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Phone Call Anxiety is The Worst. Here's How to Get Over it.

First thing's first: Don't avoid your ringing phone.

by Gretchen Brown
July 11, 2019 | Work

For all intents and purposes, James Sinkel is an extrovert. He had no problem giving the best man speech in front of 300 people at a wedding a few weeks ago.

But get him on the phone and that all changes. He freezes up. He forgets what he’s supposed to say.

“I used to offer to buy pizza if someone would call it in,” said Sinkel, 30.

Trevor Woggon, 28, is the same way. He’s jovial and outgoing, and talks to folks on the phone all day for his job.

But after hours, good luck finding him on the phone.

“Restaurant reservations? Is there a website? Buying something online? God, I hope they have email,” he said.

That millennials hate talking on the phone is so well-documented in the press, it’s practically a meme.

But it’s backed up by data. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, 18 to 29-year-olds use their phone for texting more than anything else.

Illustration of woman talking on her desk phone at work. Phone Call Anxiety pbs rewire
Many folks are scared of talking on the phone because they worry things will go wrong. But few people have actually had a genuinely, terribly bad conversation.

That’s made us anxious when we do have to jump on the line.

Four in five 22 to 37-year-olds sometimes feel anxious to pick up the phone, according to a BankMyCell survey.

“This is not some sign that you’re an introvert or that you’re socially awkward,” said Celeste Headlee, a journalist, professional speaker and author. “It’s just a reflection of the culture that we live in right now.”

Sure, there are workarounds (you can order pizza online, if you need to). But there are times — especially if you work in an office — when phone calls are unavoidable.

Luckily, there are ways to get comfortable with them again.

1. Stop avoiding them

This might seem counter-intuitive. (“I already said I hate phone calls, and now you want me to make more?”) But Headlee said the best way to get comfortable making calls is for it to be less of an anomaly.

Sunnie Bergh, 27, always answers the phone immediately, as soon as it rings. That’s her trick.

“Sounds small and silly, but if I wait, I get more nervous and debate letting it go to voicemail,” she said.

That way, she doesn’t even have time to think about being nervous.

When you’re doing something regularly, it becomes mundane. The anxiety drops.

But that’s easier said than done. At times, the anxiety can feel worse in open offices, where you get the sense that everyone is listening in on your call (even if they’re likely not).

That’s the experience Michelle Garrett had. So she started finding a quiet place to talk — an empty conference room, outside, or even made calls during the lunch hour, when everyone else was away.

“I was never comfortable with others knowing my business, but there are times when you may just have to make the call from your desk,” she said. “If you do, know that others probably aren't paying that much attention to what you're talking about.”

2. Be prepared

Headlee often trains radio hosts, who try to write out all their questions ahead of the interview, thinking they won’t be prepared otherwise.

But it doesn’t quite work that way. You don’t know what the other person is going to say.

Instead, write out a list of the main things you want to talk about.

Heather Taylor, a communications coordinator, drafts up a personal agenda before calls — the who, what, when, where and why. This helps her stay focused and on-point during the conversation.

“I also find it is helpful to have a hard stop to a call,” Taylor said. “If the conversation is slated to be 30 minutes long, then all individuals on the call should try to respect the start and finish time by dialing in on time and providing a five minute reminder before the call wraps on next steps moving forward.”

Woggon said calls sometimes feel like an intrusion on peoples’ time. They certainly can be, depending on the situation. Other times, email can draw out a conversation much longer than it needs to be.

If you want to be extra thoughtful about a person’s time, you can always send them a quick email to see if they’re free to chat. That way, you know you’re catching them at a good time.

3. Don’t worry about things going wrong

Sinkel is a teacher, so when he’s on the phone at work, it is usually bad news — telling on a kid to their parent.

He uses email when possible.

“I think it’s the lack of body language,” he said. “I have no idea what they are actually thinking.”

While it’s true that talking on the phone takes away that form of communication, the voice also comes with its own body language.

Headlee said you’re likely reading people better than you think.

“Think about the last time you called your friend, and they said ‘Hello,’ and you said, ‘What’s wrong?’” Headlee said. “The sound of your voice is packed with complex information and data.”

Many folks are scared of talking on the phone because they worry things will go wrong. But few people have actually had a genuinely, terribly bad conversation. They’re mediocre at the worst.

Headlee compares it to public speaking.

“It’s not that you’re going to get better and better until nothing goes wrong and you won’t say anything stupid anymore, you will,” she said. “It’s just that doing it again and again makes you realize that making those mistakes is really not that big of a deal.”

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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