Companies & Industries

Overcoming Communication Fears


Harvard blogger J.D. Schramm offers advice for taming the anxiety that prevents us from connecting with business associates

Posted on Harvard Business Review: September 30, 2010 10:37 AM

Fear can be a good thing, if it doesn't paralyze us completely from taking action. Fear reminds us of our humanity, keeps us from stepping in front of moving cars, and can activate "fight or flight" reactions so we are not trapped in threatening situations. As communicators, however, we have to become aware of fears that may prevent us from even trying to connect with others in speech or writing.

Many people quote FDR who said "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." His wife's more practical challenge inspires me more: "Do one thing every day that scares you." Eleanor didn't argue that we should avoid or try to beat fear, but recognize it and move forward anyway.

Below are my favorite strategies for coping with the fears my students and clients have most commonly shared with me.

Presentations

Jerry Seinfeld made famous the line about funerals and public speaking: "According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy."

The best way to work with fear in this area is to practice your remarks in advance. Rehearse in the space, if possible, or at least in a setting which simulates where you will speak. If you can practice with a few supportive friends who will do nothing but give you good eye contact, smile at your jokes, and build you up: all the better. When you are actually delivering the speech you can recall the warm regard this audience had for your talk if the actual audience is less engaged.

It's also important to visualize success. Much like a golfer who mentally "walks the course" before a tournament, you want to envision delivering your talk before you get there. Don't affirm any negative thoughts (they'll hate me) but rather envision success, connection, and composure. For more on this I suggest you look at Ron Hoff's tongue-in-cheek book, I Can See You Naked, in which he gives some great advice on how to overcome public speaking fears.

One-on-One Conversations

Often our fear of having a conversation with somebody about a sensitive subject can be worse than having the conversation itself. We put off bringing up a tough subject because we are waiting for the "perfect opportunity." For some conversations no right time exists. We simply have to cause the conversation to happen. In these instances I suggest you use a less threatening media (e. g. a text message or voicemail) requesting time to chat about something "delicate." This will allow you to signal to the receiver that you need his or her attention, that it's a tough conversation for you to have, and possibly to suggest how and where to have the conversation.

You may wish to leave somebody a voicemail early in the morning saying "when you arrive at work let's find some time to chat face-to-face; I need your input on a touchy matter." Once you've left the voicemail you have put in motion that you and this person will talk. Sure, you may still stress a bit before the two of you actually sit down, but you've framed the conversation that needs to happen.

One friend of mine knew he had to fess up about a substance abuse problem that he needed help with. In the middle of the night he phoned his superior's work number and gave enough information on the voicemail that at 9:00 am he got a phone call back which put him on the path to recovery. Had he waited until work hours to place the call, he might never have admitted he desperately needed help.

A book I often suggest in this arena is Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler.

Email Communication

We may fear that we're not going to express something clearly, powerfully, or effectively in email. This is particularly true when we need to reply to an email which demands some time, thought, and consideration, yet we know that an immediate response is probably expected. In these situations I suggest a two-part response. Reply to the original request with a concise: "Got your message, but want to take some time to create a response. I will get back to you by (insert reasonable time frame) with my thoughts."

This signals to the other that you are aware of the request, but that you're not going to rush to answer. Take the time to draft a reply, set aside for a few hours, and then review it again before hitting send. The delayed reply can be especially effective if the issue is emotionally charged for you. The first draft can be as full of venom and anger as you want, just be sure to save it and not send it. Once you've cooled and can see clearly how you wish to reply, send a more reasoned email. At times the best reply is simply "Let's chat about this in person." You can bring your draft with you to the meeting, and then send a follow-up email which confirms what the two of you discussed. Just because the person expected an email reply, doesn't mean that's how you have to respond.

Written Documents

When we freeze up before writing a proposal or document we often call this "writer's block." Many job-seekers, desperate to find work in this economy, find themselves blocked from beginning a cover letter or consulting proposal. Their fear gets in the way of taking the first step.

Carolyn Foster has done some great work with my students at Stanford on how to "tame your inner critic" through some daily exercises like journaling to get in the habit of writing. You can also be creative about what part of a longer document you begin with. Start with the part you will enjoy the most or can most easily create from a previous proposal. Just get started so that you can build momentum for tackling the tougher parts of the document.

I often find that if I start my writing on a white board in an empty conference room (with some classical music in the background), my creative juices flow better. Eventually I have to get to a keyboard, but staring at a blank screen can intimidate me, while staring at a blank white board can energize me. Each of us has to find a strategy through writers' block that works for us. Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way is my favorite tool for working with blocks to creativity, though business writers may find the approach circuitous.

Only by pushing through our fears in communication (and life) by taking some small and calculated risks, are we able to grow. Take a moment and do a quick self-analysis in the above four areas and consider where you may be harboring some fears of communicating. Then commit to taking one small action toward mitigating that fear. Feel free to add comments below and let me and other readers know what you did and how you fared.


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