Hear the emotion behind the words

Did you know: It’s the higher frequencies of human speech that impart emotion. You can become more attuned to these frequencies by exercising the tiny muscles of your middle ear (the smallest in the body). Try singing, playing a wind instrument, or listening to certain types of high-frequency music (a Mozart symphony or violin concerto, for example, rather than low-frequency rock, pop, or hip-hop).

Keep stress in check

To communicate effectively, you need to be aware of and in control of your emotions. And that means learning how to manage stress. When you're stressed or emotionally overwhelmed, you're more likely to misread other people, send confusing or off-putting nonverbal signals, and lapse into unhealthy knee-jerk patterns of behavior.

How many times have you felt stressed during a disagreement with your spouse, kids, boss, friends, or coworkers and then said or done something you later regretted? If you can relieve stress quickly and return to a calm state, you'll not only avoid such regrets, but in many cases it will also help calm the other person. It's only when you're in a calm, relaxed state that you'll be able to know whether the situation requires a response, or whether the other person's signals indicate it would be better to remain silent.

In situations such as a job interview, business presentation, high-pressure meeting, or introduction to a loved one's family, for example, it's important to manage your emotions, think on your feet, and communicate effectively under pressure.

Tips for staying calm under pressure

Use stalling tactics to give yourself time to think. Ask for a question to be repeated or for clarification of a statement before you respond. Pause to collect your thoughts. Silence isn't necessarily a bad thing; pausing can make you seem more in control than rushing your response. Make one point and provide an example or supporting piece of information. If your response is too long or you waffle about a number of points, you risk losing the listener's attention or interest. Follow one point with an example and then gauge the listener's reaction to tell if you should make a second point.

Deliver your words clearly. In many cases, how you say something can be as important as what you say. Speak clearly, maintain an even tone, and make eye contact. Keep your body language relaxed and open. Wrap up with a summary and then stop. Summarize your response and then stop talking, even if it leaves a silence in the room. You don’t have to fill the silence by continuing to talk.

Quick stress relief for effective communication

When things start to get heated in a conversation, you need something quick and immediate to bring down the emotional intensity. By learning to reduce stress quickly in the moment, you can safely face any strong emotions you're experiencing, regulate your feelings, and behave appropriately.

Recognize when you're becoming stressed. Your body will let you know if you're stressed as you communicate.

  • Are your muscles or your stomach tight?
  • Are your hands clenched?
  • Is your breath shallow?
  • Are you "forgetting" to breathe?

Take a moment to calm down before deciding to continue a conversation. Or postpone it.

Bring your senses to the rescue. The best way of rapidly and reliably relieve stress is through your senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, movement, or smell. For example, you could pop a peppermint in your mouth, squeeze something in your pocket, take a few deep breaths, clench and relax your muscles, or simply recall a soothing, sensory-rich image. Each person responds differently to sensory input, so you need to find things that are soothing for you.

Look for humor in a situation. When used appropriately, humor is a great way to relieve stress when communicating. When you or those around you start taking things too seriously, find a way to lighten the mood by sharing a joke or amusing story.

Be willing to compromise. Sometimes if you can both bend a little, you will be able to find a happy middle ground that reduces the stress levels for everyone concerned. If you realize that the other person cares much more about something than you do, compromise may be easier for you and a good investment in the future of the relationship.

Agree to disagree, when necessary, and take time away from the situation so everyone can calm down. Go for a stroll if possible, or spend a few minutes meditating. Physical movement or finding a quiet place to regain your balance could quickly reduce stress.