Both making and taking phone calls require skills. Whether you are managing a team responsible for these tasks, or you’re coaching yourself, you need to be able to distinguish between phone phobia/fear and phone anxiety.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, a phobia is a persistent, excessive, unrealistic fear of an object, person, animal, activity or situation.
Anxiety, according to the American Psychiatric Association, is a normal reaction to stress and can be beneficial in some situations. It can alert us to dangers, and help us prepare and pay attention.
When you or your team members experience anxiety around communicating on the phone, you want to acknowledge the negative impact the stress is creating and begin to eliminate it with skills.
How do skills lessen phone anxiety? And what is the process for learning those skills?
Phone calls cause anxiety when someone believes that when the call is answered, they will either do the wrong thing or be treated badly. Here are some of the most common causes of phone anxiety that I have encountered over the past 17 years:
- Say the wrong thing
- Stumble when leaving a message
- Be laughed at or thought foolish by the person they’re calling
- Be unable to answer a question
- Say the person’s name incorrectly, or forget it altogether
- Be treated with anger or disrespect
- Lose their voice
- Forget why they called or what they want to say
- Speak at length with the wrong person
- Have the other person hang up on them
- Be unable to connect with the right person
- Run into a “gatekeeper”, receptionist, assistant, or family member that insists they leave a message
The first step to lessen the anxiety is to identify the specific cause.
Knowing exactly where and when the stress occurs allows you to focus on providing or acquiring the necessary skill.
For example, if the stress level is high because you are worried about how you pronounce names, you can:
- Ask colleagues for help – they might be familiar with the name.
- Use a name pronunciation tool, such as Name Shouts, Pronounce Names or How to Pronounce Names
- When encountering a name that is new to you, know that you can ask for help: “I’m not familiar with your name” or “I’ve never heard that name before. Can you spell it for me? And is this how to pronounce it?” (Here’s where you give it a try. You might be wrong but the other person will always appreciate the effort.)
- Once you hear the name pronounced, make a record of it phonetically, so you have this available the next time you speak with that customer or prospect. (e.g. Mary Jane is “Mare- EEE Jay-N”)
No matter what the anxiety is, the skill needed to eliminate it will need to be practiced.
Managers can help individuals practice as a group or individually. They can set up “phone buddies” – team members that can role-play the skills together to create more confidence.
Also, whenever possible, don’t set someone up to be the only person in the office making and receiving calls. This always raises the anxiety level. Knowing that others can hear every conversation you are having throughout the day can really make phone work untenable.
Always be patient, with yourself and with team members. Everyone learns new skills at a different pace.
Finally, there’s a very “silly” trick that often provides the perfect support for those experiencing phone anxiety. When we rely heavily on body language, using the phone as a communication tool can be very daunting. So can the prospect of encountering someone who’s unfriendly or cranky. To create more confidence, simply cut two photos out of a magazine, one of a smiling man and the other of a smiling woman. (No one famous, that will only increase the anxiety.) Look at these photos when you make or take calls. You’ll instantly feel more relaxed.
If you are looking for specific words and phrases that can be used in your phone conversations, I provide many of them in my book, The Phone Book, which you can discover here.
There’s one more barrier that coaches and individuals encounter when it comes to phone work: call reluctance. I’ll be sharing ideas on dealing with this challenge in my next post.