How to Keep Communication Quality High When Things Head in the Wrong Direction at Work

Five approaches to getting things back on track.

Not surprisingly, it’s easy to engage with coworkers and project team members when things are going great. People are in good moods. Disagreements are readily laughed off and agreeable solutions easily discovered

Yes, it’s easy to be a communication superstar during the good times. The real question is what happens to your effectiveness as a communicator when the train rolls off the tracks and the you-know-what hits the fan? What follows are some approaches to keep your communication quality high and rolling along smoothly when everyone and everything around you is on the brink of derailing

1. Look for the Warning Signs and Take Action

Much like a change in barometric pressure indicates a coming shift in the weather there are always clues to a changing communication situation. Escalating opinions on decisions or, the frustration expressed by a stakeholder or boss about a project’s progress almost always foreshadow rising tensions and challenging communications situations.

When the fingers start pointing, and the excuses start flowing, you’ve lost control. Deft communicators recognize the leading indicators and jump in immediately to salvage these situations before they go too far.

One project manager under extreme pressure from top management let her frustration show with some less-than-thoughtful comments on the team’s work. An astute senior contributor immediately stepped in and reframed the situation with, “Let’s take a moment and think about how this situation can help us strengthen as a team. What can we do starting now to improve our teamwork and get this thing back on track?”

This team member’s recognition of the situation and deft reframing helped push the team back out of defend mode into discovery mode. As the team started to work on generating ideas, the collective tension faded from the room.

2. Guide Them To Safety By Collectively Confronting Reality

A clear common view of reality is often a missing ingredient in stressful communication situations. One technique for rescuing a communication interchange is to do the following:

Acknowledge everyone has a unique and vital viewpoint on the situation.

Frame the next step as needing to get the group on the same page. Run through a series of questions (one at a time) for the group, including:

  • Let’s acknowledge, this stinks. What other emotions are running through your mind right now?”
  • What do we know about the situation?
  • What do we need to know about the situation?
  • What are our options?
  • What are our risks?
  • How are we going to make a decision?

This directed facilitation process works to take the tension out of a situation like you were letting air out of a balloon in danger of popping from over-inflation.

3. When You’re Tempted to Steamroll People, It’s Time to Flip the Switch

Some individuals respond to stressful situations with an adrenaline-fueled “fight” reflex that manifests as steamrolling everyone in their communications path. We’ve all observed circumstances that included escalating voices and people talking over each other.

The scenario described here, unfortunately, hits close to home. Earlier in my career, my natural response to perceived communication threats was to overpower people. I had to learn how to suppress this instinct, and to succeed I had to learn to flip a switch.

Through ample practice, I’ve taught myself to recognize the signs of an emerging stressful communication situation and immediately trigger a mental switch-flip for my attitude and approach.

I start by recognizing the warning signs—usually tension in my neck and a surge of adrenaline. I immediately acknowledge this with an internal, “Uh Oh,” and I remind myself to pause, breathe, open my posture, and use the clock to my advantage.

A few seconds of pause in an emerging tense situation is acceptable. And in reality, everyone involved appreciates this minor pause as they process on where things are going and strive to determine how to react.

Once I start the breathing and relaxation, I start asking myself questions:

  • Why am I upset or angry over this issue?
  • What’s his/her point-of-view?
  • What am I not seeing here?

After the switch-flip is complete, I re-engage, usually with a clarifying question where I’m striving to understand the other person’s point-of-view.

Of all of the communication skills I’ve learned and now teach, this one—managing yourself first—is the most valuable. I still feel the urge to jump when challenged, but I’ve learned that my instinct destroys value and degrades the situation when I genuinely want to head in the opposite direction.

4. When Tension Escalates to Dangerous Levels, Pull the Rip Cord and Parachute Out of There

I found myself in one of these situations not too long ago, and because I didn’t have my head screwed on straight at the moment, the conversation quickly escalated around the negatives. Instead of flipping the switch, I resorted to old, bad habits. I was wrong of course, but it happened.

As the conversation proceeded, you could feel the tension rising and the animosity growing with both of us. Finally, we recognized that we both had to pull the ripcord and parachute out to a safer place until our attitudes adjusted. A cooling-off period coupled with a mutual reminder of “what’s important” in the situation helped us get back on track in subsequent conversations.

I’m fine with creating a cooling off period. Ideally, both parties honestly acknowledge the situation is heading in the wrong direction and agree to jump; however, sometimes you have to lead the way. Just remember to acknowledge the importance of the situation to both parties and encourage a reconnect for a specific time.

5. Virtual Communication Approaches are a #Fail When Emotions Run High

A colleague and I joke (kind of) about the need to create a program on helping people navigate challenging conversations via texting. While it’s tempting to try, and liberal use of emoticons can undoubtedly add some emotional context, navigating tough, emotional conversations via texting or email is a bad plan.

The absence of context provided by body language, facial expressions, and verbal tone is a communications desert for our brains. In the absence of anything to grab hold of, our minds are like the spinning wheels on our computers-processing but not getting anywhere. As a result, we begin to attribute intent, tone, and attitude. It’s just a lousy formula for communicating in those situations.

Stop the flow of texting or emailing and at best case, set up a face-to-face discussion and at worst case make it a telephone call.

The bottom line for now:

We’re all works in process, particularly when it comes to communicating with others in stressful workplace situations. Remember to manage yourself first, and then take positive action to keep the train on the tracks.