).

Keep your gaze relaxed and steady. If your eyes are shifting everywhere this can also make the other person feel nervous.

Keep an eye on proximity. Stand neither too near or too far away. Be wary of leaning in, which can be seen as aggressive, unless they too are leaning in.

Mimicking someone else’s movements like this is called ‘mirroring’ in psychology. It occurs naturally in social interactions, such as the way on person smiles and other around also smile, and actually triggers ‘mirror neurons’ in our brains. When it comes to body language, we can choose to mirror someone’s gestures, which can generate a sense of social bonding in their brain and lead to rapport, lowering any rising conflict.

Step 3 – Listen

The best thing you can do when stuck in a stressful conversation is to stop talking and start listening.

Better listening skills lead to the other person not only feeling heard and therefore relaxing more, but to you not misunderstanding what they say and overreacting for no reason.

Use these tips to listen better:

  • only focus on what they say, not what you are going to say next, or the great advice you have for them, or what you are having for dinner. Just what they are saying. It can help to repeat what they are saying in your head to keep you focussed.
  • do not interrupt until they are done. At all. If you are not sure if they are done when they pause, feel free to ask them.
  • use small non-verbal cues to let them know that you are listening, like nodding your head or small ‘mm hmms’.

If what they are saying feels upsetting, breathe deeply, relax your shoulders, or again try grounding yourself by focusing on your breathing or your feet. Remind yourself you might be misunderstanding them, and it’s not time to react yet.

Step 4- Reflect back.

How to CommunicateThis is an essential step of communicating in stressful situations that many people overlook. Which is a shame, as it’s the best way to avoid conflict based on misunderstanding.

Reflecting back involves taking what the person has just said and repeating it back to them to get a confirm that you understood what they said.

In other words, you summarise what they have told you. If they tell you that is not what they meant, then have them explain again, and reflect back again until an understanding is reached. Only then is it time to move on to speaking your thoughts.

Reflecting back can also be useful the other way around. Once you have explained your thoughts, you can then ask the other person if they can rephrase it back so you can be sure you are still understanding each other.

Step 5 – Speak simply.

In a stressful conversation it is only when you are finished reflecting back and you are sure you understand the other person that it is worth stating your view. The best way to speak in a stressful situation is as simply and clearly as possible. For starters, use the basics about good communication you might already know:

  • start all sentences with “I” (‘you’ statements come across as blaming)
  • keep your tone calm and sincere (if you feel tension rise, take a deep breath before talking)
  • speak as clearly as possible, avoiding long explanations or defensive reasoning
  • stick to the fact only, not what you think might be true
  • allow pauses (silence is better than words that you don’t mean)

How to communicateIf the other person is also stressed, then remember they might be having trouble taking in what you are saying. If they don’t seem to be understanding, or are raising their tone, You might want to try the ‘broken record technique’. This involves repeating your point clearly and calmly until they too calm down or accept what you are saying.

Remember that speaking simply involves leaving some things out.

  • don’t make promises or commitments you can’t keep
  • keep all third parties out of it. Don’t mention what someone else thinks or said. It’s between you and the person you are talking to only
  • keep out all references to the past such as other disagreements. What you are dealing with in the present is more than enough. (This one alone can do wonders when talking to family members!)
  • don’t use swear words or slang the other person might struggle to understand
  • keep all advice out of it. Advice is like wood to fire when it comes to a stressful conversation

Why does advice not belong in a stressful conversation?

The question might be more, when does advice belong in any conversation? Unasked for advice causes a negative reaction in almost anyone, and the only time to tell someone how to deal with something is when they ask directly.

The point of constructive conversation is always one thing – to achieve an outcome that works for both people. So put aside your advice and keep your eye on your goal, and how you can achieve your goal while also allowing the other to in some way achieve theirs. Which, of course, might involve compromise.

When in doubt… leave it out.

Remember that a stressful conversation is not the time or place to bring up other issues than the one at hand, rehash old issues from childhood, or ask for something unrelated like money or a favour.

And remember – you matter. Don’t ever feel you have to stay in a bad situation. If you ever feel that you are in danger, or feel threatened, exercise your right to walk away immediately.

Do you feel like you just never manage to say what you mean to say?

If you walk away from every conversation feeling like you let yourself down, or have a tendency to run through all the things you said and judge yourself, it could be that you suffer from low self-esteem. If we struggle with valuing ourselves it can be very hard to speak our mind and set boundaries. Consider talking to a therapist, who can help you understand why you might feel so powerless and show you tactics that help you feel more comfortable when it comes to communicating what you want and need.

Do you have any tips for communicating in stressful situations? Share below, we love hearing from you!

Photos by the U.S. National Archives, Markus Tacker, Michael Coghlan, Brett Jordan

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    Dr. Sheri Jacobson


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