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The Fear of Verbal Communication

Libby is a big believer in connection—especially as it relates to the universe giving you exactly what you need when you need it.

I, personally, fall a bit more on the pragmatic side. Yet, I am a big believer in the Baader Meinhof effect.

Are you familiar with it? I bet you are even if you're more familiar with its colloquial definition—the phenomenon where something you saw, experienced, or learned starts showing up EVERYWHERE.

You buy a new car and suddenly see it all over the road.

You get pregnant and, suddenly, it feels like you're surrounded by pregnant bellies.

You know that feeling?

So after listening to a random podcast yesterday that I did not pick out myself about an adult man who still relied on his parents to make phone calls for him, a headline Libby posted on Instagram today instantly grabbed my attention: Hiker lost for 24 hours ignored rescuers' calls because 'they didn't recognize the number'

Did your jaw also drop like mine?

After I picked my jaw up, I thought back to the podcast and realized that I shouldn't have been that shocked.

In spite of the overwhelming prevalence of smartphones, we don't actually use the phone part very often anymore.

Heck, many of us are scared of the phone.

In fact, a recent survey showed 76% of millennial office workers experienced anxiety when they heard the phone ring.

But it's not just a millennial problem.

In spite of spending hours on the phone in their youth tying up the party lines, 40% of Baby Boomers also experienced phone anxiety.

And Gen Z that's soon coming into the workplace? It's expected their phobias will be even higher. This is the generation born into technology with many owning smartphones before they hit their teens yet few have actually used the phone function.

So, what causes this anxiety?

It's likely you've heard over and over again that a majority of communication is expressed non-verbally, so it's not surprising to fear the one mode of communication that is strictly verbal.

We fear judgment.

That we will be viewed negatively.

That we'll say the wrong thing.

That our voice will sound weird.

Yes, you could also argue texting and emailing also lack the non-verbal cues so important to effective communication, but those both give us the opportunity to take our time, review, and revise if needed.

Hearing that phone ringing puts us on the spot and our flight or fight comes out with many of us choosing the third option: freeze.

So maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise that the phone became the Jan Brady of office communication during the pandemic.

After almost two years of many of us working remotely, instant messaging has appeared to replace hallway run-ins and office drop-ins while Zoom has become the de facto in-person meeting.

Should we just rename the smartphone and let it go the way of the dodo bird?

Not so fast.

The phone has its place and it's time to bring it back to Marsha, Marsha, Marsha status.

How many messages or emails have you had to send back and forth to either make arrangements for a meeting, clarify or explain something, or get your point across?

Instant messages and emails do not always save time.

How exhausted do you feel after a day of Zoom meetings starring at yourself and your colleagues?

Zoom meetings are a pain to organize, add an air of formality we don't always need, require you to sit at your desk, and cause fatigue.

What's the answer? You know the answer, but I'll tell you why.

The phone is the MUCH better option when:

  • You need to have a quick discussion without formality

  • You need a quick answer or clarification about something

  • You need to make arrangements that you know will require a lot of back and forth if done through written communication

  • You need to convey tone/emotion to avoid misunderstandings

  • You need immediate feedback (instant messaging does not always mean IMMEDIATE two-way messaging)

  • You don't need to see each other

  • You don't need to sit in front of your computer

  • You don't need to share your screen

But, here's the thing... we develop fear and anxiety around things when we don't do often (there's a reason public speaking is the #1 fear—it's because most of us aren't doing it every day!), so we need to practice and challenge ourselves and each other to embrace the phone again or else the phobia and anxiety will continue and, potentially, get worse.

It's up to you to save the phone from its dodo fate.

Here are a few tips to help you and your team re-incorporate the phone:

  • Explain the Why?, When?, and What? - Take the opportunity during a team meeting to have a discussion with everyone about why it's important to include the phone as a means of communication, when it's best to use the phone, and what you can talk about, as well as what you can do to alleviate phone anxiety. Even better, have your team identify and answer these questions

  • Set expectations and guidelines - After discussing the benefits and situations where phone would be best, set out some expectations and guidelines for what mode of communication is best for different scenarios, so team members know what to expect and get into the habit of selecting the best communication method.

  • Practice what you preach - This one should be obvious, but if you're preaching the benefits of phone use, you need to embrace it yourself by not only answering the phone, but also phoning others.

Is that last suggestion making you feel anxious already?

Here are a few tips to help you in the moment:

Before the call:

  • Practice breathing - Take some deep breaths and get grounded. Here's a great grounding exercise to try.

  • Write out bullet points - It may sound silly, but having bullet points in front of you of what you want to talk about can give you confidence, help steer the conversation, and ensure you don't forget anything.

During the call:

  • Practice with people you feel comfortable with - Start picking up the phone more with those you feel comfortable with. Soon, you'll find that you feel more comfortable with the phone itself and not just those on the other end.

  • Use a handsfree option - It's time to invest in headphones if you haven't yet. If you don't have to worry about holding the phone, then you'll be able to speak more naturally incorporating hand gestures if that's what's more comfortable for you.

  • SMILE - Not only does smiling put you in a better mood, it's also contagious AND the person on the other end can actually feel you smiling. Not only that, astute ears can even discern what type of smile you have on your face.

Want to talk more about this and other leadership topics, call me. The number is in the signature. I'll answer. Seriously.



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