Today I want to talk about something I know a lot of people with anxiety struggle with: talking on the phone. Initiating phone calls, particularly to people I don’t know, is one of my biggest struggles. The advent of online pizza delivery is something I continue to be extremely grateful for.
So how often does my difficulty with phone calls impact my work? Some days it feels like constantly. I’ve done some work on this and I’ve come to the following realizations about myself – I rely heavily on my ability to read and interpret a person’s reaction to me. By combining what body language, voice, and words tell me, I’m a pretty accurate “reader” of people. It’s one of the things that makes me both a good social worker and a good supervisor.
Unfortunately, my reliance on my ability to “read” others puts me at a disadvantage when it comes to phone conversations. Phone conversations prevent me from using my skills to figure out how the other person is reacting to me. This is where the social anxiety kicks in – because I can’t always accurately tell if the other person is responding positively to me, my social anxiety tells me that they are judging me when I can’t see them. This makes it hard to initiate calls or answer unknown callers.
For approximately 5 years I worked in an agency that didn’t believe in supervisors having offices. To promote equality and emphasize that there was to be no competition over the metaphorical corner office, each work site was a large open room where everyone could listen to each other’s conversations. This was my nightmare phone scenario. Not only did I have to overcome my anxiety about speaking on the phone, I also had to overcome a separate anxiety of employees listening to (judging) my phone conversations.
I made a compromise with myself. I would make any mildly uncomfortable phone calls from my desk and work on decreasing my anxiety through practice speaking on the phone in front of others. However, I made an accommodation for difficult phone calls. These calls were made on my cell phone, either from the conference room or outside in the parking lot/my car (which provided the bonus of allowing me to move around to shake of some of the anxiety).
On days of increased anxiety, I took it a step further. On those days, I bargained with myself. A typical bargain was along the lines of if I make the phone call(s) that I want to avoid then I will allow myself a short break from work or a treat on the way home. It may seem silly to anyone who has never experienced an ongoing anxiety disorder, but some days you just do whatever you have to do to just get through the day.
So what does this have to do with supervising anyone? Well, a lot of those difficult phone calls that I made from the parking lot were to people I supervised. The employees spent most of their time out of the office seeing clients so I couldn’t always wait until somebody came back to the office if I needed to communicate immediate concerns. Other times I was calling my supervisor to share information that she was not going to be happy about. Those were particularly nerve wracking.
Instead of judging and berating myself each day for my difficulties with phone calls due to my social anxiety, I found accommodations for myself. My accommodations, as odd as they may seem to others, allowed me to still get my job done and communicate with those I worked with. I’m happy to say that in my current job I have my own office which cuts down on the anxiety. But, some days I still end up making difficult conversations from the car or bargaining with myself when I really don’t want to make a particular call. At least it’s not as frequent as it used to be.