5 ways to communicate with a stressed-out co-worker

You approach your co-worker’s desk with a simple question.

“Hey there, Stacy,” you say with a smile on your face, “Do you have an update on when you’ll have the graphs for that presentation ready?”

You assumed that getting the answer you required would be quick and painless. But, apparently you had absolutely zero idea what you were in for.

Your one straightforward inquiry has launched Stacy into a stressed-out frenzy. She has far too much on her plate. And, in response, her mind (and the conversation) is jumping around like a ping-pong ball — making it literally impossible for you to follow what she’s talking about.

When you finally escape from her desk, you feel frantic and rather tight-chested yourself — not to mention that you still don’t have the answer you needed in the first place.

Having to cope with colleagues who are stressed out is challenging at best. But, considering the frequent pressures of our professional lives, you’re probably going to have to do it more often than you’d like — and you might even take a turn being that stressed-out employee from time to time.

So, how can you effectively deal with your frantic and frazzled co-workers—without losing your cool yourself? Here’s what you need to know.

Remember that stress fries the brain

There are a couple of different things that make it challenging to communicate with people who are in a stressed-out state.

“First, they are not thinking rationally,” explains Brandon Smith, The Workplace Therapist, “Their emotions play a role in their decision-making and can easily boil over.”

Additionally, stress can cause people’s thoughts to be scattered — making it difficult to follow their logic.

“Stressed-out people are not necessarily terrifically mentally organized at that moment,” says Holly Weeks, Adjunct Lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, “They’re not talking efficiently.”

Colleagues who feel overwhelmed also will become more internally focused, rather than externally focused — meaning they care less about the needs of those around them. There’s no malicious intent behind that. Instead, it’s a completely human and predictable reaction to stress.

Needless to say, there are a multitude of reasons that communicating with people when they’re stressed is a unique challenge. But, put simply, it’s just a pain.

“It’s annoying to listen to all of this irrelevant, semi-relevant, and scattered stuff,” adds Weeks, “It’s hard. It’s uncomfortable.”

If you want to help, first acknowledge their stress

“The best approach for dealing with a stressed co-worker is to acknowledge their stress,” explains Smith.

By simply mentioning the fact that he or she appears to have a full plate, you open an invitation for your colleague to candidly talk about his or her stress. “It will allow the internal pressure to release and for her or him to feel as though you care,” Smith adds.

Yes, that venting can be difficult to listen to—particularly when you’re attempting to direct your team member to a specific point. However, it’s important that you remind yourself that stress is often a very reasonable response. You’ve felt that same way yourself a time or two.

“Stressed-out people are trying to get rid of their stress by talking it out,” says Weeks, “They’re trying to get it out verbally and put it aside. Remember that he or she isn’t trying to entertain you—instead, the goal is just to relieve some of that stress.”

Don’t dictate their feelings

Calm down. Just take a deep breath. Stop worrying about it.

At first glance, they might seem like helpful and encouraging phrases. But, they’re actually some of the worst things you can say to people when they’re feeling frazzled.

“Stop thinking that if the stressed-out person is told not to be stressed out that they will cease to be so,” Weeks says. Ultimately, these sorts of phrases are unproductive and oftentimes downright condescending.

“Rather than hearing the intention in the comment, the stressed colleague hears, ‘You shouldn’t feel that way. I’m sure you are just overreacting,’” adds Smith.

Your desire to lean on sentiments like these is understandable. But, the motivation is also highly selfish — you’re hoping to steer that stressed-out person to a more focused and mentally organized place for your own benefit. You want to get that conversation over with and walk away with what you need.

“You want your stressed colleague to be the way he is when he isn’t stressed, and you’ll try to urge him toward that — which probably isn’t going to work,” adds Weeks “There’s this effort to push people to be themselves in a different moment, but that will only raise the stress a lot higher.”

Do direct the conversation

When stress causes people to become increasingly unfocused, you might need to take it upon yourself to help steer the conversation in the way you need it to go.

“It’s smart to slow down a bit and either give more leading information or ask leading questions,” Weeks advises.

For example, when your colleague starts to veer off track, you could come back with something like:

“Let’s put that thought aside for a minute and look back at these two options for scheduling. Here’s how I see it…”

“You’re really throwing your co-worker a life ring in a sense, and he or she will be sure to grab it,” Weeks adds, “Rather than telling that stressed-out person to focus, you’re giving him or her something to actually focus on.”

Offer to help

All of these communication tactics are helpful. But, when a team member of yours is feeling particularly overwhelmed, there’s usually nothing better than reaching out with a genuine offer to help.

“Just be prepared that—if he or she asks for help—you’ll need to do your best to assist,” says Smith, “Otherwise, it will feel like an empty offer.”

Over to you

Needing to deal with a colleague who’s experiencing a high level of stress will never be totally painless. But, implementing these strategies will help you have a more productive conversation—while fostering a reputation as a polite and supportive team member.

When you boil it down, successfully communicating with an overwhelmed co-worker involves putting someone else’s needs in front of your own.

“It’s not that people can’t imagine what will work in this circumstance,” concludes Weeks, “It’s that they’re not really trying. Instead, they’re thinking, ‘Here’s what I want.’ In reality, the chances of getting that when your colleague is stressed are actually quite small.”