Soon after 9/11/2001, I delivered a workshop on communicating under stress at a conference sponsored by a financial services firm. I felt overwhelmed and unsure I was up to the task. Some conference attendees had known people who died in the twin towers. It was a scary time and I doubted I would deal with such a stressed-out audience again. I was wrong.
Today, fear is back, although it’s not so much about terrorists. Worries about making ends meet, budget cuts, and job losses loom large. It’s easy to make communication mistakes – as a speaker or listener – when dealing with uncertainty and anxiety. When stress is chronic and collective, this tendency is exaggerated. Both partners in a conversation may be mindless about negative patterns they might avoid under better circumstances.
I’ve learned it’s best to do whatever it takes to feel calm and prepared, before I dive into difficult interactions. Sometimes, nothing seems to work, but awareness and practice can help. Here are ideas that may make a difference:
Accept anxiety, fear, anger, and the full range of emotion as part of being human. These feelings are normal, inevitable, and may be useful as an impetus for change.
Consider how you would help a loved one or best friend cope with stress. Are you a friend and source of support to yourself, as well, or are you too hard on yourself?
Practice reaching a relaxed state of feeling calm, centered or grounded, through deep breathing, meditation, visualization, prayer, or whatever works for you.
Channel adrenaline or nervous energy through physical movement. Walk, work out, do yoga, dance… just get moving. Regular physical activity reduces stress.
Eat, drink, and sleep in a healthy, balanced manner. Connect with people you enjoy, especially if you’re forced to be with people you don’t enjoy.
Focus on what is good in your life. Are you grateful for something today? Re-frame difficult situations into positive learning opportunities.
Become aware of your unproductive, automatic behavior patterns or responses in stressful situations. Recognize your habits without criticizing them. To avoid reaching the same dead end, experiment with changing your route.
If you have behaved inappropriately or unprofessionally, apologize. A sincere apology is short, sweet, and not defensive.
When there is no solution, or you can’t control the outcome, learn to let it go. Detach.
Listen before you speak, and paraphrase what you heard, to make sure you understand the other side of an issue.
Invite collaboration and be open to being persuaded.
Use appropriate humor in tense situations (lighten up, but don’t minimize). If you tend to take things personally or too seriously, get out of your comfort zone: laugh more often!