I am terrified of talking on the phone but my job responsibilities will require me to do so.
December 17, 2009 4:06 PM   Subscribe

I have a near-pathological fear of talking to strangers on the phone. My expanded job duties will soon include calling clients. How do I get past this fear?

I am already looking for another job for unrelated reasons, but it is likely that I will be in this one for another few months due to the economy etc. Plus this is just a fear I'll have to get past in any job.

I think this mainly stems from the fact that I am hearing impaired and had speech therapy for years. I can function perfectly well with people I know, and I don't have too many problems in person, but over the phone I have trouble understanding people, and they have trouble understanding me. I get embarrassed when I have to repeat myself or ask them to repeat words. It is not a volume level, I have devices to help me with that. In my non-work life I try my best to use email wherever possible when I have to contact businesses or other people I don't know.

I will not be making cold calls, I will be calling existing clients to verify information, confirm orders, etc. Normally I will only talk to them once or twice so it is not as if I will be building an ongoing relationship. I expect a large proportion of clients will not speak English in the way that I do (accents, dialect) which increases the frustration in trying to understand each other. Up to now I have not had to make phone calls in this job. They are expanding my duties.

I really need to get past this because I think it will hinder my future career. The anxiety is such that my stomach tightens even writing this.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (27 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have friends or family who would be willing to call you so that you can practice talking on the phone to get more comfortable with it? Explain the situation to your loved ones and ask for their help.
posted by decathecting at 4:09 PM on December 17, 2009

Can you practice by calling, say university departments? Do a little research on the U of Wherever Sociology Department and then call to confirm your research as if you're a prospective student? Or, practice calling stores and confirming their hours of business? (I'm sure there are other places you could practice on, but those are the two that come to mind.)

Call places you know you'll never actually have to do business with--a grocery store several states away, a university department you have no interest in--to take a little pressure off: who cares if you feel a little embarrassed at first? You'll never have to talk to these people ever again!
posted by Meg_Murry at 4:15 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Phone calls used to make my stomach turn too. I still don't love making them, but two things that help me are:

1. Making a script and practicing it. Especially your opening line(s), so you build confidence from the beginning.

2. This sounds absurd, but I pretend I am an actress just reading lines from a script. I distance myself personally from the call.

3. Having a sense of humor. If I'm stumbling over something, I'll just say something like 'sorry, haven't had my coffee yet!' and people tend to be really nice.

Actually, I prefer talking to strangers - you'll probably never talk to them again, so there's not much to lose. Good luck!
posted by beyond_pink at 4:26 PM on December 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

I hate hate hate talking on the phone these days, but when I've had jobs requiring a lot of telephone communication, it became something that I didn't mind so much. It improved my personal life, too. Calling guys to make dates became easier, speaking with customer service to resolve issues with my bank wasn't so painful, dealing with telemarketers was a breeze, and taking my mother's calls...well, nothing will make that any easier. But once you settle into the job, it really won't be so bad.
posted by HotPatatta at 4:26 PM on December 17, 2009

Practice, practice, practice! Meg_Murry has some really good suggestions. Also, when you're actually calling people for your job, remember that people are probably not going to care or remember if you're awkward on the phone, or if it's a little hard to understand you.

Your first few calls will go badly; even when you're better at it, not every call will go smoothly. But you'll get more and more comfortable and as you make more and more calls, each bad one will seem less and less important. If you can, write down a "script" of sorts to help you if you get stalled and to remember what information you need to tell each person. I hate calling random people on the phone, but at my job this summer I was suddenly given a list of people to call to confirm appointments. It was just expected that I could handle this, so I gulped, steeled up my nerve, and got through it.
posted by MadamM at 4:33 PM on December 17, 2009

If this is part of your job, make it the first thing you face every day, before you do anything else. Putting it off or dreading it all day will make this situation intolerable for you. Get used to picking up the phone first thing, every time you sit down at your desk -- after lunch, after you get back from the restroom -- even if you're not sure yet who you need to call.
posted by hermitosis at 4:41 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Second making a script. Even tell the first few callers you're reading from a script, or that calling makes you uncomfortable. I'm sure they'll sympathize.
posted by atchafalaya at 4:48 PM on December 17, 2009

