Anxiety Pt. 3: Here’s what to say when you don’t know what to say


Have you ever noticed how easy it is to snap at someone or get tongue-tied when you’re stressed?

A colleague on my team,  Jamie-Clare de la Chapelle, is back to share—what to say when you don’t know what to say!

Inevitably, if you’re  stressed, you may struggle to find the right words. When you’ve been in survival mode for a long time, it can be difficult to “switch off” the anxiety that once seemed necessary—and step into a space of self confidence and peace. The more you trust yourself, the better you will be at communicating your thoughts effectively. 

So how exactly do you build self trust…? And what do you do in the moments you don’t know what to say?

In moments of high stress, we biologically  enter “protection mode.” Your brain recognizes  that tension and does NOT want to go back there! So it only makes sense that when conflict arises, your stressed brain would place higher focus on making sure you’re safe, rather than articulate.  

When you’re overwhelmed, instead of focusing on what you should say next,  shift your focus to the other person. Listen deeply and repeat back what you heard them say.  Let them know you heard them, ask for time. Give yourself time to come out of overwhelm, and  follow up when you’re clear about your answer.  

Creativity emerges in a relaxed place—that’s why so many companies take their people on “off-sites.” You will only be able to access the creativity and brain power you need to communicate effectively when you feel energized and are resourceful—not when you’re feeling triggered by the tension of high-stakes conversations. 

All the personal power you need to address your anxiety is already within you.



Doctor Neha Sangwan: So, go ahead and tell me—what was your other question?

Jamie-Clare de la Chapelle (coaching client): So I’ve heard you talk a lot about the “secret body signals” —you’ve said that I need to tap into my secret power and listen to my body signals when I’m anxious. To listen when my body is telling me that maybe I’m not being true to myself.

I’ve been doing that actively, but I still notice a struggle…

I actually asked my husband about this, because he knows me creepily well. He said something along the lines of like, “When you are in a conflict situation, you don’t have the eloquence of speech that you do when you’re not anxious.”

He has always said that when I’m in a conversation with my brothers, he says I don’t express my viewpoint very well. He’s pointed out that he thinks I’m normally so eloquent, but when I’m anxious, he has noticed this about me that I don’t express myself well.

So for example, I got frustrated on work call at some point a couple of weeks ago, and I was telling him about it. Well, he mentioned this again, saying, “When you get anxious, sometimes you need to take a minute away and decide what you’re going to say. You’re very eloquent, you know what you’re thinking—you just don’t say it well in those moments of tension or moments of anxiety.”

So my question is—when I do feel those body signals, and I know that I’m not expressing myself entirely, but I don’t really know how to express myself in the moment…

Do you have some ideas for me as to how to eloquently say, “I don’t know how to express myself right now”?

Or how to take a moment away from the conversation to collect myself. Do you have any tips for me?

Doctor Neha: Absolutely.

So, the beautiful part is that you ARE eloquent, you ARE able to express yourself in conflict—there’s just some experience that happens for you that hijacks you for a moment.

I refer to as an “amygdala hijack.” So for a brief moment in time, you are unable to articulate as well. You’re actually in protection mode. Your system has been triggered, and you go into protection mode.

So in that space, what’s really usually effective is unhooking from yourself, and just going into focus on the other person. For example, saying something like “What I hear is your frustration and upset, I hear your anger, your disappointment… What I really hear you value is integrity, timeliness, efficiency.”

So, unhook from you for a moment and focus on the other person entirely. Then you can say, “This is new information. I just need some time to process it, and I will follow up with you later today.

Or, “I want to sleep on this overnight, I’ll have a fresh perspective in the morning, and I’d be happy to get back to you then. I’ll shoot you an email.”

What you do when you buy yourself time is you don’t leave them hanging. You let them know that they were heard. You just don’t have to have an answer right now.

Jamie-Clare: That feels wrong to not have an answer.

Doctor Neha: Oh, that’s interesting. That’s a different issue—which is okay. Thinking that you have to have a “right answer” NOW.

And when you don’t have an answer, you want to acknowledge for yourself, “Wow, that’s something that triggered me.”

Get curious about why it triggered you, why you’re trying to bulldoze over that biological amygdala hijack that just happened. You want it to all be different than it is.

Rather than saying, “Okay, this might have triggered an event that happened earlier that kind of stunned me, that surprised me, that may have taken me out of my element. I want to honor that that’s true,” — because as soon as you start partnering with your body,  Jamie-Clare, everything’s gonna start working synergistically.

But the more you resist that tension in that moment, you should know the harder this is going to become and the less articulate you’re going to become. The moment you lean into the uncomfortability you are feeling, you can repeat back to me something thoughtful like,

“Oh, wow, Neha, it sounds like what you value is structure and timeliness and goals. It sounds to me like you feel disappointed in what you’re seeing in what we’re discussing, give me a little bit of time to just kind of think through it, process it and see if I can expand my perspective around that…

“Tomorrow, I’ll shoot you an email and talk to you about some other ideas that I come up with.”

NOW, what you’ve done is shown me that you heard me. I feel heard, because you’ve articulated to me what you’re going to do in the interim and given me a timeline of when to expect to hear from you. That is all I need! That’s all you owe the person.

And then you just bought yourself time to understand what happened for you, why you got emotional or heated quickly. Then, when you’re not in a triggered state, when you’re not feeling panicked about disappointing someone—now, you’re going to only be able to be creative and innovative in a space where your body’s not on overdrive.

Overdrive puts you in survival mode and drains you of energy. Creativity is born from inspiration, space, relaxation, openness—that’s where creativity comes in.

Jamie-Clare: Absolutely…

Doctor Neha: Tell me what resonated with you. Anything work for you? Any other thoughts on that?

Jamie-Clare: Well, I know this sounds crazy, but I never thought about the fact that it’s not “wrong” for me not to have a response right now. It is *okay* for me to not know what to say—that’s not “incorrect.”

I haven’t made a mistake just because I don’t know what to say right now—that concept is kind of foreign to me. I don’t know how I’ve never realize that about myself!

Doctor Neha: Interesting.

Well, I will tell you as a doctor and an engineer, you’re supposed to solve the equation. As a doctor, you’re supposed to have the answer. Even when there’s unthinkable things, people die, and you don’t know why.

What I will tell you is in my years of doing this, I don’t trust someone who always has the answer. You know who I trust?

I trust someone who gives me the answer when they’ve got the answer. Who says they don’t know when they don’t know.

In fact, someone who tells me they don’t know on occasion… When they do tell me something? I know that they actually know it, because they’re they’re willing to say, “I don’t know,” when they don’t have the answer.

You should be a little weary, because nobody always has the answer. We’re all just figuring it out.

Jamie-Clare: Yeah, you’re right. We’re all just kind of playing dress up.

Doctor Neha: We’re learning, and every day, we grow and learn and get better.

It’s really about where we are right now, who we are, what experience we’ve had. And can we say with certainty, what we know to be true right now. And sometimes, the truth is, “I don’t know.” And that’s okay, too!

Thank you,  J.C. Thank you for your questions. Thank you for your presence, your vulnerability, and your willingness to do this so that so many other people can learn.

Jamie-Clare: Absolutely. Thank you for your wisdom. I appreciate your time.

Doctor Neha: Absolutely. Thank you, Jamie-Clare.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Sign Up For Our Newsletter


Related Posts

Subscribe To Our Weekly Newsletter

Get notified about new articles.