| March 12, 2015

Money & Career, Professional Skills, Relationships & Family, Social Skills

How to Overcome Phone Shyness

vintage Man on telephone small smile on face

The interesting thing about shyness is that you can have it in uneven forms. That is, you might be completely comfortable talking in front of hundreds of people, but feel anxious talking to someone one-on-one. Or you might be very comfortable having conversations face-to-face, but feel practically panicked about picking up the phone to call someone.

Do you fall into the latter category? Does the very prospect of calling someone, even just to order pizza, get your heart pounding and fill you with dread and stress-inducing cortisol? Do you consequently put off making phone calls as long as you can?

If so, the digital age has been a terrific boon to you. Phone use has greatly gone down and been replaced with emailing and texting. Yet there remain occasions where we have to get on the horn with people, and being phone phobic can still be a handicap that keeps you from taking care of necessary life tasks (calling to make a doctor’s appointment) and deprives you of opportunities (calling to follow-up on a job application).

If calling people makes you nervous, today we’ll talk about what causes this type of shyness, and how to overcome it.

What Causes Phone Shyness?

There may be as many reasons for phone shyness as there are people who suffer from it. Maybe you had a bad experience with receiving harassing phone calls from a significant other, or got yelled at a lot over the phone at a customer service job, and the thought of being on the phone has become associated with stress and negativity.

Most commonly, though, phone shyness simply comes down to how limited it is as a form of communication. When we speak to people face-to-face, our gestures, body language, and especially our facial expressions play a huge role in getting across what we have to say. On the phone, however, we are forced to communicate through our voices alone. This can create a lot of pressure: Will I remember what I want to say? Will I speak clearly and will they understand what I’m trying to get across or find out? This is especially the case if there’s something about your voice you don’t like or that makes you hard to understand; maybe you mumble, have a speech impediment, talk too fast, speak too softly, or sound like a woman or a prepubescent teen when in fact you’re a grown man.

This is compounded by having to navigate the unknown. When you place a call, you don’t know for sure what’s going on at the other end of the line. Who will pick up? Will you get their voicemail? Will you be able to get a hold of the person you’re looking for? Will they be receptive to your call, or will you be interrupting them?

Thus, phone shyness is caused by knowing you will be judged based solely on your voice, and not knowing what’s going to happen when the line is picked up.

How to Overcome Phone Shyness

As with other types of shyness, there’s no magic bullet to overcoming phone phobia, but there are several things you can do to manage it.

Before You Call

Do some tactical breathing to calm your nerves. If you get clammy hands and heart palpitations even contemplating dialing the phone, do some relaxation exercises before placing a call. One thing that helps is “tactical breathing” (so named because it’s a technique that soldiers and police officers use to quickly calm down and stay focused during firefights). Here’s how to do it:

  1. Slowly inhale a deep breath for 4 seconds.
  2. Hold the breath in for 4 seconds.
  3. Slowly exhale the breath out for 4 seconds.
  4. Hold the empty breath for 4 seconds.
  5. Repeat until your breathing is under control.

Create a “script” of what you want to say. Writing out what you want say takes away some of the unknown, and makes you feel more confident you’ll be able to remember and clearly convey what you hope to get across during the call.

Write out your “opening” word for word, as this can be the hardest part of the call; once you’re over that threshold, you’ll often feel less nervous. In your opening you want to convey who you are, where you’re calling from, and/or what you are calling about. For example:

“Hi, my name is Jared Smith and I submitted an application for your job opening last week. I was wondering if you’ve had a chance to review it yet?”

After you write your opening, make a list of key points you’d like to bring up during the call. Try to anticipate what the person on the other end might ask you, and what you’d like to say in response. Mark down numbers and names you might be asked to give. If you’re making a social call, say, to the gal you like, write down possible conversation topics and questions you can ask her to keep things flowing.

Add as much detail as you’d like to your “script.” You won’t likely be able to read it word for word, but it will give you a feeling of confidence as you go into the call.

Rehearse. If you’re especially nervous, try rehearsing your opening before making your call. Hold the phone to your ear and speak into it to make it as realistic as possible.

Call someone you’re comfortable speaking to on the phone first. Right before you have to call a stranger/someone who makes you nervous, call someone up like a family member or significant other that you feel completely comfortable talking to over the phone. After a short chat with them, immediately make the other call.

This is a very effective technique for calming your phone shyness, as the first call soothes the part of your brain that associates being on the phone with stress.

During the Call

Walk around and make gestures. Studies have found that when your arms and hands are constrained while you communicate (like when you put your hands in your pockets), you feel more nervous and use more language fillers (like “ummmms”). This is because you’re unable to gesticulate and thus are less confident your message is getting across. So even though the person you’re talking to can’t see your body language, gesticulate anyway to make yourself feel better.

Walking around seems to help loosen you up as well.

Smile. While we often think we only smile in response to feelings of calmness and happiness, smiling can actually create these feelings. Research shows that smiling during stressful activities, even if it’s completely fake, decreases your heart rate and stress level. Plus, you’ll sound warmer to the person on the other end of the line.

Look in the mirror as you talk. Part of what creates anxiety during phone calls is that the only feedback you get is the person’s voice; you can’t see the facial expressions they’re making as you speak. Thus, looking at yourself in the mirror can help make you feel less awkward; rather than talking into an empty abyss, it tricks your brain into thinking you’re talking to another human face-to-face (who looks friendly and handsome enough!).

As a bonus, the aforementioned studies on forced smiling showed that its happiness-inducing effect is increased when you watch yourself grin in the mirror.

Practice. Folks with phone shyness are often given the advice to get a job where they’ll have to make a lot of phone calls; regular practice in this capacity, it’s figured, will assuredly break down the person’s phone phobia over time. It may work, but I’ve known two phone-shy people who got jobs that required extensive phone conversations, and while they didn’t have a problem making calls on the job, it didn’t help them feel any more comfortable making calls outside their cubicle. The reason for this is that the role offered by a job gives you some distance from yourself; it’s almost like someone else is making the calls, so you don’t feel as nervous.

Regular daily practice as “yourself” may be more effective. Set a goal to make one phone call a day. An easy way to do this is to call a business and ask what their hours are. “Hi, I was just wondering what time you close today.” Just one line, that’s it. Work your way into doing calls that require longer openings, and more back and forth. Find reasons to call customer service. Make appointments.

Of course, perhaps the best technique for overcoming shyness in making phone calls is marrying someone who’s willing to let you delegate most of that duty to them. That’s what my phone phobic wife, who offered many of the field-tested tips for this post, does. Thanks Kate — I think I’ll go order us a pizza to celebrate finishing this article…

Last updated: July 25, 2016


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