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Keeping Your Cool When Communicating Under Stress

Someone told me recently that they always remind themselves to ‘pack their patience’ when they are traveling or going into a situation that has the potential to turn stressful.

I love this and have been taking the advice to heart – reminding myself before I head into the airport or onto a busy highway to bring my patience with me.

I have been on the road quite a bit lately and I can’t tell you how often I see people lose their cool when they are communicating with others. Whether it is a late flight, a lost bag or simply frustration with a travel companion, losing your cool can lead to saying things that you will probably regret later and can’t take back.

When I feel my blood pressure rising or my heart beating faster out of anger or frustration, I remember that losing my cool and saying whatever pops into my brain (which is usually something cynical or negative) will do nothing but make the situation worse.

A perfect example of this happened when I was on a flight that sat out on the runway for nearly 2 hours because of weather and then had to go back to the gate because the crew timed out. Super frustrating! But, they were quickly working to rebook everyone onto a later flight, we just had to walk a few minutes through the airport and report to our new gate to get our seat assignments.

The people on that flight pushed each other to move faster when unloading the plane and grunted under their breath. Then once off the plane, they all bolted through the airport as if they were in a track meet to be the first person to the counter. As we stood in the ridiculously long line to get our new seat assignments, a woman stomped right up to the counter and started yelling at the only person who wasn’t helping someone else. Telling him all about her kids who were at home alone waiting for her. She HAD to get home tonight, period.

The rest of us stood in line waiting our turn, but it was obvious that she thought her situation warranted immediate attention. The man at the counter listened to her loud ranting and when she finally finished, simply said he understood, but she would have to go to the back of the line and wait to talk to a gate agent.

This made her really angry and she ranted even louder, telling her story from the beginning again and adding even more drama. The man behind the counter apologized to the woman and let her know again that he couldn’t help her and she would need to go stand in line to talk to a gate agent.

As luck would have it, I had decided not run through the airport so I was standing at the back of the line where she was now headed. I was dreading having her stand next to me because I knew what was coming. Sure enough when she reached the back of the line she started loudly telling me her story and explaining why this was unacceptable.

Luckily, I had packed my patience 😉

When she came up for air, I looked her in the eyes and said with as little emotion as possible, ‘I know, I heard you mention that to the maintenance man at the counter. They told us we would be rebooked so there is nothing to do but wait in line at this point. I know it’s frustrating, but I am sure they will get it worked out’.

With a quick eye-roll, she blew me off when she realized I wasn’t going to feed into her ranting. She grabbed her cell phone to make a phone call and after a quick hello started her rant at the beginning to the poor soul on the other end of the line.

I get it. We have all been there. Stuck in a crappy situation, frustrated, nervous and anxious about what will happen next. However in the situation I just shared, and pretty much every similar situation for that matter, losing your cool will get you….nowhere.

If I didn’t make it onto the next flight I was going to miss a very important business meeting that people were flying in all over the country for. The difference between me and that woman however was that: I had packed my patience AND I knew that the situation was out of my control and abusing my communication skills or using them to try and ‘get my way’ would get me nowhere

Could I have gone off on a nervous rant and feed into the drama of the situation, sure. But instead I chose not to let my blood pressure get too high, to breathe through it and to think through the worst case scenario. As I walked through the airport when everyone else was running, I had thought through what I would do if I didn’t get on the next flight. I had a plan, obviously it wasn’t a plan I wanted to execute, I would rather just get on the next flight, but I had a plan if that didn’t happen.

When you are in a stressful situation and you find yourself starting to feed into the drama. Instead of using your communication to share your stress with others, go internal with it.

Here are a few quick ways you can do that:

  • Think through your plan B. Hopefully you won’t need it, but if you do, at least you have thought about it! Ask yourself if it is really worth losing it over… the answer is almost always no.

  • Remind yourself that it could be much worse, after all you are still alive.

  • Keep the words in your head – if you must, just think the cynical or negative things in your head – then when you start talking ‘turn it on’ like you are in an interview where every word counts and you are trying to leave a great first impression.

I can almost guarantee that losing your ‘communication cool’ will not help any situation. Think of it like when a toddler throws a tantrum and their parent simply lets them scream it out, then puts them in timeout. Instead of going to timeout, I encourage you to take some time, in your own head, to cool yourself down before you open your mouth.


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