Workplace Communication in Stressful Times

Stress reactions during a crisis may lead to personal prejudices and cultural stereotypes. They may also exacerbate frictions in the workplace that would otherwise just be smoothed over and forgotten. It is more important than ever to listen carefully to others and to monitor our own speech. The workplace is a public space, and all communication there should reflect consideration of the needs of others. Two sets of skills can help keep workplace communication free of unnecessary tension: thoughtful speech and good listening.

Speaking Skills

When people are feeling the negative effects of stress, their ability to listen and process information accurately may be affected. This makes it especially important to communicate clearly in crisis situations. Choose words carefully and try not to become impatient if it seems that you have to repeat the message more often than usual. Remember that your cognitive abilities, as well as those of your listener, may be slightly impaired by the long-term effects of a crisis situation.

Choose your words

Try to avoid emotionally charged language, especially when discussing politics and world events. Words like “they” and “them” can imply that you are generalizing about all members of a particular group. Negative descriptive terms or generalizations about ethnic or religious groups have no place in the workplace at any time. In times of stress, stereotyping – whether positive or negative – can lead to an emotionally-charged discussion and to misunderstandings. Political debates can be exciting, but when feelings are raw, minor differences in viewpoint can be blown out of proportion. Sometimes, it’s best to say nothing at all.

Keep the message clear

When communicating about work issues, think about what you want to say and say it in the simplest way possible. Make instructions clear and, if possible, present them verbally and in writing, especially if the task is complex. Because memory is affected by long-term stress, it helps people to have a written guide to refer to. Allow more time than usual for questions and be prepared to repeat the same information more than once. Because people process information differently, try to say the same thing several different ways. Use examples or comparisons to other situations to make your point.

Ask for clarification

This is a simple communication technique that avoids many misunderstandings. Managers should use it with staff and should also encourage staff to use it. Asking for clarification is the process of summarizing what a speaker has said and then asking if you have understood them correctly. You may have to summarize and ask for clarification more than once. This technique is especially important when giving or receiving instructions. Managers should ask individuals to summarize instructions they have been given to be sure that the listener has understood the message. Listeners should use this technique to avoid going off and doing the wrong thing.

Listening Skills

How we listen to others has always been important, but now it is more important than ever. Many people will feel the need to discuss the events of September 11, the war in Afghanistan and other acts of terrorism in the world for some time. These discussions are likely to remain emotionally charged for both speaker and listener. For this reason, this is a good time to practice listening more than speaking. It can be helpful to yourself as well as others to stop to think before you speak. Remember that many people are simply venting and if you can avoid overreacting to what they say, not only can you keep your own negative stress to a minimum but you may also be able to help the speaker.

Reflecting Content

A simple technique called reflecting content can be very useful when you are engaged in crisis-related discussions. This technique allows you, the listener, time to think about how you wish to respond while making the speaker feel that their message has been heard and acknowledged. Sometimes, the speaker just wants to feel heard, so reflecting content is the best thing you can do. Sometimes, you don’t agree with what you have heard but would prefer to avoid a debate, so reflecting content allows you to acknowledge a statement without actually agreeing. At the same time, you can decide if you are willing and able to continue to listen or need to move to a neutral topic. To reflect content, all you need to do is repeat the last thing the other person has said. Keep your tone neutral and try to use the speaker’s exact words. You may want to do this several times. This creates a supported environment for the other person to express whatever they need to say but does not necessarily imply agreement with the point of view expressed.

Reflecting Feelings

Ask others how they are feeling and really listen to the answer – don’t just make each conversation into an opportunity to discuss your own feelings. You may want to use a technique called reflecting feelings if you feel that someone is upset but he or she is not expressing the feeling. In this case, you can say. “It sounds as if you’re feeling (name emotion) right now. Don’t label the emotion for the speaker – as in, “Boy, are you angry!” By sticking to reflecting what you think you are hearing, you allow the speaker to either own the feeling and talk about it if they want to or to deny the feeling and move away from it. This allows you to support the speaker in the way they would like to be supported. He or she can open up to you or can button down their feelings.

Find a listener

One of the hardest issues to deal with as we deal with crises is that the caregivers will be feeling the effects of their work. It is especially important for anyone who has spent time reaching out and helping others in need to be cared for in return. Don’t shy away from asking others to listen to you when you need to be heard. One of the hardest aspects of a tragedy is that it affects so many people. Some who were not as directly affected by recent events may not feel that they have the same right to support as others who lost friends and family, but everyone is feeling some degree of loss, and these feelings must be acknowledged.

Get help

Remember to care for yourself. Keep in close touch with your support network and make sure that you take some time to express your feelings and concerns to a sympathetic listener. If you are unable or unwilling to do this face to face, call a telephone support line or use one of the many online chat rooms. You may want to start a journal as a way of expressing your feelings. Often, people can express feelings or concerns in writing that they are unwilling to raise in conversation. Writing in a journal allows them to feel heard in a protected environment.

Maintain confidentiality

All communication in difficult situations is confidential. Make sure, whether you are the speaker or the listener, that you have established confidentiality for sensitive conversations. Sometimes, unless confidentiality is established, the listener does not know that information is not to be shared. As a speaker, try to remember to establish what can and can not be shared. As a listener, try to remember that most communication is confidential unless it is explicitly marked as public.