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Manage Your Stress Response During Difficult Conversations

We’re all dealing with a lot of stress these days. It’s something that is ever present, but also spikes during intense moments. As managers, there are times when we need to have difficult conversations with our team members. We need to give feedback. We need to convey a decision that we know they won’t like. We need to work through a difference in style or preference. 

In these moments, when we feel scared and vulnerable, our stress response can take over, inhibiting us from engaging in the conversation productively. But it doesn’t have to. When you understand your stress style and how to manage it, you can stay in (or return to) a calm state. 

To help us learn more about stress responses, I spoke with Candice Elliott, a Fractional CHRO and HR Mentor for business and non-profit leaders. She focuses on the intersection of public health, organizational and community development, helping leaders foster cultures of healing where they and their teams can thrive. 


Stress responses, also sometimes referred to as trauma responses, are unique to each individual and can manifest in a variety of ways. The four most common reactions are fighting (expressing anger, defensiveness or arguing), fleeing (avoiding the person or walking out of a conversation), freezing (feeling unable to act or respond), and fawning (agreeing with the person simply to prevent engaging in the conflict even if we don't truly agree). In order to effectively manage these responses, we must first understand them.


While we can’t always stay calm, we can learn how to interrupt our stress response patterns, enabling us to have challenging conversations from a more calm and clear-headed place.

Candice explains that first, we can do our best to enter the conversation in a relaxed state. She describes it as imagining you’re sitting on a sofa near a fire, wrapped in a cozy blanket with a cup of hot cocoa. That’s the feeling you’re aiming for. The more calm you are at the start of a conversation, the more creative and open your mind will be.

Then, we need to recognize the subtle changes that signal a stress response. There are physical cues such as a heightened heart rate and quickened breathing. There are also mental cues such as feeling like you need to get away or wanting to appease the person. Recognizing these signs can empower you to make different choices about how you act in the moment.

One useful tactic when experiencing your own or the other person's reactivity, is to take a pause to gather your thoughts. This practice can prevent a challenging conversation from spiraling.  When you re-enter the conversation an hour, day or week later, you’re likely to foster greater respect and understanding between you and your team members now that you are both in a calmer state.


After a stressful encounter, our bodies have excess hormones and emotions coursing through them. It’s not always easy to shift gears and start working on the next task or meeting. To help process those feelings so we can focus on what’s next, Candice suggests physical activities that involve the whole body. She notes that our nervous system encompasses the entire body which is why we can feel stress all over.

If you can, take a minute or two to physically expel the stress. Activities like punching a pillow, shaking your arms or running can be beneficial outlets for stressful emotions. Just remember to direct these activities towards inanimate objects and not towards other individuals. 

You can also intentionally put the feelings aside to process later. We don’t want to avoid the feelings, but sometimes we can’t address them in the moment. By acknowledging the feelings and making a commitment to yourself to revisit them, you can give yourself permission to let go of whatever your body is holding onto. 

We are all familiar with the feelings of fear and the various defense mechanisms our bodies have to protect us. Our reactions in those tough moments greatly influence how we interact with others and can sometimes inhibit genuine and open conversation. Understanding and effectively managing stress responses is an invaluable skill for any manager. By recognizing the signs, setting boundaries, fostering a culture of trust and rapport, and finding healthy outlets for emotions, we can build more productive and stress-free workplaces.

Listen to the entire episode HERE to learn more about conflict management.

Keep up with Candice Elliott

- Follow Candice on Instagram and LinkedIn

- Visit her website for more information here

Free 45-Minute Burnout Buster Consult

Candice is offering members of Podcast+ a free Burnout Buster Consult. During this 45-minute session, you’ll identify the most impactful next step you can take toward preventing burnout for you and your team.

To get these guest bonuses and many other member benefits, become a member of The Modern Manager Podcast+ Community.


The Modern Manager is a leadership podcast for rockstar managers who want to create a working environment where people thrive, and great work gets done.

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