Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 7, Issue 17;   April 25, 2007: When Stress Strikes

When Stress Strikes

by

Most of what we know about person-to-person communication applies when levels of stress are low. But when stress is high, as it is in emergencies, we're more likely to make mistakes. Knowing those mistakes in advance can be helpful in avoiding them.
Secretary Tom Ridge, President George W. Bush, and Administrator Michael Brown

Secretary Tom Ridge, President George W. Bush, and Administrator Michael Brown attend a briefing on Hurricane Isabel in 2003. There is some evidence that, in the Hurricane Katrina incident, Michael Brown and others "lost the thread" and, under pressure, were unable to mentally track the evolving emergency. Photo courtesy U.S. Government.

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 starts
We 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.
Rushing
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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Ten Reasons Why You Don't Always Get What You Measure: II  Next Issue

101 Tips for Communication in EmergenciesIn a single day, you can witness the final hours of a brand that took ten years to build. Or you can see it re-emerge stronger than ever. From Tylenol to JetBlue — no brand is exempt. And the outcome depends not only on what you say to the public, but on how well you communicate internally — to each other. 101 Tips for Communication in Emergencies is filled with tips for sponsors of, leaders of, and participants in emergency management teams. It helps readers create an environment in which teams can work together, under pressure from outside stakeholders, in severely challenging circumstances, while still maintaining healthy relationships with each other. That's the key to effective communication in emergencies. It's an ebook, but it's about 15% larger than "Who Moved My Cheese?" Just USD 19.95. Order Now! .

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A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.

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