Back to Blog

Communicating well under stress

Vicky Peel, May 19, 2023

April was Stress Awareness Month and a great opportunity to reflect on what stress is and how it affects us.

Stress is our body’s natural response to pressure and demands. It can be triggered by experiencing a major life event, something new that threatens our sense of self or feeling we can’t cope with certain demands. We all deal with stress differently. How we cope depends on different factors such as genetics, socio-economic circumstances and personality.

Not all stress is bad for us

Eustress or ‘short lived’ stress is a normal and often helpful response to a particular situation. We all know that feeling of butterflies before giving a presentation or public speaking, but it can motivate us to perform. When the stressful event is over, our hormones generally return to normal levels and there is no lasting effect. However, experiencing chronic or ‘long lasting’ stress can adversely affect our mental and physical health. In the workplace, it is often associated with ‘burnout’.

When we talk about stress in the workplace we often think of unrealistic workloads and long hours. But communication plays an important role in our experience of stress.

Communication and stress

How we talk to each other and communicate is central to our working lives. Our ability to communicate with compassion is negatively affected when we experience high levels of stress. We become more easily frustrated and angry. Or we withdraw and stop communicating. Both responses rarely help to resolve a situation. And our own stress levels often rise when we are communicating poorly with others.

How we communicate often depends on our past experiences, circumstances and personality. Areas of the brain responsible for problem solving and creative thinking shut down under stress. Our ability to recall information becomes more difficult. And we only remember the last thing said. We’re in a confused brain fog.

In the workplace, we often find ourselves under stress and pressure. And those are the times when it is particularly important to communicate with compassion. A climate of openness and psychological safety is a good place to start. An environment where people can speak up and share concerns means issues are surfaced quicker. We need to be compassionate in our communication and active in our listening. So often, people just want to be heard.

How can we communicate well when we are stressed?

We have all experienced stressful situations where communication has played a vital role. But things spiral out of control. Or the conversation heads somewhere else and no-one feels like anything is resolved. Past experience and personal characteristics mean some of us are really uncomfortable with ‘challenge’. Or with raising difficult issues. It can be a very emotional and draining experience. When emotions get the better of us, it's harder to say what we mean well. Recognising that there is a difference between challenging someone’s actions and the person themselves helps to depersonalise the situation.

So what can we do to help with compassionate communication and learn to listen well?

  • Check-in with yourself. Take a moment to breathe and reflect. Physical symptoms such as muscle tightness, a flushed face or heightened emotions, mean it is not the time to talk. Focussing on slow, deep breaths helps bring our emotions under control. It’s better to stop and re-arrange any conversation.
  • Try writing things down. Research has shown that writing by hand can help us to process our thoughts more productively. It can also be useful for keeping the conversation on track and covering all the issues.
  • Listening. When we have things to get off our chest, it’s natural to want to keep talking. It’s important to ‘actively’ listen to what’s being said instead of planning what you are going to say next.
  • Make an honest effort to see things from the other person’s perspective. You might not agree with them! But reaching a compromise shows that you’ve been listening. And that you’re interested in finding a solution.
  • Tone of voice. When we are stressed or frustrated it shows pretty quickly in our tone of voice. It can be difficult to come back from that so being mindful of tone of voice can help.
  • Be prepared to stop and reset. If stress levels are rising and the conversation is derailing, stop and resume it another time.

Two colleagues standing and talking together informally in the Unboxed office

Communicating with kindness is a strength

Kind communication when things are challenging is possible. It’s not easy and we may have to learn and practise it. But it’s important in times of stress to relate and communicate to each other well.

I believe that it is a misconception to think that to communicate kindly means you can’t challenge someone. Giving constructive feedback for example is a difficult and necessary thing to do. It makes many of us feel uncomfortable in the short term but by addressing an issue instead of avoiding it, we are helping that person to deal with a difficult situation in the future. If your intent is to improve a situation or support someone and it’s offered authentically, with compassion, then it is an act of kindness.

Our values of healthier relationships and care and attention play an important role in how we listen and talk to each other at Unboxed. We encourage and value frequent feedback, both with our clients and our colleagues. It’s hard, and we don’t always get it right. But if we keep communicating with compassion and care we set ourselves up for success.