What’s my style under stress?

Feb 25, 2021
Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Important conversations, disagreements, and other conversations where we become consumed with ideas or causes are like tractor beams, sucking us in until we’re acting unconsciously. It’s tough to watch yourself. You’re on the wrong side of your eyeballs.

As soon as we lose self-awareness, when we become “unconscious,” that’s when we speak when we shouldn’t, clam up, force our ideas on others, or employ a whole host of other tactics that don’t work.

In challenging conversations, stress shows up as silence or violence. Here are some of the more common manifestations.

Stress styles when we go silent

Silence is a strategy we sometimes use to avoid stress and involves any tactic to withhold information, thoughts, opinions, or needs. Common forms include masking, avoiding, and withdrawing.

Masking is understating or selectively showing your opinions, such as:

  • Example: “That’s a great idea, I just worry others won’t understand its subtlety.”
  • Real meaning: “I think that’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard, and you’re an idiot.”

Avoiding is when we steer clear of sensitive issues, such as:

  • Example: “Blue isn’t really my favorite color.”
  • Real meaning: “I hate it.”

Withdrawing is when we pull out of a conversation altogether.

  • Example: “Excuse me, I have to take a call.”
  • Real meaning: “I’d rather stick this pen in my ear than listen to you for another minute.”

Stress styles when we go violent

Violent communication is any strategy to convince, control, compel, lay guilt, punish, or otherwise force others to see our point of view, including name-calling, raising our voice (even in “defense”), and dominating a conversation. Common forms include controlling, labeling, and attacking.

Controlling is coercing others to adopt our way of thinking, by force, cutting people off, overstating facts, speaking in absolutes, changing subjects, using piercing questions, or other tactics to control the conversation.

  • Example: “Everyone knows they suck.”
  • Real meaning: “I’m not certain of the real facts, so I’ll use hyperbole to get you to go along with my ideas.”

Labeling is putting a label on a person or idea so you can box it in and dismiss it.

  • Example: “They’re engineers. They’ll never understand branding.”
  • Real meaning: “I’m not confident enough in my abilities to communicate the value of my ideas, so I’ll just label the other group so I don’t have to try.”

Attacking is just what it says.

  • Example: “I’m on to you. You’re just trying to take all the recognition for yourself. You’re a jerk. I’m sorry, but someone has to have the guts to tell it like it is.”
  • Real meaning: “To get my way, I’ll say bad things about you and pretend I’m the only one with integrity.”

Develop self-awareness, before you need it.

It’s easy enough to observe these traits in others, but what does it take to observe yourself impartially?

In our workshops, we do exercises to help us develop the skill of staying grounded before we need it.

One thing you can do is to journal after every conversation you have today, using the prompt: which of the six styles under stress was I employing, and what effect was it having?

Do this for a week, and you’ll become better at recognizing when you’re going into silence or violence, as it happens.

Adapted from Crucial Conversations, Tools for Talking When The Stakes Are High.

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