9 Jul 2023

How to tackle your telephone hang-ups

From Sunday Morning, 11:10 am on 9 July 2023

Hate picking up the phone? People with bad cases of telephone anxiety (or telephonophobia) can experience nausea, increased heart rate and shortness of breath at the sound of a ringtone.

Mary Jane Copps (aka The Phone Lady) says discomfort with the impromptu nature of phone communication is at the heart of many people's aversion to the medium.

"With email or texting, we're completely in charge of how the conversation goes because we can edit, we can proofread, and so on … [In a phone conversation] we might get asked a question and we're not sure what the answer is, it's very improvisational. And if you've never done that before, it's quite intimidating," she tells Jim Mora.

A man in bed with mobile phone and worried look

Photo: Victoria Romulo / Unsplash

The Phone Lady

Photo: The Phone Lady

Over the last 15 years, Mary Jane Copps has coached more than 15,000, people on how to improve their phone communication.

She's witnessed a wide range of fears about talking on the phone.

"There is 'I'm afraid the other person might hang up on me'. 'I'm afraid I won't have the answer'. 'I'm afraid I won't get through to the right person'. 'I don't know how to make the conversation flow'. 'I don't know how to dissolve some initial defensiveness the other person might have at the beginning of the call'."

The absence of body language is a really challenging feature of phone calls for some, Copps says.

"Many people who gain confidence by reading your eyes or your smile or any of your facial expressions that give them more confidence in their ability to know where the conversation is going."

She encourages those uncomfortable with phone calls to practice with people they know and like.

"Even if you have to say to your friends 'this weekend I'm not going to make arrangements with you by text, I'm gonna call you so please answer.' Start with people you know aren't going to judge you, get used to the sound of your voice on the phone and the rhythm of a conversation. And then perhaps order pizza by phone or phone a store and find out what hours it's open or something like that... do some business calls. And then, on your job, start practising either answering or making calls."

Since Covid, it's become even harder for people working in sales or customer service to get members of the public to pick up, Copps says.

"It takes a lot more determination and a lot thicker skin to continue to make calls when it's so very difficult to get somebody to answer or return a call."

She advises people who have to call existing or potential customers for work to make the conversation about them, not you.

And don't ask if it's a good time to talk - most of us feel overwhelmed a lot of the time and, if given the option, are likely to say no: "Then [the person calling] has no place to go because they've asked me."

When you're calling someone and they do pick up the phone, it's important to then be fully present, Copps says.

"Don't sit there and finish an email, prepare for the person to answer. And then comment on what you hear.

"If you hear voices, say 'Sounds like you're in a meeting' or 'Sounds like you're driving your car'. That lets them know that you're already listening to them, that the call is about them. And normally, they'll be honest, and say 'no, that meeting is finished' and now you're in conversation."

The Phone Lady's top 3 phone communication tips:

Don't be insecure - it's not about you

Everyone is busy. Waiting for a call to be returned? Remember the expected caller is probably busy ... not avoiding you. Don't take it personally if someone doesn't get back to you right away.

Be direct and eliminate iffy language

Words are the body language of a phone call. Uncertain language sends an unclear message to the listener and weakens the credibility of your call. Get rid of those "likes" and "ums" and get to the point.

Focus on the conversation

With Bluetooth technology and speakerphones, it's easy to multitask while we're on the phone - we check email, sort papers or surf the net. Stop. Focus on the conversation and you'll get more out of it.