Sun, Oct 30, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Putting an end to phone phobia

Even with e-mail, telephones still dominate commercial life. Many people, however, have hang-ups about using them

By Anna Melville-James  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Don't you need to make a work-related call right now? Get the number, pick up the receiver, dial and speak. If you're still reading this, chances are you are one of a number of people for whom using the phone is an anxious prospect.

Telephones dominate the modern working world, from front desk to freelancer to corporate head honcho. And admitting you're not comfortable chatting to a disembodied voice through a plastic banana is tantamount to admitting you still use flint tools. With endemic phone use, it is the anxiety that dare not speak its name. Well, not into a receiver, anyway.

"I definitely have phone anxiety," says Alicia, an advertising agency company director. "I avoid using the phone if I possibly can, particularly when contacting clients. I'm quite embarrassed by this. Presumably, I should at least pretend to be supremely confident on the phone."

Lucie, a sales manager, also owned up.

"The phone makes me irrationally nervous, I see it as a threat," she said.

Another told my answerphone that she routinely prays that the recipient of her call doesn't pick up.

The symptoms are familiar to anyone who dreads the dialling tone. Procrastination, pacing, a thumping heart and cowering behind e-mail are some of the initial reactions. Pluck up the courage to call, and stumbling conversation, a blank mind and the feeling that the person on the other end is bored, irritated or not listening, are commonly recounted.

I once white-knuckled a receiver so tightly I got cramp in my hand, and I've always suspected that my phone reluctance creates a drag on the free flow of my career.

"Confidence and skill on the phone are vitally important -- the level of confidence a person projects on the phone reflects on their employer," confirms Angela Mortimer, chairman of the recruitment specialists of the same name.

"People extrapolate from the effect of a phone call. Confidence in phone manner means confidence in the company they are representing. If communication is part of your job specification, anxiety is something you need to overcome in order to get recognition or your next promotion," she said.

Although e-mail is now a viable alternative for many communications, the phone's benefits remain unsurpassed. Its immediacy, ability to hold someone's attention and to resolve ambiguities as they arise are triumphs over typing. So too are its human touch and facility for building relationships, not just disseminating information. So why do phone calls inspire cold sweats?

"Around 70 percent of communication is non-verbal, and discomfort on the phone comes from not being able to see the person at the other end," says occupational psychologist Sandi Mann. "It's fine for orators, but for those better at paralanguage, such as body language and eye contact, it's difficult. And the more you avoid using the phone, the worse the fear gets."

Trainer Guy Jacobs recommends focusing on how you want the conversation to end when you put the phone down.

"If you create mental images of someone being bored when you're talking on the phone, then you prepare to draw the call to a close," he says. "Your conversation starts heading that way and soon that's where your focus is, not on the reason you phoned them in the first place. You should always have a reason for calling and, thus, always know where you want to go."

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