Are there any assistive technologies you can invest in that would help with the hearing issue? I've found that a really good headset (the wearable kind) makes a huge difference in my ability to understand what the folks on the other side are saying. I've had good results from the amplified plantronics headsets- maybe that will help with the physical aspects?
posted by jenkinsEar at 4:50 PM on December 17, 2009

I'm shy, introverted, and have a lisp, so I used to suffer from this a lot. As embarrassing as it is to admit, I used to pace and practice before ordering a pizza on the phone. The fear still sneaks up on me at odd times, but for the most part I have it under control. Here's what I did (and still sometimes do): I stop thinking about myself--because nobody cares. I find excessive self-consciousness comes from my ego. People aren't consumed with thoughts and feelings about me; they are concerned about their own lives. They don't care if I verbally stumble or trip up; they don't dwell on it when I hang up the phone. Why would they? Am I that important?

Do you overly concern yourself with how others speak with you when you are on the phone with them? Probably not. If you're like me, you only go over what you said and how you said it over and over again.
posted by belvidere at 5:04 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

It sounds silly, but try a speakerphone. Call people you know and just chat with them like you're in the same room, doing things around the kitchen, living room, etc. I think sometimes people feel the phone is very intimate because you have someone right in your ear, and if you put some literal distance between you and the phone, maybe that'll help.
posted by xingcat at 5:23 PM on December 17, 2009

I have real issues hearing over the phone, coupled with a tad bit of social anxiety, but I managed to work a PBX job for a couple of years. I've also tutored ESL learners, who tend to have difficulty over the phone. Things that may help:

* Ensure that your environment is quiet. Consider investing in a high-quality, hands-free headset with volume control. Avoid the little gadget that goes in your ear and go for a full-on headphones set.

* Do your best to ensure that your time on the phone will be uninterrupted.

* It sounds like your calls are going to be very predictable. This means you can prepare for them. Write down what you will say, things that the other person is likely to respond with, and how you will respond to that. The less you have to hold in your head and worry about, the better. You won't have think about it, you'll just be following the script. This means you'll be able to focus better on what you're hearing. If you've got friends or family willing to help, practice these scripts with them.

* You're concerned about accents and dialects. Do you know which you're most likely to run across? You can prepare for them, as well. As an example, if you recognize that the person has a hispanic accent, you'll know immediately that s/he may use an "ee" sound for any "i". This will become more automatic with practice.

* Practice making calls now to help reduce your general phone anxiety. Start with easy ones, such as calling up a place of business and asking hours, and move to ones that will include a bit more conversation. If you can make a call instead of emailing or traveling to the place, do it.

* Take a deep breath and relax before, during, and after calls.

You're going to have times when you can't hear or understand the other person. You can be prepared for that, too.

* If the other person has a lot of noise going on in their background, politely tell them that you're having difficulty hearing them over the background noise. Most will immediately turn the noise off or speak up and slow their speech down.

* Same goes if the person is speaking quietly, quickly, or with a muffled voice. Address the specific problem: "I'm sorry, I'm having difficulty hearing you. Can you speak up a bit?" "I'm sorry, I'm having difficulty hearing you. Can you slow down a bit?" "I'm sorry, your voice is muffled and I'm having difficulty hearing you. Can you put the receiver a little closer to your voice?"

* If the person has an accent you're not understanding, write down what the word sounds like phonetically, and consider in the context. It may become quickly obvious.

* Confirm individual letters: A as in apple, B as in bat, etc. At this level of anxiety, I'd go as far as writing a list down for quick referral, as I occasionally get stumped. Every tiny thing you take care of beforehand means you don't have to deal with it in the heat of the moment.

Phone calls are rarely, if ever, going to be a full loss. You can usually glean some bit of information and go from there. If all else fails, you can ask to call them back at a better time, or ask them to email you (or vice versa). When you hang up and have a few minutes to think it over, you may have an a-ha moment, or be able to do a little bit of research and detective work.
posted by moira at 5:25 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I hear you. For some of us, chatting on the telephone is not easy.

beyond_pink's advice is excellent. Start with those mental scripts, and then relax enough to go with the flow when the conversation evolves, if required.

Don't rush.

You never win by speaking too quickly. Unless there is a fire. Even then, often not.
posted by ovvl at 5:26 PM on December 17, 2009

Phone calls are rarely, if ever, going to be a full loss.

