Deal With the Stress Before the Mess

By Chris Crouch

When I get curious, I read a lot. Last week I got very curious about a form of ineffective behavior that seems all too common these days.

The behavior in question relates to ineffective listening habits, especially in situations fraught with stress or other forms of heightened emotions. So, I plowed through four books on the topic last week. Thank goodness for that Evelyn Wood speed-reading course I took 24 years ago.

The good news – you don’t need to read the four books to learn the secret of effectively dealing with high stress situations or, to perhaps be more realistic, getting better at dealing with them. The common theme among all the books was “deal with the stress before the mess.” Easier said than done without a pre-planned strategy and plenty of practice.

It’s human nature to get hijacked by your amygdala and attempt to go “straight for the jugular” when dealing with high-stress situations. That’s what you and your autonomic nervous system typically feel most like doing. By contrast, it feels totally counterintuitive to put root cause aside temporarily and address the touchy-feely side of a stressful situation first. However, here are a few reasons why this is exactly what you should consider.

In stressful situations, people with opposing viewpoints usually default to what most of the books refer to as “listening for response” rather than “listening for understanding.” You see, most people ratchet the dialogue up a notch or two when they want to make sure they get through to another person. They become argumentative and defensive and in the process create counterparty resistance, rather than counterparty understanding.

As I was thinking of this last week, I got one of those did-you-love-our-service follow-up calls. You know, one of those calls where if you answer all the questions in a way that makes the service provider look excellent or outstanding, the call flows smoothly and, as in fairy tales, everybody lives happily ever after. Kiss, kiss, bye, bye, love-you-darlings all around.

However, if you make even the slightest critical comment on the service, the surveying person acts as if you have somehow pumped anthrax through the phone lines and scrambles to get off the phone as soon as possible, if not sooner. Basically, this leads to the second reason one should listen for understanding. In stressful situations, the first thing most people want is simply to be heard.

And the cool thing about listening for understanding is that you do not have to agree with the other person. You just need to understand their thinking. I can tell you from much experience, that when you finally get to the bottom of what we referred to in my Alabama childhood hometown as “squirrely behavior,” people always have a good reason for their behavior – in their mind and at the time.

There are many good ways to deal with the stress before the mess, but most of them begin with listening for understanding rather than listening for responding.

Chris Crouch is CEO of DME Training and Consulting and author of several books on improving productivity. Contact him through