Communication Anxiety:
What's there to worry about?

Communication anxiety puts your commitments at risk!

Several years ago a guest singer on a late night talk show was asked “Why do you use cue cards while singing a song you wrote?”

“Because I’m afraid I’ll forget the words,” he answered.”

“But you wrote the song,” said the host. “You’ve sung that song a hundred times. How could you ever forget the words?”

“It doesn’t matter who wrote the song,” replied the singer. “It’s not about the writer; it’s about the fear. I’m always afraid I’ll forget the words.”

What is Communication Anxiety?

Communication anxiety is an emotion you feel when you think about having to speak in public.

The occasion could be a speech before a large group, a job interview, or a performance review with your boss. Whatever the occasion, neither the audience nor public speaking itself are the cause of your anxiety.

The cause of communication anxiety

You are the cause.

You create your anxiety by imagining consequences that put at risk what you are committed to protecting should you make the slightest mistake while speaking. Things like a job you hope to get, a promotion you believe you deserve, or your reputation after delivering a speech.

You imagine an audience laughing hysterically if you mispronounce pithecanthropus. You see the interviewer frowning when you admit you have no business experience. You picture your boss denying you a promotion because you believe she probably resents your asking for one. Or you visualize co-workers gossiping about how boring your presentation was.

Then you imagine yourself out of work, divorced, unable to pay the mortgage, and eating beans out of a can in your trailer down by the river.

The role of beliefs

It’s not the mistakes you might make that cause your communication anxiety. It’s your belief about the consequences of your imagined mistakes and your inability to control those consequences that scares the pants off of you.

Of course you could just as easily imagine successful consequences:

  • How you had to ask the audience repeatedly to stop clapping when you were introduced.
  • How the job recruiter appreciated your fluency in a second language.
  • How your boss was impressed with the high number of projects you completed on time.

But No! You opt instead for the scary consequences and the discomfort that goes with dreaming about a future from hell:

  • the sleepless nights
  • the sweaty palms
  • the irregular heartbeat
  • the irritable bowel.

Why would you do that to yourself?

Because that’s the way we are wired. Whenever we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory, our first instinct is to look for danger. If we sense it’s not safe, we either freeze, prepare to escape, or to turn and fight whatever threatens us.

For many of us, public speaking is dangerous territory. It’s not safe.

This perspective triggers emotional reactions throughout our mind and body long associated with our natural instinct for survival. The result of these reactions is communication anxiety. Our focus is on everything we believe could go wrong and not on what could possibly go right.

Most of these beliefs are not true. They are fairy tales you invented. You have no solid proof that you will make mistakes, if the audience will humiliate you, or if you will lose your job. What you do have are assumptions that put at risk your ability to protect what you value.

Sometimes a change in behavior brings relief, but that works only for a short time. Your behavior is not the root cause of your worry.

A better way to deal with communication anxiety

What does bring lasting relief is changing the unfounded consequences you dream up. If you can invent a story that destroys your self-confidence, you can also invent one that restores it.

That is your challenge.

Learn to use the power of language to change your future. Uncover the concocted nonsense you tell yourself about the power of your audience. Poke holes in your empty beliefs, debate them, and replace them with real facts instead of imagined ones.
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Find out how you can use language to manage your emotions so they don’t undermine the actions you need to take to keep your commitments.

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