And consider, if it is a full loss, the import. You say these are verify/confirmation calls. Things will most likely be just fine, regardless.

It will be okay.
posted by moira at 5:31 PM on December 17, 2009

Like belvidere, I too practiced speaking on the phone to strangers by ordering pizza.

On my first call I was a stuttering mess and twice broke down crying during the call, then forgot what I was supposed to order so the call took 15 minutes to complete. The next several pizza orders went similarly. Nowadays I can call in orders with no problem, though I do get a bit of anxiety about making calls if there is no clear focus for the conversation.

What's helped me is to write down some notes before I make a call; the person's name and the main point of the call and any additional bullet points of information I need from them, or questions they may have for me. People insist this is totally unnecessary and neurotic but screw 'em, it helps me in organizing my thoughts and making a plesant, concise phone call.

Another thing was to pay attention to how people spoke to me when I was on the receiving end of a call. I noted the things I liked and found helpful, and the things I disliked and found unhelpful. It always helps to be positive, and not take someone's bad mood personally. In fact, a lot of things that make face to face interaction go smoothly work on the phone too.
posted by wiretap at 6:05 PM on December 17, 2009

You can try an amplified telephone.

You can try using "CapTel" -- captioned telephone relay (a communications assistant types out the words stated by the person on the other end of the line).

You can ask your supervisor that someone else make these occasional calls as a "reasonable accommodation" to your hearing impairment.

Good luck!
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 6:11 PM on December 17, 2009

This sounds so silly, but I used to have pretty terrible phone anxiety, even with close friends. I was sort of famous as the person who never answered my phone, ever. Now I answer phones all day long and it doesn't bother me in the slightest.

The first thing you should know is that it will get so much easier, and in a real hurry, too. And it's going to make your life so much better to get good at talking on the phone, too! I used to spend hours agonizing over making a simple call to my insurance company to dispute a charge, and now that I'm comfortable talking to strangers on the phone at work, I don't even flinch, I just pick up the phone and go to town. Plus, my friends are pleased when I answer their calls, which I now do.

But obviously, you want to know how to get to that point. And here's how I did it: ACTING. (You will feel a little silly. Do not feel silly.) In your mind, conjure up an image of someone who's really good on the phone — confident, unflappable, clear in tone and intention. And then just pretend you're that person. Pretend you are someone who is good on the phone, as though you are just playing a phone-confident character in a play. It worked so, so well for me, and I am even one of those people who feels stupid and unsure of myself when I do have to act.

And the other tips here are good, especially telling people in a straightforward manner that you're having trouble hearing them. Don't say why, just imply it's their fault and they'll speak up or take care to speak more slowly or more clearly. Don't feel bad about asking them to repeat themselves, and it's often very helpful to confirm spellings or numbers. ("Let me make sure I heard you correctly — That's BAKER, B as in Boy, A...") It'll be hard at first, and then you'll quickly get comfortable, and within a matter of a couple of weeks, you'll wonder why you worried about it at all.
posted by adiabat at 6:17 PM on December 17, 2009

I used to have a similar anxiety about talking on the phone (even to friends!). What helped me was just going over what I would say beforehand, occasionally out loud to myself. I had a job where I had to talk to a lot of people on the phone, and after doing this for years, my anxiety has gone away, for the most part.

It gets easier with time, I think.
posted by too bad you're not me at 7:22 PM on December 17, 2009

Fortunately, there aren't a lot of external factors involved in this, so with the right kind of assistance, you'll look back on this as something you were able to put behind you quite easily.

Just spend $100 or $200 one time, hire a hypnotist, and have him or her remind you of experiences during which you feel good and feel comfortable, and then associate those feelings to talking on the phone. After you do this, you'll probably be surprised to notice how differently and comfortingly you talk to yourself about your new comfort in talking with people you don't know yet.

Having already gotten past all that and already put it behind you, you'll probably look back on this as something you did easily. Interestingly, a lot of people-- even those who don't know you yet-- will probably be moved and impressed when they hear from you about that change you made.
posted by darth_tedious at 7:27 PM on December 17, 2009

The thing that helped me get better about this—although I still don't like talking to strangers on the phone for business—was working in a bookstore where I was in charge of placing book orders for customers by phone. Once I realized there was a pretty basic script the people on the other end were expecting to hear, it got a lot easier, and eventually I was joking around with the customer-service reps like an old friend.

