You come into work, and you’re buried beneath an avalanche of texts, emails, and chat messages. You leave work with your smartphone in hand, and it’s basically the same thing. The last time you actually spoke on the phone was either because you had to–via a crappy teleconferencing system, perhaps–or because your aunt in Delaware called to wish you happy birthday. Phone calls, in other words, are few and far between, and you prefer to keep them that way.
Lots of people in the workplace right now (those on the younger side) didn’t grow up having long, involved phone conversations–or even very many short ones. In the workplace, where phone calls still have a stubborn foothold, that can be challenging. Some actually report having “phone anxiety,” which makes talking by telephone uncomfortable.
It doesn’t have to be that bad. Here are a few things to keep in mind for handling work phone calls like a pro–even if you’d much prefer to text.
From an evolution perspective, human communication is optimized for face-to-face interaction–in small groups and in real time. Conversations are a delicately choreographed dance in which speakers gather constant feedback from listeners, and vice versa, about whether their points are getting through. The nonverbal cues are just as valuable as the verbal ones, if not more so.
So a phone call is already a significant deviation away from that ideal situation, and a text message falls short even more. In fact, the further you get from unmediated face-time, the more likely it becomes that a conversation will go off track. Missing somebody’s tone of voice can make it harder to detect jokes and sarcasm, no matter how many emojis you throw in.
Not only that, but it can take a while to repair miscommunications by text or email. The short sentences those formats both encourage lead people to sound harsher than they mean to (and yes, there’s data to support this). If you pick up the phone with the assumption that it’s some kind of forced performance, it’s likely to feel that way. But if you jump into your next call thinking of it (correctly) as a way to be better understood, it’s bound to feel more authentic and effective.
You might think text and email are better because they’re faster. You can send them at your convenience without needing to schedule a time. But real-time conversations allow a rapid-fire exchange of information. You can correct any misunderstandings immediately. You can negotiate what you need to do, and what needs to get done right away.
In order to make calls efficient, though, you do need to prepare for them. With email and text, you have downtime to think about what you want to say next, which can be a asset. But it can also be a huge source of procrastination.
Even pre-phone call prep work can be a productivity booster, though. If you’re working with a client, you’re forced to get to know the product or service you’ll be discussing inside out so you can answer any questions that come up. You need to have the words to describe what you’re doing at the ready. You might even want to practice that conversation in the car, on the subway, or in the shower to make sure you’ve got it right.
All of this is great practice for thinking on your feet and dealing with the unexpected. (In fact, phone call preparation makes for a great mental jungle gym to train your brain on the type of mind-set some experts believe is crucial in the modern workforce.) Succeeding in virtually every higher-level role requires knowing how to deal with situations where you don’t have enough information. So before your next phone call, make a list of all the questions you’ll want to answer, then review it before hanging up to see if there’s anything to look into afterward and get back to them about.
Another well-known issue with emails and texts is that they interrupt your workflow. So if you can find one type of text-based communication each week that you can convert into a regularly scheduled phone call, you may find yourself getting more done overall.
When people talk together, they tune into each other. Next time you find yourself people watching, pay attention to some of the conversations happening around you. You’ll find that participants in a conversation start to match each other’s behaviors. Their speed and tone of voice gets more similar. Accents even start to get more alike. The pairs gesture at the same rate and mirror one another’s body positions.
All this has a function. One reason people are so good at conversing quickly is that they’re constantly making predictions about what the other person is going to say next. Many of those predictions are correct. (This is also why it always feels like speakers of a language you’re just learning are talking so fast; you aren’t good at predicting what comes next yet.)
A side effect of this alignment is that you feel emotionally closer to the people you converse with. You simply like someone better after a good conversation than you did before. That same increase in good feeling doesn’t happen as readily after a text exchange, which occur too slowly to create the same kind of warmth.
So the phone phobic should remember that the device’s hidden power isn’t just in making communication more efficient, it’s also in bringing people closer together.
I do a lot of consulting for companies, and the first question people often ask me isn’t the one they really want answered. They have a problem that they aren’t able to articulate clearly yet. A big part of my job is to figure out what somebody else really needs. To some degree or another, so is yours.
And you can’t do that as well by avoiding the phone. When you get a query by email, it is natural to want to answer it literally. It almost feels like an essay test: “Here’s a question–now go answer it in a few paragraphs.”
When you have a conversation, though, you can talk about the question a bit before answering it. Why are you being asked that question? What’s the context in which it’s being asked? What’s been done about it before? The more you find out about the questions you’re posed, the better you can decide whether those are the right ones to ask. There are other times when you talk with colleagues or clients, and it’s clear that they have something else on their mind. Something is bothering them, but they may not be comfortable talking about it. You can’t deal with problems you don’t know exist.
A good conversation makes people more comfortable with you–and like it or not, your likability is a major factor in the success of your career. In a world where everyone else is busy texting and emailing, a willingness to jump on a phone call (even if it doesn’t feel natural at first) can set you way ahead of the pack.
And while you’re at it, call your mother.