How to communicate under pressure (part one)

9 November 2019  |  Richard Mayson

In general, humans tend to respond to stress and uncertainty in three ways: Compliance, Detachment or Aggression. This is a human adaptation of the animal kingdom Freeze, Flight, Fight. People tend to have a ‘favourite’ response and it often manifests in the way you communicate while under pressure. Invariably, the times in life we have cause to regret something is where we were ‘not ourselves’, ‘under a lot of pressure’ or ‘stressed out’ in some way. Knowing your own triggers and creating some strategies to cope better with them is the best way to mitigate the negative impact of pressure.

These categories are clearly generalised and a person may respond in more than one way or different ways depending on the situation. The research on stress responses is based on Karen Horney’s theories from the 1940’s and 50’s on neurosis.

While researching this blog, there was no shortage of advice on communicating under pressure. Just type it into Google and you are spoilt for choice. There is one glaring issue with most of it though: they are written as if the person under pressure is thinking logically. If someone under stressful conditions was thinking logically they wouldn’t be under stress. When your adrenal gland opens up it highjacks and corrupts your thinking and therefore your actions. It happens to us all.

Picture the scene, one person is very upset with another person and begins shouting. The receiver is confused and repeatedly says “calm down“. With this, the opposite can often happen. Why? Because one person is on an emotional level and the other is on logical one.

You’re an animal

This is because our emotional brain (limbic system) operates outside of our conscious control. Its sole use is ensuring you remain in the gene pool. It regulates emotion and memory: it moves you away from pain and towards reward, much the same as the rest of the animal kingdom.

Emotions occur when we perceive (rightly or wrongly) that something is happening (or about to) that is going to affect our welfare. When a door slams behind you, you don’t think about it, you just turn and look. This is because your emotional system is all about survival. Therefore, all the generic “calm down” “breathe deeply” advice in the world is unlikely to encourage a considerable improvement in coping with pressure.

Behavioural change is difficult. If it were easy, everyone would do it to make themselves into the perfect version. Real improvements in coping with stress come from concerted effort and training. This is how Jonny Wilkinson was able to repeatedly kick drop goals to win games under enormous pressure – off his weak foot as well! Effort and training.

Tips for communicating better under pressure

The causes of pressure are different for everyone. For some it is when there is an intimidating client in the room, others when they haven’t had enough preparation time, others when they haven’t had enough sleep or are overworked. Therein lies the first way to get better at communicating under pressure.

1) Know Thyself – what are your personal triggers? If you look back on times you could have performed better, what are the commonalities? If you can privately identify them (without kidding yourself), you are much more likely to be able to see those situations coming and plan for them instead of getting hijacked. Steve Peters called this “Knowing Your Chimp” in his excellent book The Chimp Paradox. Knowing and planning for these scenarios allows you to have a couple of strategies up your sleeve for coping with them more effectively. Or at the very least, recognising them earlier than normal.

2) Time-Out – Even if you know who, and what, gets you hot-under-the-collar it is still likely to happen at some point. So when it does you have the choice to put one of your strategies into action, or you always have the option to do nothing. Doing nothing might entail not responding to an email for 24 hours.

It might be that you use a stock phrase such as “Let me think about this and come back to you” or “I’m not comfortable with this conversation so let’s take a time-out”. A simple time-out should provide you with the gift of time where your limbic system should relinquish its grip a little.

So whether your response to stress is Dominance, Dependency or Detachment being a little less animal and a little more human should work nicely for you.

For further insights on this topic, try reading about Karen Horneys ‘Three Trends’. Steve Peters book, The Chimp Paradox. Or Robert Hogan on ‘The Dark Side of Personality.