As I recall, it usually went a little something like this:


[Recorded message kicks in] Thank you for calling Elsevier, the world's leading publisher of science and health information. Our regular business hours are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. If you know your party's extension, you may dial it at any time. Otherwise, you may choose from the following options. Please listen carefully, as our menu options have changed. To place an order, press 1...

[Presses 1] Please stay on the line, and one of our customer-service representatives will be with you shortly. Please note, this call may be monitored or recorded for quality assurance purposes.


"Good afternoon, this is Deedee. How may I help you today?"

"Hi there! This is limeonaire at Store No. 582 in St. Louis, Mo. I'd like to place an order."

"All right, is this for textbooks or for trade?"


"OK, what can I get for you?"

"OK, first ISBN: 9783161484100."

"Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer. $27.50. It's in stock. How many copies would you like?"


"OK...[typing] Next?"

"Uhh...[belatedly looks at the rest of the order sheet]...actually, you know what, that's it!"

"OK. Is there a purchase-order number you'd like me to reference for this order?"

"Yep! 582-177832."

"All right. Hold on just a sec... OK, it's just past noon, so that order should ship from the warehouse by this Friday, December 18."

"Cool. That sounds just fine."

"Is there anything else I can help you with today, ma'am?"

"Nope, that's it."

"All right, well, thank you, and have a good afternoon."

"Thank you too! Take care. Buh-bye!"

(Frighteningly, it's been 2 1/2 years since I last did that...)
posted by limeonaire at 7:30 PM on December 17, 2009

Oh right...forgot two questions: "And what's that account number?" and "Is standard shipping OK?"
posted by limeonaire at 7:35 PM on December 17, 2009

OP, I'm a clunky-minded introvert who also dreads phone contact most of the time. However, I've worked in an outbound call center (Not evil cold calling. Fundraising for not-for-profits) before, and it gets waaaaaaay easier.

Some things that helped me: Realize that you do have permission to call these people; since you're doing a lot of confirming of things, these people, on some level, expect your call. Many people will even appreciate the helpful and innocuous nature of your call.

Use some sort of notes or a script to keep from blanking out, but more importantly to make sure you hit everything you need to hit. One call to a person is very doable. A second call to confirm a point you left out is a little discouraging. I liked to have my notes/scripts on a computer, so I can easily and neatly make additions, re-phrasings and re-orderings as I learned from previous calls what works best.

Since your mission is to make sure stuff is correct, your company and the person on the other end of the line will appreciate the extra time you take to make sure you get it right. For that reason, take your time, get correct spellings (B-as-in-bonehead? etc.), say numbers one digit at a time (Nineteen-forty Cherry Street sounds an awful lot like Nineteen-fourteen Fairy Street. Say "one-nine-four-zero).

Once a call is over, good or bad, it's over. The next person you call won't have a clue that you flubbed a pronunciation on the last guy, nor will he know that three calls earlier you stumbled in your speaking. Most likely, though, the person whose name you mispronounced doesn't truly care (it happens all the time to him; they should change the spelling anyway), and when you stumbled, the person on the other end was too self-absorbed to really care.

The best news I've got for you is this: If you're anything like me, somewhere after those first terrifying calls and before this stuff just becomes bullet-through-brain boring and banal, these calls might very well become absolutely exhilarating.
posted by The Potate at 7:46 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I had some of the same issues, but getting over this fear made life much easier for me, too.

Three things that I can add:

1. Even now I put off phone calls, but I find them easier when I'm on an upswing at work, when I've just accomplished something and am feeling proud and useful. Using that momentum, I jump right in to getting phone calls I'd rather not make out of the way.

2. If there is a lot to be said, I jot notes - an outline of what I need to say. Keeping my eyes on the written word makes it easier. And writing down what is said back - it keeps my brain engaged and less likely to trend into the super nervous territory.

3. It's easier for me when alone or when others are busy. I found it almost impossible at first to talk on the phone with another person within earshot. Choose a time for minimal distractions, but this, too will get easier.

I have never got to the point of comfort with speaker phones and still don't like hearing the sound of my own voice, but I can make and accept any number of business calls which makes work so much easier.

