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Oh NO, You Didn’t (Say That)! – 5 Ways to Better Communicate While Under Stress


Your boss has just walked in and she gives you the ultimatum: “I want you to take over this project because we only have three days left under this contract and Sally (your coworker) is out sick; BUT, (and here’s the clincher) I need you to meet that deadline for your report, otherwise we lose that client.

You feel your face reddening, or maybe your breathing changes, or you turn white with the thought of how unfair this is! Coupled with the fact that you now cannot go to the hockey game with George because you have to work late every night this week, you want to explode.

What do you do? Well, according to communication experts, most people fall into two styles for communicating while challenged or under stress:

  • Reactors/verbalizers
  • Avoiders/withdrawers

While there are style variations and ‘shades of grey’ in between, both styles, when taken too far, won’t serve you in building your career and life path forward.  Thankfully, there are ways to stop yourself from making the ultimate relationship or career killer by either over-communicating your cause, or under-communicating it.

If you’re the first type you may not be the one to raise your voice or demonstrate outward anger, but body language and how/what you say comes out negatively. You end up saying or doing something that is either inappropriate or possibly out of control, even though you feel justified. If you allow your emotions to rule your words and delivery, you will spew negativity which brings on defensiveness and equal attack. Not a healthy scenario under any circumstances.

If you tend to ignore the situation and fume silently, this strategy won’t work either. Sooner or later that mountain of negative feelings you have towards that person will indeed build up.  You could silently sabotage your career or relationship with these bad feelings in very clever, but harmful ways. Feelings are like paying taxes, there’s no escape.

Here are 5 steps you can take to stop that from happening:

  • Wait:   Count to ten or even a hundred, but take this time to calm yourself. We know that by doing this one simple act you give your body and mind the chance to return your systems to normal. Take deep breaths, think calm images; really do these things before you do anything else. By calming yourself, you can initiate thinking, which allows you gain control and effectiveness in your communications. Start thinking with the next step.


  • Know Yourself: Take a review of the emotions you feel right now. Why are you feeling this way? Is it because this certain situation sparked something that you have experienced early in your life; or you think that you are being used or hurt in some way? Why do you feel that way? Is this anger or sadness or victimization – whatever you are feeling – is it justified to the circumstances in THIS moment?  Is your boss or loved one really trying to hurt you? Be honest and look at yourself and this situation objectively, as if you were a different person. Be sure to answer these questions. When we supply questions to our brain the emotions are forced to “compete for our attention” and they are easier to quell.


  • Your position: Now that you’ve done some introspection, what is the right position? What can you state that is accurate and mindful, rather than overly emotional and looking for restitution? You can start with: “I honestly feel this way, and I think it’s because I observe the situation as ___.” Or, create a similar sentence that declares your truth behind the situation you find yourself in now.


  • Realize:  Other people’s perspective. It’s not personal. Your boss isn’t doing this to punish YOU. She is running a business. It’s unlikely that your significant other set out to ruin your day at both your expenses. Ask yourself: where’s the balance? Consider that you are half the equation in any communication exchange and this situation has others’ perspectives and opinions. Put this thought into your mind to balance your thinking and ultimately, your response.


  • Deliver It: After you’ve filled time with the steps above, at the next opportunity start a dialog with the person. Open with your position which is non-judgmental, unemotional and accurate, without your history and without an intention to gain something, otherwise known as “games”. Once you have made your statement, the negative feelings should end and the balance that is appropriate for this relationship will be restored. If you can’t make that statement, it’s too early for the dialog.


Every situation is different, so use your intuition. For instance, if the situation is resolved in your mind and heart after taking the first four steps then skip the dialog. No need to carry forth something that isn’t there.

But, if you still feel the need to safely verbalize your position then take that last step. Given that, the dialog can be as simple as your statement and their acknowledgment of it, as may be the case in a naturally unbalanced relationship like the one you have with your boss (they pay you to work). Or, you may want this situation to become a springboard for deep and meaningful dialog.

Whichever the case, by following the steps above, you will have a more meaningful exchange; one that will advance your true cause for a realizing a happier, more enriched life.

Question: How have you handled a similar situation in your life? What are some other ways you have managed communication under stress?

  1. Justin Reply
    Thank you for the advice. I was recently in a very similar situation and by following the steps crafted a better response that I am hoping will end in a better result.
    • Deborah Whitehouse Reply
      I'm pleased it worked out for you. I have found when we have emotional situations at work, it's best to step back and 'go into your head' to douse the emotion first, and then come back with a much more effective response. It's not always correct to 'go into your head' or think something through first, it depends on the situation at hand; but it's almost always appropriate when you are in a crucial or confrontational communication situation.

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