Sometimes when people are under stress, they hate to think, and it’s the time when they most need to think.

— William J. Clinton

A few years ago I was working in very stressful office with someone with a very different personality type than mine. 

I wanted everyone to get along; she wanted everyone to finish things on time.

I was focused on people and relationships; she was very focused on tasks and details. 

I was concerned about how people felt about their jobs; she was concerned about people getting their jobs done. 

One day during a particularly stressful period in our office, I came back from a break to find a note from her that was particularly harsh. I’m sure it wasn’t intended that way, but after many similar interactions with her, I finally had to talk with her about it.

The more stressed out we had become, the more entrenched we’d each become in to our own viewpoint and it had finally come to a head.

What Stress Really Is

We’ve all been in a similar situation. 

Somebody says something that normally wouldn’t bother us and we blow up at them. 

Someone asks us to do that one extra task that ends up being the straw that breaks the camel’s back. 

We get that one extra request and we start mumbling to ourselves about blowing up the building a la Office Space.

A working definition of stress is:
The feeling you get when you believe that you don’t have what you need (e.g. time, money, help, etc.) to do what you need to do.

Too much demand + too few resources = Stress.

But in reality, stress is a socially acceptable form of FEAR. 

Stress is fear with a three-piece suit on, a Bluetooth in its ear, and a Starbucks in its hand. TWEET THIS!

But still fear.

And anytime we are reacting out of fear, we think we can’t tell the truth because bad things will happen. So we communicate in ways that are out of sync with how we really feel and most of the time we don’t even notice we’re doing it. 

Stress, Miscommunication, and Your Personality

Stress-induced miscommunication happens differently in each of the Personality types. 

The personality types you will see below are described in terms of the element of nature that their personality most closely resembles – Earth, Air, Water or Fire. In my personality system that I use with coaching clients, I call this their Strongest Element. (Click here to take the Quiz and find out which is YOUR Strongest Element. It’s quick.)

The Earth Element

Earth Element personalities are drawn to order, structure and tradition. They are highly dependable, responsible, and reliable. They respect authority. They love crossing off their to-do lists. They are parental. On a bad day, they can be stubborn martyrs. But like the Earth, they are solid and stable.

How They Communicate When Stressed:
•    They become martyr-ish and talk about how much they do for others.
•    They talk about physical ailments instead of emotional issues.
•    They become highly critical of themselves and others.

What They Are Thinking:
“It would be rude to tell the truth about how stressed I am and what I need. I’ll probably never get it anyway.”

The Water Element

These people are sympathetic, caring listeners. You feel comfortable confiding in them instantly. They focus on developing potential – in themselves and in others. They are romantic, compassionate and empathetic. On a bad day they are fickle drama queens. But like an ocean wave on a summer day, they are warm and nurturing.

How They Communicate When Stressed:
•    They talk about how worried they are about letting others down.
•    They talk about how afraid they are of hurting people’s feelings.
•    They talk about wanting to escape and “get away from it all.”

What They Are Thinking:
“If I tell the truth about how stressed I am, I will let people down. That would be unbearable.”

The Air Element

Air Elements are open-minded, logical, rational people. They consider all sides of a situation before making decisions. They research. They are experts in whatever they are passionate about. They explore big ideas. They are intellectual and academic by nature and comfortable with complexity. On a bad day they can be sarcastic perfectionists. But like a wide-open sky, they are all about possibilities.

How They Communicate When Stressed:
•    They become super sarcastic.
•    They become so focused on perfection that they are unable to move forward with anything or make decisions.
•    They stop talking to others completely.

What They Are Thinking:
“Talking about this stress is a waste of time because no one understands the complexity of what I’m dealing with.”

The Fire Element

Fire Element personalities are always in motion. They are energetic go-getters. Of all personality types, Fire Elements are the most comfortable with change. They are determined, resourceful and able to rebuild easily. Naturally optimistic and charismatic, they are often the life of the party. On a bad day they can be competitive and self-destructive, but like a roaring bonfire, they are magnetic and dynamic.

How They Communicate When Stressed:
•    They swear more.
•    They lose their temper and yell at people.
•    They are more likely to do self-destructive things like drinking too much or doing recreational drugs. They will invite you to party with them, because “the more the merrier.”

What They Are Thinking:
“I am sick of stressing myself out jumping through hoops for these people; time to blow off some steam.”

So, how do you talk to these different personality types when they are stressed out? How do you diffuse it? 

The answer is simple.


Take responsibility for your own perception, look at the stresses YOU are dealing with, and check in with the other person. Nine times out of ten, the other person didn’t actually realize they were dumping their stress on you.

And now that you know what real stress looks like in each of the personality types, you can tell when the person is communicating with you from their heart or from their stress. 

Now it’s your turn. How do you communicate when you are stressed? What do you do to deal with your stress? Let me know in the comments below.

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