How I learned to stop worrying and love the phone

OK. That’s a complete lie. I don’t love the phone, I just thought the title was clever.

I actually wrote this post a while ago but didn’t publish it at the time because of my “stuff” about being preachy and know-it-all and annoying. I was reminded of the whole phone thing by a comment on my last post, and today I feel too lazy to write something from scratch compelled to share something that might be useful.

So how did I get over my issues with making phone calls? Cue Sesame Street music. This post is brought to you by the letter A.

First…what NOT to do (because failures are always funnier than successes)

I spent many years justifying my phone fears, tormenting myself for my phone fears and trying things to get over my phone fears. If I had a “do over” I would advise my younger self not to try any of the following:

I’m very, very skilled at this. I’m also very aware that it makes it worse. It just prolongs the misery and increases the anxiety. Brian Tracy gets this completely right: if you need to “eat a frog” it never helps to sit and stare at it for a long time first.

I could write another post…a book even…about the bad things that happen when you try to overcome anxiety with alcohol. (Did I mention the ex-husbands?) Drinking and dialling is never a good idea.

Antagonizing yourself
A better descriptor might be: making yourself do it, forcing yourself to do it. Or tricking yourself into doing it. But none of those start with A…and hey, we have a theme going on here…

Embarrassing example, you ask? Sure…

I once had what I thought was a genius idea to force/trick myself out of my phone problem. I remembered that way back when I had my first job as a video store clerk, I had no problem making phone calls while I was at work. Because I wasn’t calling on my own behalf. It was my job. And I was the business. “Hello, this is The Video Place calling.” I was no longer a person…I was now a building. A fearless, phone calling building.

So…I decided to become a Realtor. (I am not making this up. I am an expert at coming up with weird and wonderful ways to torture myself.)

My reasoning was simple. If I were a Realtor, I would *have* to make phone calls for work (lots of them) and therefore my phone problem would go away. 6 months, 1 exam and $2635 (course and license fees, insurance, business cards) later, I was “promoted” from administrative assistant to Realtor. (Translation: no more steady salary, 100% commission.)

And now my phone phobia would be a thing of the past.

Except for one little thing. The shaking, terrified little child in me who is afraid of the phone. So…what do I do?

I ratchet up the pressure: make the calls you little twerp, or we won’t make any money and then we’ll starve to death.

And make it a tad bit more unpleasant: We won’t call nice, receptive people who want to talk to us. No. We’ll make *cold calls* to strangers. At dinner time. This way we get to experience *rejection* on top of anxiety and fear. Maybe someone will even yell at us.

What happened? The predictable. My inner child curled up into a ball and refused to move. My real estate career was over before it ever started. I went back to photocopying and filing in the office. (And now that I had a license, my job description expanded to sitting at open houses every weekend, handing out brochures.)

So what worked?

Awareness, acceptance, analysis and action. Emphasis on the first two. My personal formula for dealing with just about everything.

What, exactly is going on? What am I feeling? What am I thinking? What am I doing? Was it always this way?

My phone awareness looked something like this:

  • I don’t like talking on the phone. I feel uncomfortable and uneasy. I would rather drive across town to talk to someone face to face than call them up on the phone.
  • I beat myself up for not liking to talk on the phone. I call myself names, I exaggerate the situation, I compare myself to others. I say things like: “You are a total loser. You can never make phone calls. Complete morons can make phone calls – but you can’t. What the hell is wrong with you?”
  • I use avoidance tactics – send an email, get someone else to make the call, or call after hours and leave a voice mail. Or I put the call off. The anxiety builds. The pressure mounts, I feel worse and worse.
  • Sometimes, I suck it up, make the call and find out that it wasn’t so bad after all. Or even if it *was* bad, at least the ordeal is *over* now.
  • I am actually capable of talking on the phone. I’ve done so successfully in the past. There were times when I even enjoyed it. I’ve been told that I’m good at it.

Asking questions and digging deeper.

What don’t I like about talking on the phone?

I can’t see the other person. I can’t look in their eyes. I can’t tell their mood.

When did this start? Was I always this way?

Bingo! I looked back and realized that I was carrying a bizarre “rule for the phone” that I picked up in childhood: Never call someone when it might be inconvenient for them.

Huh? How the hell am I supposed to know when it might be inconvenient for the other person?

Not only was this rule helping me feel uncomfortable, it was also giving me a great excuse to avoid making calls. It’s too early to call. It’s too late to call. They might be having lunch/dinner/sex a nap. Weekends aren’t good, they might have company. Weeknights aren’t good because they might be relaxing from work.

I re-wrote that rule for myself on the spot.

If it’s inconvenient for someone to take a call, it’s their responsibility to manage that situation. They can choose not to answer. They can let the machine/voice mail pick up. They can answer and ask me to call back later. Lots of options. But me magically divining whether or not it’s convenient for them is not one of them.

Byron Katie says “Never argue with reality, because it wins. But only every time.” One of my favourite quotes.

