Navigating High-Stress Communication

March 6, 2023
Slow down, prepare, and be a friend when the conversation requires it.

Whether you’re speaking to an angry customer, dealing with an insurer, or going over sensitive subjects with employees in the shop, it’s best not to jump into those conversations without preparation. 

There are times when it’s necessary to face issues head on, and a tough conversation is needed. Don’t fret—an expert in the area of workplace communication has some key strategies so that you feel confident before jumping into that stressful talk. 

The Backstory 

The American Psychological Association, which regularly surveys Americans on their stress levels and stressors, identified top sources of stress in 2022 that most can relate to: rising costs of goods, supply chain issues, and global uncertainty. Before you even have that conversation at work, the other person might be pretty stressed already. 

“I also think that some people just don’t handle stress very well, and I think in the United States, we seem to have a crisis of capability of managing our own stress, because we’ve all been stressed in so many different ways that our resiliency can be affected,” says Claudia St. John, president of Affinity HR Group. 

St. John has worked with automotive shop owners for years as a human resources partner, and she knows how stressors can affect customers and employees in the shop setting. Approaching those conversations with care is the key to finding solutions that will take a bit of that stress away. 

The Challenge 

Most shop owners know when they’re getting into a stressful conversation, but why is that? 

"How do we know that we’re in a situation that is charged?” St. John says. “Usually it’s a situation where the stakes matter, the outcome matters and where there’s a difference of opinion and a degree of uncertainty.” 

When you have a disagreement with a colleague or need to address discipline with a staff member, the key challenge is that you see a problem that needs to be addressed, and you hope to bring the other person closer to a solution.  

The Solution 

Often, it’s not necessary to jump right into a tough conversation, St. John says. You can have a preliminary chat about the tough conversation to set the stage and create some anticipation. This can help defuse some strong emotions that could happen when you catch someone off guard. 

Once the setting is right, St. John has an acronym to get into the right headspace. It is FRIEND. 

F—Find your due north

R—Ready your emotions 

I—Inspect your stories 

E—Establish safety 

N—Navigate your story 

D—Develop and document 

First, find your due north. St. John says that the first preparation is to determine what outcomes you want from the conversation, and anticipate that it might involve some compromise. 

“By finding your due north, it’s not really knowing the conversation has to result in this,” St. John says. “But what would you be willing to accept? At the end of the day, what would you be satisfied with?” 

Second, ready your emotions. Outcomes tend to be poor in stressful conversations when emotions cause one or both parties to act or speak rashly. Take a deep breath, take a walk and anticipate that you want to remain calm. 

Next, inspect your stories. By this, St. John means that you want to be open-minded to how the other party perceives the situation. The stories you tell yourself about another person’s motivation might not prove true, and you might get a response that you didn’t anticipate. You don’t need to avoid assumptions, but be ready to have them challenged or changed. 

Establish safety for the next step. This has to do with how you set up the conversation. Picking the right place and the right time helps to ensure that everyone involved knows what is happening and that no one is caught off guard. 

Navigate their story. This is a reminder to offer the other party the chance to speak and to listen to their point of view. 

“Really listen to what their interpretation is,” St. John says. “And be open to what their stories are and how they see a situation.” 

Finally, develop and document. Finding an outcome doesn’t always mean coming to a finite conclusion or reaching a direct plan of action. 

“Sometimes you’re developing an understanding,” St. John says. “We’re just going to continue to talk on this and work on this. In the case of an employee and supervisor, usually it’s not a one and done.” 

The underlying goal is to bring both parties closer to the same understanding, and hopefully everyone will be on better footing going forward. Other times, there might be a final conclusion or action, and a well-executed conversation will leave everyone knowing why the action was taken. 

The Aftermath 

Even if an outcome isn’t positive for the other party, you can still forge a stronger relationship with a customer or co-worker by taking respectful steps toward high-stress conversation. The preparation and care taken shows that you respect the situation and the other person. 

“The critical conversations can shift a relationship from conflict to building trust,” St. John says. “They can actually improve relationships.” 

It’s not always easier with time, either. St. John says she’s seen new managers who are great in these stressful situations and longtime managers who handle those situations poorly. It’s more about the preparation and execution. 

The Takeaway 

The key to success in these fluid situations is to be aware of your assumptions and be open to understanding. 

“A huge piece of this is emotional intelligence,” St. John says. “The first thing about emotional intelligence is self-awareness, recognizing that you’re in an emotional state and not going to engage.” 

Once you’ve got a better handle on your emotions, it’s important to understand that it might not always be “my way or the highway.” Different people experience the same situations in different ways. St. John says that we aren’t always in the same boat. We might be in the same storm, but in different boats and in different areas of the storm. 

“If there’s one takeaway that I would encourage readers to try to embrace, it’s to be empathetic,” she says. “Really try to anticipate what the other person is going through, seen or unseen.”