A Leader’s Guide to Effective Dialogue Under Pressure



How can managers become measurably more effective? To answer this question, I studied crucial moments. I wondered in moments when the stakes are high, and the pressure is on, do managers remain calm, candid, direct, and willing to listen? Or do their direct reports describe them as angry, closed-minded, rejecting, even devious? And, how does either style affect results and relationships?

My research confirms a manager’s style under stress has a disproportionate effect on their personal influence and their people. And yet, my study of 1,300 employees found that one out of three leaders are seen as someone who fails to engage in dialogue when the stakes grow high. Specifically:

  • 53 percent of leaders are more closed-minded and controlling than open and curious.
  • 45 percent are more upset and emotional than calm and in control.
  • 45 percent ignore or reject rather than listen or seek to understand.
  • 43 percent are more angry and heated than cool and collected.

And it turns out this type of response does more than harm a leader’s personal influence—it also hurts the team. When a leader clams up or blows up, team members have lower morale; are more likely to miss deadlines, budgets, and quality standards; and act in ways that drive customers away. They are also more likely to consider leaving their job, stop participating, and get frustrated and angry.

Luckily, there are managers who can remain calm and collected in high-stakes situations. They are respectfully direct and as a result, they surface accurate information, better understand problems, formulate the best solutions, and act with greater unity and conviction. When the stakes grow high, use these crucial conversations skills to become measurably more effective:

  • Speak up early. Those who are best at dialogue don’t think first about the risks of speaking up. They think first about the risks of not speaking up. They realize if they don’t speak up early and often, they are choosing to perpetuate a difficult situation.
  • Challenge your story. Under stress, we amplify our negative emotions by telling villain, victim and helpless stories. Villain stories exaggerate others’ negative attributes. Victim stories make us out to be innocent sufferers. And helpless stories rationalize our over- or under-reactions. Instead, take control of your emotions by challenging your story.
  • Create safety. People don’t get defensive because of what you say (your words), but because of why they think you’re saying it (your intent). So, when stressed, first share your positive intent. If others feel safe with you, they are far more open to working with you.
  • Start with facts. When the stakes are high, we tend to store feelings and conclusions, but not the facts that created them. Before reacting to stress, gather facts. Use that information to realign your own feelings and help others understand the intensity of your reaction.


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