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

When Stress Strikes

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

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! .

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenzANYqTptGaPETZPTner@ChacgsPmSXRwcnevfYezoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

A thermometerTake Regular Temperature Readings
Team interactions are unimaginably complex. To avoid misunderstandings, offenses, omissions, and mistaken suppositions, teams need open communications. But no one has a full picture of everything that's happening. The Temperature Reading is a tool for surfacing hidden and invisible information, puzzles, appreciations, frustrations, and feelings.
Computer monitors being recycled by the Nevada Division of Environmental ProtectionHow Not to Accumulate Junk
Look around your office. Look around your home. Very likely, some of your belongings are useless and provide neither enjoyment nor cause for contemplation. Where does this stuff come from? Why can't we get rid of it?
A fancy diagram of the kind that often accompanies management fadsWhy Do Business Fads Form?
The rise of a business fad is due to the actions of both its advocates and adopters. Understanding the interplay between them is essential for successful resistance.
A glass of red wineI've Been Right All Along
As people, we're very good at forming and holding beliefs and opinions despite nagging doubts. These doubts lead us to search for confirmation of our beliefs, and to reject information that might conflict with our beliefs. Often, this process causes us to persist in believing nonsense. How can we tell when this is happening?
Magic Lantern Slide of a dog jumping through a hoopJust-In-Time Hoop-Jumping
Securing approvals for projects, proposals, or other efforts is often called "jumping through hoops." Hoop-jumping can be time-consuming and frustrating. Here are some suggestions for jumping through hoops efficiently.

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

A pair discussion in a speedstormComing February 27: Brainstorming and Speedstorming: II
Recent research into the effectiveness of brainstorming has raised some questions. Motivated to examine alternatives, I ran into speedstorming. Here's Part II of an exploration of the properties of speedstorming. Available here and by RSS on February 27.
A meeting that's probably a bit too largeAnd on March 6: A Pain Scale for Meetings
Most meetings could be shorter, less frequent, and more productive than they are. Part of the problem is that we don't realize how much we do to get in our own way. If we track the incidents of dysfunctional activity, we can use the data to spot trends and take corrective action. Available here and by RSS on March 6.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenWmVnSpCGjKGFZaJuner@ChacNsTiEXleZuXJbiXboCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.