Date: 3rd November 2022
Author: Derek Ma

As an executive coach for over 10 years, I’ve coached many managers and executives specifically on developing strategies to navigate high-stress conversations with key stakeholders. Clients, team members, senior executives, even significant others. High quality conversations matter, but high stress situations can sabotage corporate communication.

A study by the Project Management Institute found “poor communication derails important initiatives, wrecking morale and torpedoing 20% of projects.”  Dynamic Signal’s research also revealed “50% of employees report missing a significant company objective because of poor communication”.  The impact that poor communication has on business outcomes is clear.

High stress situations can cause very specific biochemical brain responses that lead to extreme responses, resulting in poor communication. Every individual has specific things that they are sensitive too, which helping professionals call triggers. Being ‘triggered’ is a term that refers to when our fight-or-flight response is activated automatically when the brain senses potential danger, and this often ‘hi-jacks’ our other mental functions. 

Craig Weber, author of the Conversational Capacity book, and co-creator with Ken Blanchard Companies of the same-named workshop, includes in his framework a simple exercise of self-reflection to identify what causes a person to be disproportionately reactive. The idea is straight forward, you cannot address what you are not aware of. While attending this workshop, I personally had a very powerful experience of doing a self-reflection of both the extreme times of emotional responses to certain situations in my past, and also any recent times of extreme reactions. The result was being able to pinpoint exactly what aspects of stressful situations triggered me beyond control. What followed was some further exercises to develop strategies to mitigate the responses.


So much of being able to communicate well in stressful situations leave heavily on awareness. Stress causes individuals to have tunnel vision and make snap decisions and judgements. Just having an awareness of these triggers can lead to significant and potentially immediate changes. Our learning cohort had a certified counsellor who explained a simple yet powerful tool to combat any triggers in stressful moments. She encouraged us to physically disengage, taking a walk if possible, and then taking deep breaths, holding each one for a while. The physiological response to stressful situations is to be more closed, enabling to person who feels threatened or stressed to be more ready to fight back for survival. When stressed or threatened the body tenses up, breath becomes shallow, heart rate increases in anticipation of a fight, testosterone swells, and the person generally becomes defensive or aggressive. In this state, calm, objective, communication is hijacked.


Thus, disengaging removes you from any immediate sense of danger, and then taking breaths allows your body to dissipate the testosterone. Heart rate will slow to a manageable state, and then literally clarity can return, but most importantly the rational part of your brain is not hijacked by the stress. This can lead to much better, effective communication, however it is the awareness the trigger that’s key. Of course, not every situation allows you to disengage, take a walk, and have breathing exercises, however I have coached executives to have options and strategies even while giving presentations in board rooms. Awareness is the first part, but then things like taking deep breaths before speaking, curling toes your shoes, ensuring your hands aren’t in tight fists all help keep the stress levels down to allow for better communication.


While these steps and tips are not rocket science, applying them in the heat of the moment takes intentionality and practice. This is why the Conversational Capacity workshop is different in that it allows for time and space for participants to develop strategies for application.


If you are anyone in your organization would benefit from engaging this material further, or you have any questions about the workshop, please do reach out to us today. We offer in-person and virtual workshops both for public programs or in-house programs in your organization.  


About the Author 

Derek Ma is the Managing Partner for momenta Group, and is responsible for Ken Blanchard Singapore. Derek exists to maximise impact in every leader he engages through deep self-reflection and active growth. He is also founder and director of Hong Kong-based Meridian Learning, and Lead Consultant Asia for Waverley Learning (UK). Derek’s passion is to coach leaders for personal and professional breakthrough. 

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