Skip to main content

Two Female FriendsThis blog post was written by Alicia Cassels, 4-H Extension Specialist and Assistant Professor, Curriculum at West Virginia University

Stress has a profound impact on our ability to effectively communicate.  Regardless of how well we have mastered the art of communication, turn the dial on the stress level to “overload” and accessing our best communication skills becomes more challenging.

When faced with stress overload, we experience physiological and psychological responses which contribute to what Dr. Jane Riffe calls “The Crunch.”   When operating in “The Crunch” or under stress, many people experience a loss in the ability to access communication skills they would otherwise typically display, falling instead into default communication patterns which may be negative and self-defeating.   These patterns tend to re-emerge in times of stress.

The loss in ability to access effective communication skills when they are needed most can be more than frustrating.  Self-defeating communication patterns may lead to poor relationships, health problems, issues in the workplace, and other negative outcomes.

Identifying the default communication strategies that we most commonly employ when in “The Crunch” is important in building an understanding of how we might improve.

For a quick assessment of your most-used default patterns, take a look at the strategies below.

Dr. Riffe Jane Riffe highlights 5 “Losing Agendas” from the work of Terri Real.   Which self-defeating strategies tend to be your defaults?


  1. Being Right: When operating on this losing agenda individuals focus on working to prove that they are right. This strategy may lead to anger, frustration, and ongoing arguments.
  1. Controlling the other person: When operating on this agenda individuals try to get others to do what they want through means which may include manipulation.
  1. Unbridled self-expression: When operating on this agenda individuals behave as though spontaneously sharing all of their thoughts constitutes productive communication. This strategy may result withdrawal by the other party.
  1. Retaliation: With this strategy the goal is to make others feel the way you feel. Retaliation may come in the form of verbal attach, financial or physical attack.  The goal is payback.
  1. Withdrawal: With this strategy individuals refuse to address issues.


Dr. Riffe recommends a RECIPE for effective communication which includes Reflective listening, Encouragement, Compromise and cooperation, I messages, Practice and Engagement.

To learn more about this RECIPE and other effective strategies for communicating in “The Crunch”, watch OneOp webinar: Communication “In the Crunch”.


Try one of the resources below for improving communication:

Futris, Ted. 9 Important Skills for Every Relationship (Downloadable Tip Sheet)

Real, Terrence (2007). The New Rules of Marriage: What You Need to Know to Make Love Work. Ballentine Books: New York.

Riffe, J. (2015).Reflect!  Keep Calm and Carry On. (3 Mindfulness Podcasts) Extension Military Families Network

This MFLN-Military Caregiving concentration blog post was published on June 24, 2016.