Communicating Under Stress in the Workplace

Work-related stress has become a major cause of absence from the workplace. In spite of workplace stress reduction programs and EAPs, the trends show that things are getting worse. While some stress in our lives keeps us alert and helps us achieve, too much stress can make us ill: both physically and mentally.

As if dealing with the direct effects of stress were not challenge enough, when we are in a stressful environment, everything seems to take extra energy and effort. In times of crisis and high stress, we have to take particular care with our communication efforts. In situations that are emotionally charged or controversial, anxiety levels soar and communication becomes both more complicated and more important than ever.

Strong leaders and managers strive to be effective communicators. To accomplish this, they must build a foundation of trust and credibility. In the best of circumstances, avoiding misinterpretations takes skill and commitment. In an environment of heightened stress, many communication obstacles are exaggerated. Areas of sensitivity become more sensitive. Minor misunderstandings become major roadblocks.

Mental Noise Theory1 states that clear communication happens only when we overcome a certain degree of mental distraction. It further suggests that when people are stressed or upset, they have greater difficulty hearing, understanding and remembering information. As a result, it’s even more important to use the best communication tools available when interacting with people under stress.

Here are some key things to keep in mind when communicating under stress in the workplace

  1. Listen First: The higher the level of stress, the more important it is to show that you are listening. People are more willing to listen to what you have to say when they believe you are listening to them in turn. In the words of Stephen Covey, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.
  2. Be Brief, Be Clear: Remember, the greater the stress the greater the need for brevity, clarity and repetition. To help people understand your message, provide information in small chunks that are easily absorbed. To make sure that your message is easily understood, use familiar words and simple sentences. Communicate important points in more than one way and ask for confirmation to be sure you’re understood
  3. Make it Personal: As much as possible, increase face-to-face communication to help get your message across during times of high stress. When interacting in person, pay particular attention to non-verbal signals. Use them to help you assess how your message is being heard. Also, watch what your own non-verbal communication is saying.
  4. Apologize Sincerely. If you say something in the heat of the moment that you know is out of line, apologize sincerely, as soon as you can, for having communicated inappropriately or with a lack of respect.
  5. Accentuate the Positive: Whatever circumstances are increasing the stress level in your workplace, keep finding ways to recognize and praise people for the things that are being done well. Praise and recognition may not change the circumstances, but they will help people react less negatively to them

Creating the environment of trust that you need for effective communication is harder when anxiety is high. When people are upset or under pressure, they are more distrustful. For that reason, it is not enough to be knowledgeable. In addition to showing competence, your ability to connect will depend on being caring, empathetic, honest and open. In fact, empathy, concern and active listening account for up to 50% of trust building.

Another human trait that often blocks communication is our tendency to focus on the negative. This is called Negative Dominance Theory or negativity bias. Because of this bias, people generally place much more weight on negative statements (and remember them longer!) than they do positive statements. Of course, this habit of concentrating on what is perceived to be negative becomes much stronger when we are “stressed-out”. So it’s important to significantly increase the ratio of positive to negative statements in times of high stress.

The more stressful our environment, the more we need to connect and communicate. In times of crisis and anxiety our people need to feel heard and to feel that they belong. In these circumstances, more than ever, our communication must demonstrate compassion, conviction, truthfulness and credibility. Our presentations, conversations and documents must be brief, clear and repeat key messages. Most importantly, remember that the characteristics of good communication don't change under stress they just become more vital.

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1. http://www.nrc.gov/public-involve/conference-symposia/ric/past/2010/slides/th39covellovpv.pdf


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