Communication under stress

Effective communication is one of the most important skills a high-performing team can master. From relaying mission-critical information to simply building interpersonal relationships, in many ways, communication is the basis for military team success. But military environments often make communication difficult—and stress (both internal and external) can impact your ability to get your point across or connect to others.

What is communication?

Though it might seem like a straightforward concept, communication can be quite complex. At the core, communication is about how you convey information, what you think you’re conveying, and how the listener receives, understands, or interprets that information.

To start, think about the “how.” People share information verbally (spoken language) and non-verbally (body language or actions). But even verbal communication is highly variable—a single word can have multiple meanings. For example, the word “bird” could mean a warm-blooded animal with wings that flies (such as a seagull), a warm-blooded animal with wings that doesn’t fly (such as a penguin), or in the military community, it means a helicopter. And non-verbals are just as complex—consider all the different ways things are said (tone, volume, speed, etc.) or the amount of eye contact, as well as all the gestures, hand motions, and stances made during a conversation. Of course there’s also written communication, which has become more and more common with the use of different technologies. Consider not only the written words you can share, but the various punctuation, use of icons, and timing that technology allows.

On top of all the hundreds of different components that can go into even the most simple of exchanges between two people, it’s also important to consider the differences in what you want to say and what the listener understands. And all of that can be impacted by feelings, previous experiences, relationship history, or even external stresses (such as noise or distractions). Now consider on top of that communicating to a group or team in a chaotic military environment while under extreme stress. Suddenly effective communication becomes much more difficult.

Communication under stress

When it comes to military environments, verbal communication is key. Though teams might also use visual signals, spoken words are commonly used to share information. The process of forming speech is actually quite complex, though chances are you rarely think about what it takes to form a sentence. First, you form a thought that you want to convey, then neurons fire and a flurry of brain activity occurs resulting in coordinated muscle movements adjusting your breath, vocals, and face, ultimately resulting in sound. And while this process is generally smooth under normal circumstances, stress and duress can significantly interfere with the process.

Military environments can be highly stressful, loud, and chaotic. Service Members are often operating under high workloads, dealing with too little sleep or sleep problems, and might also be experiencing fear, anxiety, or even pain. All of those factors can affect your ability to physically speak and your ability to understand someone else. Consider for a moment all the different ways the stressors you experience on duty can impact different aspects of your speech:

  • Physical. Vibrations (in an aircraft or large ground vehicle) can also get in the way of clear communication. Also, equipment that is over your face, or puts pressure on your chest and affects breathing can physically impede your ability to produce sound as well.
  • Physiological. Different chemicals and substances can also impact your ability to communicate clearly and effectively. Medicines, supplements, alcohol, or caffeine all have different neural reactions that can impede the speech (and comprehension) process. Then things such as sleep deprivation or dehydration can also cause internal physiological changes that make speech more difficult.
  • Psychological. When it comes to getting your words out and even how you interpret the words of others, your mental and emotional state is quite significant. Think of how your voice might shake when you feel nervous or anxious, or how your volume might change when you’re angry or upset. Your emotional state can also slow brain processing so you begin the process of speaking before your full thought is completed in your mind.
  • Environmental. Things going on around you can also affect the clarity of your speech. The most common examples would be something such as noise, but distance and poor or malfunctioning comms equipment can also play a role.

Strategies to communicate under stress

Military life isn’t going to get less stressful, and the reality is many different environments you might encounter can create similar stress. So what can you do to aid communication under stress?

  • Recognize your limits. One of the best ways to address a challenge is to be aware of it. In recognizing that your communication skills might not be at their peak while you’re under stress, you’re already halfway to making improvements. If you know you’re entering into a stressful situation, think ahead about what you’ll need to coordinate with team members and the clearest ways you’ll be able to do that. Have backup plans, including using visual cues, and be sure to recognize the limits of any comms equipment you might be using.
  • Train for collaboration and teamwork. When it comes to interpersonal skills, research shows that team members under stress tend to communicate with less empathy, engage less with each other, and focus less on working together. Instead, team members tend to focus directly on problem-solving. And while that’s important under stress, problem-solving as a team tends to be much more effective. Do your best to train in collaboration and cooperation with teammates so that it becomes the automatic response when under stress.
  • Try stress management. While not all stresses can be anticipated or avoided, to the extent you can, practice shifting your stress mindset. Using stress to your benefit to make you sharper and more in tune, rather than letting it overwhelm you and your senses, can help you communicate effectively with others.
  • Tune into your reactions. Again, while accurately anticipating and managing your emotions isn’t always possible in dangerous or chaotic military settings, it’s an important skill that you can leverage in many high-stress situations. Emotional regulation is about slowing yourself and your reactions down just enough for your brain to process all the information around you so you can thoughtfully respond. Giving your brain a chance to catch up with your speech can also help you decide what you want to say in the clearest way possible.
  • Use leadership best practices. Military leadership in stressful situations is particularly important to team performance. Your team will be looking to you for clarity, instruction, guidance, and debriefs. Focus on simple, clear instructions that leverage team strengths. And when the dust settles, focus on conveying follow-up information in an authentic and genuine way that validates the stressful experiences of your team.

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