Workplace Culture

Effective Communication in High-Stress Situations

Stress at work is nothing new. Whether it’s a result of heavy workloads, organizational change, or long hours, stress at work happens, but it can also be managed. However, when workplace stress gets in the way of effective communication with colleagues, it can lead to further anxiety, miscommunication, and outbursts. How can we navigate high-stress situations at work without alienating our colleagues or making the situation worse?


Effective Communication Needs a Solid Foundation

There are always unforeseen circumstances that cause stress in our day-to-day lives – including at work. However, the best way to mitigate stressful situations is to ensure that we’re communicating clearly on a regular basis so that unmet needs and misunderstandings are kept at bay. It’s helpful to check in with yourself regularly to be sure that you’re contributing to a healthy work environment where you and your colleagues feel comfortable and safe sharing ideas. Ask yourself:

  1. Am I communicating my ideas and needs clearly?
  2. Am I speaking up when something bothers me?
  3. Am I making space for my colleagues to share their ideas and concerns?
  4. Am I carving out time to build relationships with my team and staff?

That said, once you find yourself amid a high-stress situation, there are some things you can do to help navigate your team through to the other side.

How can we navigate high-stress situations at work without alienating our colleagues or making the situation worse?


Planned Conversations vs. Unplanned Conversations

There are two main situations you might find yourself in:

1. Planned Conversations

Example: A meeting with a colleague to discuss a strained work relationship, a meeting with an employee to talk about their poor performance, or a meeting with your supervisor to ask for a raise.

The benefit of planned conversations is relatively clear: you have the time to give some thought to where, when, and how you’ll approach the situation. You can prepare what you’d like to say, make notes on the key points you don’t want to miss, and practice saying what you want to say. These conversations can still be difficult, but the ability to prepare and practice ahead of time means that you can more easily manage your delivery and response.

2. Unplanned Conversations

Example: A spur-of-the-moment disagreement or mistake, or an interaction with an upset colleague or customer.

Unplanned conversations are a lot trickier. Often, they happen in the moment and can be fuelled by workplace stress, anger, or overwhelm. The downside here is that they often catch us off-guard, so we don’t have the luxury of preparation and planning. That means we can sometimes let our emotions drive our responses rather than taking the time to think them through.

The relationship between these two types of situations – planned and unplanned – is integral. The more you prepare yourself for those planned conversations, the better you’ll be at unplanned conversations when they arise, and the more likely they will be resolved productively and effectively. Learning from both types of situations is crucial as well – taking the time to reflect on tense conversations allows you the opportunity to review what worked, what didn’t, and what you may need to change or tweak the next time a similar situation arises.


Tips for Dealing with Stressful Interactions

In either type of situation, there are some key elements to consider:


First and foremost, ask yourself if this is the right time to confront this issue. When a disagreement or confrontation arises, sometimes it’s best to address it in the moment, but occasionally the best move is to manage the situation as well as you can and set aside time later to discuss it with your colleague. For example, discussing why a customer was upset once they are satisfied and a resolution has been reached. Gauging the situation and considering both your and your colleague’s energy and ability to have a productive conversation will go a long way toward a healthy resolution.


When you do choose to address a tense or stressful issue or situation, you must be clear on what that issue is. Focus on one thing at a time and set a realistic objective for the conversation. If someone made a mistake, focus on the issue at hand rather than piling on other situations or issues you have. If a disagreement arises, be clear on what your stance is and how you would like to move forward so that you’re not confusing multiple issues.


When you do discuss the issue at hand, be sure you’re focusing on just that: the issue. If someone has made a mistake or disagrees with your approach, avoid centring your conversation on the person and instead keep the focus on the situation. Statements that begin with phrases like “You always…,” “You never…,” and other means of personifying a situation are great ways to distract from solving the immediate problem and can result in miscommunication and animosity. Focus on the problem, not the person.


It may sound trite, but giving yourself a moment to stop and take three deep belly breaths goes a long way to not just calming your emotions but clearing your head. Relaxing your belly sends a signal to your brain that you’re safe; slow, deep inhales and exhales help to slow down your heart rate and allow you to think more clearly. This will also help you keep your body language in check, naturally cueing you to unclench your jaw or fists and present yourself in an open rather than closed-off stance.


Dr. Vince Covello from the Centre for Risk Communication explains that people under stress have a difficult time remembering things — “The gap between perception and reality is widened” — so ensuring that you’re actively listening to the other person and what they’re saying will help diffuse any potential miscommunication. When you’re having a difficult or stressful conversation with someone or dealing with a high-stress scenario with another person, they need to trust that you care. And, according to Dr. Covello, 75% of the information we receive about trust is communicated nonverbally. Illustrating that you’re truly hearing what the other person is saying by validating their feelings, paraphrasing their concerns, and asking open-ended questions will ensure that they trust that you want to come to a resolution that suits you both.

When you’re having a difficult or stressful conversation with someone or dealing with a high-stress scenario with another person, they need to trust that you care.

High-stress situations cannot be avoided, but these are some considerations you can keep in mind the next time you’re faced with a stressful conversation or scenario. Use these tips to ensure that a resolution is met that satisfies everyone’s needs and to build a workplace culture in which disagreements can be navigated without losing your cool.

Download our free printable resource: 4 Stages of Stress for your organization. For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our resources page.


Jessica Antony

Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

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