Conquer Communication Anxiety At Work

by Pranav Ramesh
April 05, 2022

How many of us dread that upcoming presentation for work, knowing we’ll be judged on everything we say and do? Who is actually thrilled to have to deliver that wedding toast in front of hundreds of guests? Let’s face it, most of us would rather pass on public speaking.  

Whenever people are polled about their greatest fears, public speaking continually ranks as one of the most feared scenarios, even more so than death! Close to 85% of people admit to having a fear of public speaking and many experts believe that percentage to be higher than what people honestly report. 

Is it possible to overcome communication anxiety both in personal and professional settings? Let’s look at some best practices for managing communication anxiety and see examples of how others have been able to overcome these challenges to become better communicators both at work and at home.  

 

Why does effective communication matter? 

Communication anxiety is deeply rooted in our instincts as social beings who live and work together. It is to our evolutionary advantage to pay attention to our “status” relative to other people. While working and living in groups has its advantages for safety, living in communities also means that our status is determined in comparison to others in our group. During the evolutionary process, a higher status meant more opportunity to get food, have shelter and an increased likelihood of reproduction. This evolutionary process is still hard wired in us and when we speak in front of others, we risk that status as others judge what we’re saying and who we are. It’s a big risk, from an evolutionary standpoint at least.  

Just a few of the negative impacts of communication anxiety include: 

  • A serious lack of valuable diversity in our conversations- women and people from underrepresented groups may have trouble fully expressing their ideas in work environments that aren’t fully inclusive. 
  • An audience that suffers secondhand anxiety from a nervous speaker can’t focus on the message being presented to them.  
  • Missing out on the opportunity for advancements in one’s career and personal life. 

 RELATED: What’s your EQ? Considering the impact of emotional intelligence at work

 

Reframing how we think about communication anxiety 

But let’s consider our mindset as well. Our initial reaction is to think the stress and anxiety from public speaking is bad. Bad and useless and you should just prepare enough so you can ignore your nerves. Yet, this approach doesn’t allow us to use biology to our advantage. Our core assumption about communication anxiety being bad reinforces how we respond in that stressful situation. If we allow ourselves to acknowledge that we are nervous and to understand why we’re nervous, we can start to think about how to use that stress to our advantage. This last point is important. We typically don’t get nervous over things that don’t matter- things that aren’t important. The mere fact that you’re experiencing anxiety tells you that what you’re about to do is important and matters to you.  

Passion for a cause was something Mahatma Gandhi used to help him overcome his intense introversion and dread of interacting with others. As Gandhi slowly began to discover himself and what was important in life, he realized his fear of public speaking and debilitating shyness were secondary to what he actually cared about. What was important was the suffering and abuse of people. Gandhi knew the cause of Indian Independence was greater than his personal fears. 

Because science suggests that managed anxiety can actually be helpful for our greater purpose, here are some strategies for managing symptoms: 

For physiological symptoms, like sweating, becoming flush, or shaking: 

  • Try holding a cool drink, and taking a few sips, during your presentation to actually make yourself feel cooler 
  • Feel free to move your arms, make gestures, and move around a podium or across a room- incorporating gestures that you would normally perform will help make you more comfortable 
  • Make sure to get a good night’s rest before a presentation- don’t over practice at the value of missing out on sleep 
  • Take a few quiet moments to yourself before you take the stage- taking up the practice of meditation or using an app like Calm can help you relax and refocus

For cognitive symptoms, such as your mind going blank

  • Acknowledge your anxiety and give yourself permission be a little nervous- it’s your body’s way of telling you what you’re doing is important 
  • Redirect your audience’s attention at the beginning of your presentation- try starting off with a video or a virtual poll 
  • Allow yourself to avoid the right/wrong mentality for a presentation- after all you’re not delivering a straight lecture or performance- effective communication at work can be more like a dialogue or conversation 
  • Reframe your presentation as a discussion by including verbiage like “us” and “we” to make the audience feel more involved- opening up your presentation to live questions during and after the presentation also makes for a more engaged audience  

 

It might make people more comfortable to know that Richard Branson, billionaire founder of Virgin, still gets anxious before a speaking engagement. In his book, The Virgin Way, Branson discusses how he prefers to engage the audience though question and answer sessions, instead of a fully prepared, formal speech. Plus, Q&A sessions offer the opportunity for the speech to become more like an active discussion instead of a passive lecture. Branson feeds off the crowd interaction and it’s not uncommon for new ideas to be brought up during such discourse.   

Even if our cause isn’t as world changing as Mahatma Gandhi’s undertaking, it is important to us. It matters to us. With the helpful tips presented here, and by watching this video by Matt Abrahams, author of the book, Speaking Up Without Freaking Out, we can all work towards a future filled with more effective communication.  

 

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