How to communicate well when you’re stressed

Photo by charles-deluvio

Picture the scene with me for a moment.

It’s Monday morning and you’ve just finished checking your diary for the week, checking in with your team and going through your to do list. There’s a lot to do and you’re feeling a little overwhelmed.


You say silently to yourself, “I’ve got this, I can do it”, and take a couple of deep breaths.


Then there’s a ping on your phone. It’s a text message from your partner. “Have you seen the text from the school? Will you get the children?”


Confusion sets in and just as you’re drafting a message back, your phone pings again. A message from the school that you need to pick up all three of your children immediately because there have been positive covid cases in each of their bubbles.


Deleting the half-written message to your partner, you ping back the words, “I’m on it” and sigh deeply. You send a quick message to the person you were about to meet with, postponing your Zoom meeting and set off to get your children.


On the way, you feel the anxiety and frustration creating a tightness in your chest. They have to isolate for two weeks. How on earth will I cope? I’ve got so much to do. This is impossible!


This is the kind of situation that parents are dealing with right now. This couple will need to have some conversations about how they manage the isolation period while both working. One or both people will need to shift plans and have further conversations with colleagues and clients.


Often, we can’t control the stressors. We can, however, take back control around how we react and respond. And in how we communicate our needs.


In this article I want to share with you five key principles for how to communicate well when you’re stressed. These tips are based on my years of experience of working with people in situations of conflict and crisis as a mediator, trainer and coach. They are also based on my personal experience as a mother, wife and business owner.


If you only remember one thing from this post it’s to pause to give you time to respond. If you can do this one thing, you’ll be doing well. to PAUSE is also the acronym to remember these steps.


Pause to manage your own state (this is yours to do)


The first tip is to PAUSE and notice that you’re about to react to something.


When the text, e-mail or unexpected remark comes your way, the first thing to do is to notice your reaction and stop. Don’t do anything, simply notice.


Resist the temptation to fling back a comment or ping back a message.  Your natural stress response means that you’re unlikely to be in the best state to respond well.


Each person reacts differently when they hear or receive a message that triggers them. Some lash out defensively, others want to placate and others withdraw completely.


By pausing, you create a window in which you can more consciously choose and decide if, how and when you will respond.


Giving yourself time to pause and notice your reaction is the first step in becoming masterful in communication when you’re stressed. It will give you time to choose your response instead of simply reacting in the moment.


So easy to say, so relatively hard to do.


It starts with self-awareness of your own stress response.


In the story above, the parent who has picked up the children from school might start to notice a tightness in their chest as they face the reality of two weeks of juggling working from home and looking after the children. She might be tempted to fire off an immediate text to her partner saying, “I’ve got to work, I’m not doing this on my own”.


Ask yourself ‘how am I feeling?’


To work out how you want to respond next, ask yourself, ‘how am I feeling?’. Feelings are not ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ they simply are.


It’s what you do next that matters most.


The more that you can accept, acknowledge and label your feelings, the less stressed you’re likely to feel. The research here is clear; being able to name our feelings give us back a sense of control.


Sometimes it can be hard to know how you’re feeling because it just feels ‘too much’. That’s where getting some support from a coach or therapist can be really helpful, especially if you’re a verbal processor.


Others also find stream-of-consciousness journalling can help provide some release and clarity.


In our example, the parent might realise that she’s feeling angry, frustrated and worried about how she’s going to cope.


Untangle the stories from the feelings


Often when we’re stressed our feelings and the stories we’ve created get all muddled up.


People use, “I feel…” followed by a word such as ‘undermined’ or ‘judged’. Another common phrase is “I feel like he (or she)…’ followed by something that they believe the other person is thinking. For example, “I feel like he doesn’t trust me”‘


These are not feelings. They are thoughts, beliefs and stories that our minds create. When you can consciously uncover those stories, you can bring them out into the light and examine them more closely.


The feeling might be disappointment, sadness or frustration, or any number of things.


In our example above, the parent who has responded to get the children, might be thinking, “I am being taken-for-granted here, he assumes I’ll do the childcare…” This is the story that needs naming.


Untangling stories from feelings will help you to do the work of acknowledging the -very real – feelings, whilst also revealing the underlying stories.


The stories matter too, because they give us some clues to what is going on for us.


Seek to understand more fully


Seeking understanding is all about being willing to examine the stories we’ve created and to open our minds to new ways of thinking.


New ways of thinking about ourselves and of others.


If you can become really curious about what’s going on for you, as well as for the others involved, it will open up a world of possibilites. This involves letting go of the assumption that you know how things are or will be.


A couple of questions that can help to create this understanding:


  1. What is important to me here?


  1. What might be important to the other person?


In our example, the parent might be able to name that it’s important to them to be able to do some of their work, especially certain key meetings, and to share the childcare. They might also imagine that their partner has certain key work commitments and wants to maintain their daily run.


Engage directly and openly


Once you’ve done all of this hard work, the more openly and directly you can speak to the other person, the best response you’re likely to get.


Here are some straightforward tips for opening up the channels of communication:


Have a conversation, don’t do this in writing. I share more about why in another blog post here.


  • Think of a couple of things you genuinely appreciate about the person and start with some specific appreciation. 


  • Pick your timing carefully and make sure you have allowed enough time to have the conversation properly. 


  • Warn the person in advance of the broad topic so that they have enough time to take it on board. 


In our example, the parents have a young child who still wakes up early in the morning, so last thing at night is a bad time. They’ll need to find something to occupy all three of their children in order to create the space. The person initiating might say, “Can we have a chat after dinner while we put the children in front of netflix? I’d like to talk about how we manage these next two weeks.”


So there you have it, how to communicate well when stressed? PAUSE. Pause to notice when you’re able to re-act. Ask yourself how am I feeling. Untangle the stories from the feelings. Seek to understand more fully. Engage directly and openly.


If you’ve enjoyed this blog, you might like to come and be part of our Staying Grounded group coaching programme. The first cohort starts in mid-October 2020 and one of the topics we’ll be touching on is mindful communication.