‘Houston, we have a problem’ – How to prepare for a stressful conversation in English

Communication strategy is useful for all of us who work in high stakes corporate environments. There is even more pressure on those that have to have stressful meetings and conversations in English when it is not their native language. Some examples of this could include an executive committee meeting, an employee appraisal, or trouble shooting an issue with your global partners. This article explains some strategies that you can use to prepare for these conversations. Go over each point with your language coach or on your own. Try to imagine a stressful conversation scenario related to your job and try to prepare for it with each of the strategies outlined below. Let’s get started!


  • Identify your weaknesses:
    1. Who will you be speaking to in your stressful conversation?
    2. What situation will you be speaking to them in (ie an open meeting in front of others, a private meeting just with one person, a public appearance)
    3. Take a moment to reflect with your coach on what you see as YOUR potential weaknesses in this situation.
    4. List 1 counter offer to each weakness that you identified above.


  • Reflect on how YOU react when you feel vulnerable:
    1. Think about the last time you had a really unpleasant conversation, meeting or interview.
    2. What did you do? How did you react? Do you react like that every time?
    3. List a few things you can do to improve your responses.


  • Rehearse, refine, rephrase:
    1. Get it all out, say what you need to say or what you think you would say in the stressful conversation. Say it to a friend, your coach, or just yourself.
    2. Refine – take out the emotional stuff, identify your core messaging, rephrase your reactions. Rehearse them.
    3. Write down your core messaging to memorize it or in case you need to refer to it in the conversation.


Three main things to consider for managing your stressful conversations, and all communication are: Clarity, Neutrality, and Temperance.


Clarity: What we say


Don’t ‘beat around the bush’. As a leader you will be in a position of having to deliver bad news from time to time. Although you may try to make the news less hurtful by ‘flowering’ your language, it doesn’t help the person that needs to know that they are being fired or have been passed over for a promotion, so be clear. Be kind but be clear. When you are clear you are helping the person receiving the bad news because they are having to do less work to understand what is happening.


Neutrality: How we sound when we say it


In a crisis situation what is the first thing we say, “everyone remain calm”. If you hear someone shout this phrase in a nervous voice you are most likely not going to remain so calm. Stressful conversations can be treated like mini-crises and your tone is a dead giveaway to how you are feeling about what you are saying. If you employ a neutral tone then you transfer less anxiety to your interlocutor. On the famous Appollo 13 space mission the phrase ‘Houston we have a problem’ was used by the astronaut to communicate a very grave issue to the control center (Houston). The tone in this was neutral.




Temperance: The words we choose


Because English is such a large language, we have a variety of words that we can use. The words we employ in a stressful conversation can either help or hinder. Careful reflection of the words you will use in your stressful conversation is a must. Think about what you need to say, then consider whether or not it is the clearest, most neutral way to say it.


Here is an example:

I am very unhappy with your performance lately and we really need to discuss it.




I’d like to sit down with you and look at some of the details around a couple of projects you’ve worked on recently.


If you enjoyed this article take a look at the Harvard Business Review’s 10 Must Reads On Communication for the brilliant article by Holly Weeks entitled, ‘Taking the Stress out of Stressful Conversations’.




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