How to Communicate When Under Stress

Stressed businessman talking to employee on the phone - Peter Barron Stark Companies As a leader, you have two important goals. First, you need to build relationships where people want to follow you and help you accomplish the mission, vision and goals of your team or organization. Second, you want to develop future leaders.

If building relationships where people were motivated to follow was easy, then every manager would be a leader. Most managers are not leaders. Direct reports do what they are told to do because the manager or boss said to do it. If another job came along somewhere else in the organization, even at the same pay rate, these employees would gladly move because they have no relationship with a leader. One of life’s great leadership examples is when a manager leaves one company, joins another, and then offers that employees from his old organization take a job at the new company for less money than they currently make. When employees make the decision to join their old manager at the new company, is it clear that manager has risen to the status of leader. These employees had a choice to make, and they choose to follow the leader.

Here is the challenging question: when you open your mouth, do you consistently build relationships where people are highly motivated and make a conscious decision to follow you? Leaders who have this ability build strong relationships where people know their leader cares about their personal and professional success.

When opening their mouth, however, some managers become the equivalent of leadership repellant. Because these managers say things in frustration, stress or anger, if the employee had a better job offer working for a different manager, they would quit. Some employees take their concerns to human resources and tell them about the way they are being treated by their manager. Some organizations even hire a coach to help their executives and managers build even stronger leadership skills.

Most managers find it easy to build relationships when everything is going well or right. The more difficult skill is to be able to build relationships when things are not going well, for example:

  • A meeting goes off-track
  • An employee is not accountable for their actions and blames a situation on someone else
  • A vendor drops the ball and is making you look bad to your organization
  • Another department or manager blames you for a project being delayed
  • A customer is not happy

These are the types of situations that cause managers stress, frustration and even anger, ultimately making it a challenge to open their mouths and build an even stronger relationship with team members . . . a relationship where people are highly motivated to follow them. Here are seven tips that will help you build relationships in difficult situations:

  1. Shut up! In the height of emotion, most people are not good at communicating in a way that builds relationships. Instead of firing off an email in an immediate response to someone who has sent you a nasty e-gram, wait an hour, wait four hours, better yet, wait 24 hours before sending your response. Don’t let your ego get bigger than your brain. Buy a little time to get your ego out of the way and think rationally about how you will honestly communicate your concerns. Take time to make sure that your actions, even in difficult situations, build relationships, not tear them apart.

  2. Ask Rather than Tell. If you do feel a need to talk, ask an open-ended question. Something like, “We do need to talk. Would you have time available tomorrow or later this week?” You don’t want to be non-responsive. You just want to buy time so you can think of exactly what you want to say to convey your message and build a relationship. If your open-ended questions are asked with genuine concern, no one will ever accuse you of being rude, offensive, condescending or abrasive.

  3. Communicate in Person. When conflict is involved, talk to the others involved in person rather than by phone or email. When you see someone has invested half of their life in sending you a long email that covers their assets and provides amble supporting documentation to blame you, don’t participate in an email war. Email them back one line, “John, we need to meet. Will 4:00 today work or is tomorrow at 9:00 better for your schedule?”

  4. Soften Responses. When you assume you are right, you automatically assume that someone with a different viewpoint is wrong. People are not excited to follow people who take pride in proving other people wrong. A good practice, when there is a difference of opinion, is to soften your questions with a response like, “Maybe I am missing something. Help me understand how the project schedule became so off-track?”

  5. Fill Your Praise and Recognition Account. Keep finding ways to praise and/or recognize people’s contributions daily. The goal is to build up your deposits with all the team members in the organization you work with so that if you do slip and have a communication withdrawal, you still have a lot of deposits with the team member and the continued basis of a strong relationship.

  6. Under-Promise and Over-Deliver. If you work hard daily on meeting your leadership commitments and on keeping your internal and external customers happy, you will find that you have far fewer situations where you feel either stress, frustration or anger.

  7. When You Slip, Quickly Apologize. Every leader has days when they say something to a team member that they wish they had not said. When this happens, quickly apologize with a genuine statement like, “In yesterday’s meeting, I feel I communicated to you in a way that may have come across disrespectfully. For that, I apologize, and promise I will not communicate like that again in the future. We have a deadline challenge on the XYZ project and I want to get your input on what you feel we need to do to bring the project back on schedule.”

Every manager slips at some point and says something that tears down or undermines a relationship. When that happens, leaders recognize that this is an opportunity to shine and build an even stronger relationship. These seven tips will help to build a relationship and become the leader that people want to follow.

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