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Communicating Effectively Under Stress
by Joni Johnston, Psy.D

“Every morning when I leave my house, I say to myself, “Today I shall meet an impudent man, an ungrateful one, one who talks too much. Therefore do not be surprised.” Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius

Perhaps our philosopher worked around some stressed-out lawyers. Inadequate time to complete jobs satisfactorily, dealing with difficult clients and office problems, and balancing the competing demands of ethical guidelines, client responsibilities and legal community expectations; these are just a few of the challenges that can chip away at an attorney’s equilibrium. Given enough pressure, even the most articulate attorney can wind up screaming at a paralegal or escalating a conflict with a client. Let’s take a look at what happens to our communication when stress enters the law office, how and why it does and how we can prevent it from disrupting our work relationships.

What’s Your Type?
Ever noticed that people tend to relate to each other pretty consistently? Some people keep their emotions close to their chest, while others seem to wear their heart on their sleeve.

The same is true for how assertively we expres ourselves. Some people are quick to speak up, make decisions, take action and pressure others to do the same. Others tend to take a more methodical approach to decision-making and risk-taking, and are slower to confront or pressure others.

Most of us consistently fall somewhere along the emotional expressiveness and assertiveness dimensions—and we do so predictably. Our usual way of communicating is our “baseline.” Emotional intelligence, in part, is the ability to identify and adjust to the “baseline” of the people around us and recognize when the “baseline” shifts. And under stress, it will.

Survival of the Crabbiest?
Our communication style changes under stress. There’s a good reason for this: we stop responding to external cues and start listening to internal ones that tell us we’re in a crisis and we’ve got to fight to survive. We stop responding to what the interpersonal situation calls for and start trying to reduce our stress, regardless of the wishes or feelings of others. In essence, we resort to a fallback mode, i.e., the communication style we learned early on that helped us survive difficult situations.

Our typical communication style may become exaggerated and inflexible. For example:

  • the emotionally responsive, assertive person attacks;
  • the bottom-line leader becomes controlling;
  • the reserved, cooperative person becomes ingratiating;
  • the quiet, analytical person avoids;

This fallback mode is an extreme manifestation of our normal communication style. It’s almost as if our communication is a ladder and the lowest rung is the most primitive. As we grow and develop, our interpersonal skills (we hope) move up the ladder; we have more strategies to choose from and we’re able to respond to the cues of the interpersonal situation we’re in. When we experience enough stress though, we get knocked back down the ladder and often wind up clinging to old, outdated communication strategies that are ineffective but make us feel safe. This is our fallback communication mode.

As such, while our fallback mode can disrupt relationships, it serves a good purpose by helping to reduce our stress. That is why telling someone to “snap out of it” or pointing out how ineffective the communication is when someone is in it rarely works. What does work is learning to recognize the signs and symptoms of a fallback communication mode and developing strategies for minimizing its impact on our work relationships.

Fallback in Action
Let’s face it, no one is at his or her best under stress. When I’m stressed, my husband calls me a firecracker. And, while I defend myself profusely against this nickname, secretly I know that it’s true. Given enough pressure, my normally expressive, assertive communication style turns into quick-tempered explosiveness. Of course, he’s no angel. When he’s stressed, his normally efficient, bottom-line communication style becomes dictatorial. Part of the reason we’ve been happily married for ten years is that we’ve learned to recognize the stress signals in each other and adjust accordingly.

One of the most difficult interpersonal challenges attorneys face is dealing constructively with stressed-out clients and overwhelmed office staff. Paralegals in the throes of litigation demands may be particularly sensitive to barks or commands from you—at a time when it’s extremely hard to muster the energy to monitor the tone of your voice. Clients suffering from litigation stress may look to you to be a calming, rational influence. To avoid becoming equally stressed (and unintentionally responding with your own fallback behavior), use these strategies:

  1. Don’t take it personally. Easier said than done, I know. However, if you understand that a fallback communication mode is a survival strategy rather than a personal attack or a plot against you, you will be able to keep your objectivity while you help others get back to a more effective communication mode. Helping your employees to reframe each others’ fallback strategies can produce similar results, once they’re out of fallback.
  2. Think crisis, not strategy. Imagine you’re in the water drowning and the lifeguard is standing by the pool trying to help you figure out how you fell in the water. There’s a time and a place for analysis, but fallback is not one of them. Instead of having a heart-to-heart with an irrational employee, engage in crisis management. For instance, review their workload to make sure it’s manageable and that the deadlines are realistic.
  3. Provide stress management training. The number-one cause of fallback communication is built-up stress. Be creative in promoting wellness activities like exercise, good nutrition, etc. After a tough arbitration or trial, reward your employees (or yourself!) with a massage or stress management retreat.
  4. Sidestep the fallback position. Don’t waste your breath trying to get someone to stop operating from fallback. If they could, they would. Instead, the trick is to minimize the damage this crisis communication style can have on interpersonal relationships. For instance, teach your employees to recognize their own fallback communication signals and encourage them to find ways to vent their stress without passing it to someone else.

Keeping Cool Under Pressure
Odds are that you, too, will occasionally find yourself in fallback communication. When this happens, here are things you can do to relieve the pressure in the short-run without increasing stress over time:

  1. Postpone what you can. As a psychologist, I adhered to a pretty good rule of thumb in advising therapy clients; postpone any major life decision for one year after a divorce. Many a new divorcee’ later regretted an impulsive relationship or career move that temporarily distracted them from the pain of divorce but later created much more heartache. The same is true of fallback. When we’re operating under extreme stress, we’re much more likely to say or do things we later regret. This is the time to reschedule meetings or postpone appointments if possible and avoid making major life decisions.
  2. Get feedback from others. Most of us are pretty inaccurate when it comes to self-evaluation. Find out how your communication, in stress and out of it, impacts those around you by using 360-degree evaluation as part of a personal development plan.
  3. Eliminate as much stress as possible. Do stress-reducing activities such as walking or listening to music. Talk over a stressful legal situation with a colleague. As much stress is created by our thoughts as by the reality of our situation and getting a second opinion can help us correct errors in our thinking that add to our stress.

The Bottom Line
Rarely is stress viewed as a relationship issue that can erode interpersonal communication and wreak havoc on work relationships. Yet, the reality is that excess stress can turn the most productive communication style into a nonnegotiable, “my way or the highway” style of relating.

Lawyers are in the line of fire when it comes to stressful communication. However, while occasionally succumbing to stress seems to be part of human nature, attorneys can play a critical role in helping clients maintain effective communication, even under the most stressful circumstances. By practicing ongoing stress-management strategies and helping employees recognize and manage their fallback communication mode, you can turn a potentially disruptive survival strategy into an opportunity for self-awareness and growth.


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