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How to Communicate When you are Stressed (and Avoid Regret!)

How to Communicateby Andrea M. Darcy

Seem to forget how to communicate when stressed? Or is the truth that you’ve never really taken the time to learn the difference between good and bad communication?

Why do I say such stupid things when stressed?

No matter how clearly you get your points across in work meetings, or how renowned you are for having the gift of the gab, does it all sometimes go wrong? Say, when you run into your ex? Or when someone is upset with you? Are you suddenly tongue tied or blurting out the exact opposite of what you meant to say?

How to communicate under stress – 5 steps

It can be a question of learning key skills so that next time you will not be left full of regret but will manage to say what you wanted to.

Step 1 – Diffuse the physical stress.

The reason most of us find communicating a challenge when stressed is that our biology actually get the better of us. Stress causes the primal fight, flight, or freeze response. And it’s hard to think straight when our adrenaline is shooting up, our heart is pounding, and we feel in danger.

How to communicate under stress? Hack your physical stress response. So while this primal stress response triggers your sympathetic nervous system, you need to get your parasympathetic nerve system in action to cancel it out.

While if you are mid conversation you aren’t about to breathe into a paper bag and give away how stress you are, there are some ways to surreptitiously activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Focus on taking slow, long breaths.

Then clench your muscles tight then release, clench then release. This is known as ‘progressive muscle relaxation’, shown be research to lower heart rate and stress.

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Other tricks to trigger the calming parasympathetic nervous system include running a finger along the top of your lip or the sensitive inside of your arm, or yawning a few times. Or try visualising a calming image in your mind’s eye, like a beach or nature scene.

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 CommunicateSo maybe worry less about the words you are getting wrong and more on what your body language is portraying!

Check to see that your body language is open and neutral.  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.

And then try ‘mirroring’, holding your body in the way the other person is. Lean forward if they do, hold your arms like they do.  Also called ‘limbic synchrony’, it occurs naturally in social interactions, such as the way one person smiles and others then also do. 

People don’t tend to notice we are mirroring them, but research shows it’s powerful enough to generate a sense of social bonding and increase the other person’s sense of goodwill toward you. In a study where some people had their movements mimicked by researchers and others didn’t, it was those who were mirrored who then picked up the pens the researcher then dropped. 

Step 3 – Listen.

When in doubt, don’t even talk. Listen. Better listening skills mean the other person feels heard and is more likely to feel the exchange went well. And also means you are less likely to misunderstand something and overreact.

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.  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’.

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.

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

How to communicate well? DON’T do this one thing

Don’t offer advice. 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.

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. Don’t rehash old issues from childhood, or ask for something unrelated like money or a favour.

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. They can show you tactics that help you feel more comfortable when it comes to how to communicate what you want and need.

If it’s too stressful? You have the right to walk away

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

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


Andrea M. Darcy mental health expertAndrea M. Darcy is a mental health and wellbeing expert and personal development teacher with training in person-centred counselling and coaching, as well as a popular psychology writer. Follow her on Instagram for useful life tips @am_darcy

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Blog Topics: Anxiety & Stress, Relationships

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