And don't be afraid to ask people to repeat information. That is what business phone calls are all about, getting information correctly. I expect to repeat numbers or specific information, your callee's will, too. Another resort is to confirm basic points by email, just say "I'd like to send a confirmation email." This, again, is common.
posted by readery at 8:25 PM on December 17, 2009

You can practice calling product hotlines and such, to verify information. I would also suggest that if you have a phone call to make, make it right away. Rip off the bandaid. Congratulate yourself heartily afterwards. In fact, feel free to go nuts and dance around (preferably in private). Reduce the process to absurdity. It gets easier as time goes on. You will find that you are likely much more competent speaking on the phone than you think you are.

You may wish to make an outline of what you're going to say, but don't try to read from it, conversation may flow in different directions. It's mostly helpful to organize your thoughts before "the act," but avoid dwelling on the subject too long -- you'll stress out more. Don't be afraid of pauses or scramble to fill them. And remember, for business purposes calls are not terribly personal and one phone conversation, barring your saying something extremely offensive or ill-advised, is not something that is going to define you. And asking for someone to speak slowly or repeat themselves is par for the course.

Half of the people you speak to will have forgotten any "mistakes" you think you made before they set the receiver down, hit end call, etc. In five minutes or less, the phone call "experience" has been forgotten by the other party. Smile whilst making the call and you will convey happy energy. If inbound calls are putting you on edge, consider changing your ringtone to something ridiculous (use your judgement in professional settings, obs.) - mine is currently keyboard cat and I can't help but grin and be in a positive mindset when I answer.

Good luck - you can do it!
posted by xiaolongbao at 10:26 PM on December 17, 2009

I used to be terrified of making phone calls. So I went and got a part time job at a call centre as a form of self-therapy. I was making cold calls, it was horrifying. I cried and nearly vomited before my shifts in the beginning, I was so nervous. But after a while I realised what many have mentioned so far in this thread: the people you are speaking to don't care about you or your speech impediment/other issues. After you hang up they have forgotten all about you.

In my case, I practiced my way out of it and somehow ended up with the highest score in the call centre (I still have no idea how that happened). Now I'm in the other end, taking calls from potentially nervous people and doing my best to make them feel comfortable. I was surprised to learn how common this problem is.
posted by heytch at 1:22 AM on December 18, 2009

Do you have similar difficulties and anxieties around things like drive-thrus and intercoms? If not, use them as a waypoint: remnd yourself that a telephone call is just like ordering x at a drivethru, but with a different script. If you DO have difficulties with drive-thrus or intercoms, find one that's easier for you, practice there, then step up to more and more difficult ones slowly.

You may end up spending a lot on soda if you go to many drive-thrus (or becoming the office coffee-gopher if you use a Starbucks drive-thru).
posted by subbes at 6:49 AM on December 18, 2009

In my experience, the only way to get over these fears is to force yourself to do whatever it is you're afraid of. A lot. I used to be terrified of public speaking when I was young, so I joined my school's speech and debate team. After a year of that I became just as comfortable (perhaps even MORE comfortable) with public speaking as with regular conversation.

So start making phone calls, and keep making them until you are comfortable.

"I will be calling existing clients to verify information, confirm orders, etc."

To practice a very similar type of call, get a copy of the Yellow Pages and start calling businesses. Ask whomever answers how late they're open, confirm their address, give you directions, etc. Just a handle of questions of this sort of routine information, thank them, goodbye, and then on to the next listing.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:29 AM on December 18, 2009

A lot of good answers about phone anxiety, though most not addressing the hearing loss (moira: good job).
Phone anxiety is worsened by hearing loss, here's how I get around it.
1. Use a wired landline phone, not wireless or cordless, if possible. A landline just cannot be beat for voice clarity.
2. Your headset should surround your ears, just like good cushy audiophile headphones do. The best I've found are made by Sennheiser and UmeVoice (the Boom Quiet). An inline amp helps, too. None of the plantronics, radio shack, etc products will be as good as these (I've tried em, they provide some volume but not clarity).
3. baby step: Now call a movie theater to get recorded show times, this will get you in tune with phone voices.
4. make your call, and use the good answers everyone has provided. The worst that can happen is you'll be hung up on, and in reality, you wouldn't want to deal with those insensitive bums anyway!
Keep your sense of humor and have fun.
posted by artdrectr at 2:10 AM on December 19, 2009

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