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Why do we get anxious about picking up the phone at work?

Close up of pensive millennial African American woman talk on smartphone thinking of idea or news, serious black female speak over cell, lost in thoughts considering something. Technology concept
Much of our communication relies on non-verbal cues, which can be easily missed when talking on the phone. Photo: Getty

We message colleagues via Slack (WORK), post our political leanings and views on Twitter (TWTR) and share personal pictures on Instagram and Facebook (FB). Yet for a lot of people, the thought of answering a ringing phone or having to call someone leaves us with a churning stomach.

Despite spending most of our time within arm’s reach of our phones, many of us dread actually making a call or listening to voicemail messages. It’s likely the calling function on your smartphone is one of the least used behind messaging, email and social media, as we find other ways to avoid speaking on it.

“Many people get anxious about phone calls, even those who have to use their phones for work on a regular basis,” says Ruth Kudzi, an author, mindset coach and coaching trainer who is trained in both psychology and neuroscience.

Telephone phobia, the fear of phone conversations, can be an aspect of social anxiety too. Fears that they are intruding, being unintentionally rude, or even that their voice sounds funny can keep people from making a call.

“Many go into a panic when they hear the phone ring and would much prefer to text the caller later - rather than pick it up first time,” she says. “This could be due to a fear of embarrassment, being caught off guard and worrying about what the call may be about or what to say ‘off the cuff’.”

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For some people, hearing the sound of their own voice can be disconcerting and lead to worry about how they might come across. “This overthinking can then lead to rehearsing what you have to say and this leads to heightened anxiety and stress levels, which can cause physical fear - sweats, shaky voice, stumbling over their words, making the experience not pleasant,” Kudzi says.

“Equally, when we have phone calls in our diary that are other people’s agendas, we may start to go to the worst case scenario and this can create feelings of anxiety around phone calls,”

Kudzi says. “Psychologically, if we are feeling vulnerable we often look at what we can control and we can’t control if someone phones you, there is an element of surprise and this may increase feelings of anxiety.”

Much of our communication relies on non-verbal cues, which can be easily missed when talking on the phone.

If you’re talking to someone in person who is stressed, anxious, happy or angry, you can usually tell by their body language — but it is far harder to read people’s emotions simply by listening to their voice. This uncertainty can add to the stress of making a call. And if we’ve had negative experiences of phone calls, it can also lead us to associate speaking on the phone with bad news, triggering fear and anxiety.

Unfortunately, whether it’s ringing your doctor or a client, calling people up can be unavoidable. And it might be something we should think twice about avoiding too, particularly in these isolating times under COVID-19 restrictions.

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According to researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, people too often opt to send an email or a text when a phone call is more likely to produce the feelings of connectedness they crave.

Often, the outcome of a phone call is far less negative than we think too. In one experiment, the Texas researchers asked 200 people to make predictions about what it would be like to reconnect with an old friend either via email or phone, and then they randomly assigned them to actually do it.

Even though participants intuited that a phone call would make them feel more connected, they still said they would prefer to email because they expected calling would be too awkward.

“When it came to actual experience, people reported they did form a significantly stronger bond with their old friend on the phone versus email, and they did not feel more awkward”, says researcher Amit Kumar, a McCombs School of Business assistant professor of marketing.

So how can we challenge limiting beliefs around phone calls - and make calling people less intimidating?

“Cognitive restructuring involves challenging beliefs and replacing negative thoughts with more truths and realities. Many times, the worry before the phone call is often not what happens on the actual call,” Kudzi says.

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As is the case for getting used to many anxiety-inducing activities, starting off small is key.“Practice — call a family member or friend that you know well and trust — get used to hearing your own voice out loud,” Kudzi advises. “Think about the outcome. What would a good outcome be for this phone call?”

It also helps to prepare if you are the one making the phone call. Take down a few notes of what you want to say, or what you want to find out from the call. It can help to have a few pre-prepared lines you can use to spark a conversation or bring one to an end.

“Listen to colleagues or friends when they are on the phone and learn from them,” Kudzi says.

“And remember that you don’t have to answer every phone call - often when we are on the go and already busy this can heighten our fear and the element of surprise.”

Careers Clinic
Careers Clinic