Social Anxiety – Understanding Phone Fears

For many of us, making a phone call is the least used function of our mobile devices, behind Google, Facebook, texting etc. This is, perhaps, why an increasing number of us, particularly amongst the younger generation, have or are developing, social anxiety around speaking to others over the phone. You might find yourself overthinking and planning the upcoming conversation, with sweaty palms and a racing heart or frequently just hoping that the other person doesn’t answer so that you can leave a message instead.

With the majority of us working from home during lockdown, lots of businesses have found that having staff based remotely has proven cost and time efficient and are now considering these arrangements on a more long-term basis. However, with working from home comes a loss of face to face conversation and the inevitable increase of mobile communication, meaning more anxiety for many people around the world.

So, how can a phone call cause so much anxiety?

Such a large part of general conversation is conveyed through non-verbal communications, including facial expressions, body language and gesticulation, that when forced to communicate without these things, for example, via a phone call, it can be easy to feel misunderstood. Often, it is harder to express what you think about what is being said and to interpret what the other person thinks about what you are saying.

In many ways, this is similar to written communication (e.g. text or email), however, unlike these formats, speaking over the phone comes with added time pressures. Many feel they have to keep the conversation flowing, concerned that, without the body language to imply thought or consideration, an overly long silence could be misconstrued. At the same time, there is an awareness that you are unable to go back and edit what has been said, like you can before sending written communication. This need to respond immediately and lack of editing capability implies a greater chance of failure or embarrassment, as many worry about struggling to put the right words in the right order or simply remembering everything that needs to be said during the conversation.

When simplified, the main cause of phone anxiety is, ultimately, a lack of practice. As the phone call declines in use for day-to-day communication, we find ourselves less tuned in to the subtler etiquette required to confidently communicate over the phone.

Unfortunately, this is why one of the best methods to overcome call anxiety is simply exposure therapy. Although this is easier said than done, it can be as every-day as calling a friendly colleague to update them on a project, rather than dropping them an email or updating the company ‘Slack’.

Often, it can be beneficial to commit to making a call in advance, telling yourself that, if you have to provide an update on a certain project, you’ll make it via phone call by a certain time. Doing this stops you relying simply on will power as the decision to make the phone call, in the future, has already been made. As surprising as it may sound, laying out your intentions like this can mean you are four times more likely to follow through.

Although the decision to make the call has been made in advance, try not to plan the call itself too much. Whilst having a few notes of key discussion points might be helpful for important meetings, attempting to write a script for how you want a phone call to go, can end up making anxiety worse. Going into too much depth helps your mind to wander even more and worry about the extremes of what could go wrong. Additionally, if the conversation then moves away from the plan you have made, it can leave you lost for what to say next.

Many of the best, productive conversations are those where the participants are fully present and engaged, which may not be the case if you are overly focused on a plan. If you are worried about where to start, opening with a question comes across as friendly and is a useful way to draw focus away from yourself. From there, listen carefully, speak clearly, and focus on your ideal outcome for the conversation. Remember, that if you are unsure of the answer to a question, it is perfectly acceptable to let them know you will find out and get back to them or even refer them to someone else who you know will have the answer.

Finally, whilst there are plenty of other tips and tricks out there, the most important is to try and remember some perspective. Most likely, the person on the other end is also just trying to achieve an agreeable outcome before moving on to the next call. They may even want to be on the phone just as little as you do. Ultimately, nobody is perfect, it is normal to pause and have moments of silence, stumble occasionally or change track. These are all accepted parts of everyday conversation, whether in person or over the phone.

If you are a Development Zone user, why not check out our range of business skills courses to help you or your team improve communication skills?

About the author

Chloe is our newest member at RWA, joining us in 2020. Having graduated with a 2:1 in Graphic Communication at the University of South Wales, Chloe assists in the design and content creation of new e-learning modules as well as the re-branding of existing courses.

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