Stress complicates person-to-person communication, especially when it affects several people in a group simultaneously. Angry outbursts come immediately to mind, but there are many other ways to mess up. Knowing the stress traps, and talking about them in advance of the action, gives a group tools for preventing them when the action starts.
Here are some of the common mistakes people make under stress.
- Jumping to meaning
- We jump prematurely to a single meaning of what someone said, ignoring alternatives, and not bothering to seek alternatives. And we tend to focus on the most familiar meaning, rather than the one most likely to apply.
- Hat hanging
- When someone or some situation reminds us of someone or something else, we act as if we were there or then, rather than here and now. We hang the hat of the past on the present. See "You Remind Me of Helen Hunt," Point Lookout for June 6, 2001, for more.
- Not listening and not hearing
- When we become preoccupied with our own thoughts, we sometimes don't even hear what's being said. On the spot, we can sometimes mentally "replay" the last few seconds, and we try to conceal the fact that we've temporarily checked out. Sometimes we fool others, but rarely do we actually grasp what we missed.
- Completing one another's thoughts
- Knowing the stress traps
gives a group tools
for preventing them
when the action startsWe don't wait for people to finish what they're saying. We complete it for them — in our own minds, at least, but sometimes out loud. It's easy to hurt others this way.
- Replaying dramatic putdowns
- We use insults that we learn by hearing them — sometimes in the pop media. Often we get a feeling of satisfaction from this, but it rarely helps the communication.
- We have an exaggerated sense of urgency — no time to listen, and surely no time to explain. We dismiss or interrupt the other to move on past. See "Discussus Interruptus," Point Lookout for January 29, 2003, for more.
- Being dazed and confused
- We get confused, or we lose track of the conversation. In some cases — the most dangerous — we aren't even aware of having lost it.
- Mind reading
- We convince ourselves that despite our lack of ESP, we know exactly what someone else is thinking. See "The Mind Reading Trap," Point Lookout for October 10, 2001, for more.
- Living the catastrophic expectation
- When one of the several possible interpretations of what someone else has said is truly catastrophic, that choice can become the only one we fix on.
- Blame dancing
- I blame you and you blame me. Or together we unite and blame someone or something else. Or in anticipation of being blamed we defend ourselves or attack another. There are many variations.
These patterns can occur even when stress is low. The good news is that when we learn to control them for the stressful times, we learn to control them for the other times, too. It's an effort worth making. Top Next Issue
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See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness, Critical Thinking at Work and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 7: Toxic Disrupters: Tactics
- Some people tend to disrupt meetings. Their motives vary, but they use techniques drawn from a limited collection. Examples: they violate norms, demand attention, mess with the agenda, and sow distrust. Response begins with recognizing their tactics. Available here and by RSS on June 7.
- And on June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
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