Acceptance doesn’t have to mean that you *like* the situation; it’s not a synonym for approval. It doesn’t mean you can’t make changes or take different actions. It just means that you stop wasting energy wishing things were different. They’re not. It is what it is. Accept it and move on.

My acceptance statement for the phone: I have a preference for meeting in person or for communicating via email. I am capable of using the phone, but I don’t like it.

When I get to a clear acceptance statement, I find that I feel calm and peaceful inside. That’s how I know I’m there.

Analysis: 2, possibly 3 Key Questions
Q1: Is there something I would like to change?

Yes. It isn’t practical to *never* make phone calls. (I like pizza. Delivered to my door.)  I wanted to feel more comfortable picking up the phone and calling people.

Q2: Will this change lead me away or towards being my Authentic Self?

Am I contemplating this change to please someone else? Or am I stripping away some stupid less-than-useful conditioning that I picked up along the way? In this case, it was clear: I was obeying weird rules that made using the phone uncomfortable. Dropping them would help uncover Authentic Me.

This is the Pivotal Question. If the proposed change leads away from being my Authentic Self, I’m done. I bask happily in the truth of my acceptance statement. Problem solved. Otherwise, I move to question 3.

Q3: How can I make this change in the easiest, least traumatic way?

By practicing making calls to nice people who would like to hear from me. Ideally, with the calls being something *helpful* to them (and *not* for asking for anything). And…ooo…if I can be a “building” again, or call on behalf of someone else, that would be good too.

I’ve never been a big fan of action. Why *do* something, when you can *think* about it instead? While all of this navel-gazing was very enlightening, it didn’t stop the butterflies from attacking whenever I had to make a call. Two things put me over the edge from *thinking* I was past this issue to actually *being* past this issue.

1. Eating the frog. This was Brian Tracy’s advice: if you have to eat a frog, it doesn’t get any more appetizing if you sit and stare at it. Get it over with. Now.

I used to try to rehearse or plan out my phone conversations. If they say this, I’ll say that. If the voice mail picks up, this is what I’ll say. The more time I spent rehearsing/planning/delaying, the more nervous I got.

Now I just dial. I stay present and trust that I’m capable of carrying on an interactive conversation. I do this to the point of being totally *unprepared* – I’ve put people on hold so I can rummage around for my credit card or a file or an email. (One day I actually had to walk outside the house to look at the number so I could give the pizza guy my address. Don’t hold your breath waiting for any “improving your memory” posts from me.)

For me, feeling flustered and unprepared, yet “in the moment” feels an order of magnitude better than over-preparing myself into a nervous wreck.

2. Practice. You knew I was going to say this, right? At the time I was wrestling with this issue, the universe handed me a fabulous opportunity. The Toastmasters club I joined had a policy that the Toastmaster of the day had to phone *all* of the members of the club to tell them what their meeting role would be. (Yes, weirdly enough, I got past my fear of public speaking *before* I got past my fear of making phone calls. Go figure.)

The first time I was Toastmaster, I really dreaded making those calls. Even though it fit my “easy as possible” criteria to a T: I was reminding people about their role (helpful), I was calling for the club (I’m a building!), and every last one of them was nice and would be happy to hear from me.

So…I ate the frog. I grabbed the membership list and I started to dial. Each successive call got easier. I paid attention to the fact that the calls got easier. I maintained that awareness. And I kept ramping it up: I volunteered to make the calls again the following week. Then I called people who hadn’t been to a meeting for a while to invite them back. Then I volunteered for other committees where I called people and asked them for things.

Over time I actually learned to LIKE making phone calls in certain situations. Not all situations, but some of them.

The most important step? Acceptance. (You thought I was going to say Action, didn’t you? Hah!) Nope. Acceptance was the big key for me. It’s what made it possible to take the action.

Here’s the thing: I’m going to make the phone call or I’m not. Feeling bad about my choice is completely *optional* and under my control.

It also leads to a vicious downward spiral: the worse I feel about myself, the less likely I am to make the call – which leads to more making myself feel bad.

Instead, I’ve found that accepting what IS can send the spiral in the other direction. I’m more likely to take an action when I feel good about myself.


Lots of times (maybe even most of the time) I end with the Acceptance step. I could have chosen that in this case too. I could have saved a few bucks a month and canceled my phone service. Sorry, I *can’t* call you…don’t have a phone.

After all, in the grand scheme of things, what does it matter whether or not we make phone calls? We can always go *out* for pizza.


  1. Patrick Ward on February 4, 2010 at 5:36 pm

    Great advice! I have to admit that I still stare at the frog a lot though. 🙂
    .-= Patrick Ward´s last blog ..A House is a House =-.

  2. patty on February 5, 2010 at 10:39 am

    Oh, me too. Now that I don’t have a phone, Twitter and Facebook have become my new frogs.

  3. Pace Smith on February 5, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    I know I’m missing the point entirely, but Papa John’s lets you order online and they deliver. (: