Communicating Better Under Stress

During difficult times, when many of us are under an immense amount of stress, one of the hardest things to do is to communicate well. It’s hard because we are under more pressure and uncertainty clouds our ability to perceive others and ourselves clearly. I’ve been hearing a lot of situations lately where communication has gone awry and left people frustrated and turned off.

In life’s hardest situations — whether with a partner or roommate, a colleague at work, or a consultant or potential employee looking for business or work…

…we tend to default to our one-way communication style: focusing on what we need and want in the moment, rather than in the context of a long term relationship — and pushing that out to the other person.

What we say often comes out and comes across as aggressive, desperate, or jumbled and unclear. And we don’t really know what people hear.

This is true in in-person conversations as much as other contexts. Our social media posts could be missed or misunderstood, emails reaching out can be misinterpreted as tone deaf or untimely, a lack of a response to an email or a test could be taken out of context or interpreted in a negative light, no matter your intentions.

Changing the way you communicate to a more collaborative approach can help you transform a single interaction from a disaster into a success.


A way to communicate better in hard moments that’s worked for me — both so I feel better and so that others are more likely to respond well to me — is to seek out opportunities for authentic connection with the people I’m communicating with, and to come from a place of inquiry rather than certainty. From a place of “I/me/mine” to a place of “we/us/ours.”

I try to be curious about the situation and try to stand back as an impartial observer. This allows me to be more genuine and to try to understand better not only what I’m trying to convey but also how the other person is likely to receive it.

Here are some questions to help guide you before, during, and after you communicate:

  • What do I want in this situation? What am I scared might happen? What is the worst that could happen? What’s my ideal outcome?
  • What am I hearing when I really listen to the other person? What might be underlying the words they are speaking?
  • What is the other person likely thinking? What words would they use to describe me based on how I’ve been speaking and acting toward them?
  • Am I avoiding or ignoring? Why?
  • What could I say or do to show the other person that I have been respectful toward them? To make them feel heard?
  • What are two or three different ways I could say that same thing?
  • Have I apologized in an honest and direct way? Have I taken ownership of how I might be perceived by the other person? I love Dr. Harriet Lerner’s approach to apologizing well.

Genuine empathy, connection and collaboration are at the root of honest dialogue and communication, and the cornerstones of any relationship, whether it’s just beginning or has lasted years.

Communications and culture leader, author, certified coach, lawyer, yoga teacher.

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