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What Is Communication Apprehension and How Do You Beat It? - HRDQ

What Is Communication Apprehension and How Do You Beat It?

Communication apprehension is most often discussed in the context of public speaking, as it's incredibly common for people to experience anxiety before talking in front of an audience. The truth is, though, that people also deal with this type of anxiety in a number of different situations and contexts that might not have anything to do with speaking in front of a group.

Some people might feel butterflies in their stomachs when they experience communication apprehension, while others might have a more severe response, such as a panic attack.

Whether you're a leader in your workplace dealing with communication apprehension or you're aware that several of your employees are dealing with anxiety surrounding communicating with others, you'll be glad to know that there are strategies and methods you can use to overcome CA and reduce the stress and anxiety of communicating.

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What Is Communication Apprehension?

Communication apprehension is a type of anxiety brought on by communicating with others or the anticipation of communication with others. This anxiety is fueled by the fear of judgment from the people one communicates with.

While you'll often find the notion of communication apprehension associated with the fear of public speaking and stage fright, it can also arise in contexts that don't involve talking to a large audience.

Communication Apprehension Anxiety

Communication apprehension can be experienced in any of the four communication forms, which are:

  • Interpersonal
  • Group
  • Public
  • Mass communication

James McCroskey, a professor and researcher who focused on communication apprehension, defined the phenomenon as "an individual's level of fear or anxiety associated with either real or anticipated communication with another person or persons." McCroskey published hundreds of articles and more than 30 books and revisions. He is perhaps best known for his definition of communication, which is as follows:

"The process by which one person stimulates meaning in the mind of another through verbal and nonverbal messages."

The Types of Communication Apprehension

According to McCroskey, there are four types of communication apprehension.

Employee Feeling Anxious

These are each brought about by situations that can trigger an anxiety response in a person.

1. Context

When a person experiences contextual communication apprehension, a specific context triggers their anxiety. With this type of anxiety, a person experiences a psychological response from a specific context but not necessarily all contexts where they are communicating with others.

Coworkers Speaking to Each Other

For example, you might feel perfectly comfortable speaking with your spouse but experience tremendous anxiety when speaking to board members or in front of a large audience.

2. Trait

Trait anxiety, on the other hand, is considered a personality type. People with trait anxiety tend to feel anxious when communicating with others regardless of the context, audience, or situation.

Coworkers Not Communicating

Individuals with this type of communication apprehension commonly try to avoid situations where they need to communicate with others.

3. Situation

Situational anxiety occurs when a person experiences communication anxiety in a specific situation that isn't necessarily related to the context or the person they're speaking with. Commonly, it involves a particular combination of the context and the audience.

Situational Communication Apprehension

For example, a person might not feel anxious when talking with coworkers in the office, but they might find themselves experiencing communication apprehension when interacting with the same people in a new environment, such as at the bar after work or the office Christmas party.

4. Audience

Some people experience audience anxiety when speaking in front of people they know, while others find it anxiety-inducing to talk to a group of strangers. In either case, this can be a problematic experience for individuals in leadership positions in the office.

A person that is going to be giving a speech in front of an audience might not experience their anxiety in a constant flow throughout all of the stages of preparing and delivering a speech.

Speaking to an Audience

In one study, it was found that anxiety levels typically peaked in the "anticipation" stage of giving a speech. That means we are most likely to feel the anxiety of communication apprehension in the few moments before actually getting up and speaking.

As the speech goes on, it's common for anxiety levels to decline. Knowing this ahead of time can help to alleviate fears you might experience when first stepping onto the stage, as you can have some confidence that your anxiety will decrease and you'll become more comfortable once you start speaking.

Symptoms of Communication Apprehension

While it's already clear that communication apprehension causes people to feel anxious, there are also some physiological symptoms. These include:

  • Shaky hands
  • Sweaty palms
  • Butterflies in the stomach
  • Talking too fast
  • Not talking at all
  • Accelerated heart rate
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Dry mouth
  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • A lump in the throat

If you've experienced these types of symptoms when faced with a communication scenario of one sort or another, you should know that this is quite common. Even highly experienced performers and speakers will face communication apprehension in their careers and personal lives.

When you experience anxiety, there are two components to the emotional state: the primary central nervous system reaction and the way you intellectually interpret these physical symptoms. While you might not be able to completely get rid of the physiological response you experience, you can alter the way you mentally label those responses. This can significantly impact your ability to forge forward and communicate in whatever situation is necessary.

A Symptom of Communication Apprehension

When individuals have a high level of communication apprehension, there are three typical behaviors that occur.

One of these is communication avoidance, which involves a person trying to get through their lives by reducing the occurrence of unpleasant and stressful interactions. The second is communication withdrawal, which only occurs when a person cannot avoid communication altogether. This is when a person communicates as little as possible, such as keeping responses short, only responding when spoken to, or only answering questions.

The third behavior is communication disruption. This is when the individual tries to communicate, but their poor communicative strategies and excessive breaks in speech make it difficult to convey the intended meaning. 

How to Overcome Communication Apprehension

Luckily, there are many strategies that can be used to overcome communication apprehension over time.

Employee Overcoming Communication Apprehension

For people that only experience this type of anxiety situationally or occasionally, milder tactics might be appropriate. More intensive options are available for others dealing with trait anxiety that interferes with their everyday lives.

1. Peer Practice

One method that has been proven effective in beating communication apprehension is peer practice. A study with high school students as the subjects found that overall levels of communication apprehension were reduced in a statistically significant way through peer practice.

No matter what contexts, situations, or audiences you feel anxiety around (or, in the case of trait anxiety, all contexts, situations, and audiences,) you might try practicing and role-playing the types of experiences that typically make you nervous.

Public Speaking Peer Practice

If you struggle with public speaking, you can slowly desensitize yourself with gradual exposure. You might choose, for example, to join a ToastMasters club or something similar where you can first watch other people speak in public and then eventually get to the point where you start preparing, practicing, and delivering speeches in front of a supportive audience.

When practicing for a specific speech or presentation, it can be a good idea to create conditions similar to those you'll deal with when speaking to a group. The best possible option is practicing in the room you will actually be speaking in, but this might not be accessible to you for several reasons. If you aren't able to access the actual room, try and find a similar space where you can imagine that you are actually giving the talk.

You also might find that a thorough communication style inventory can help you identify the situations triggering your anxiety and how to adopt a more flexible style.

2. Engage in Positive Self Talk

One of the reasons we can experience communication anxiety is because of engaging in relentless negative self-talk. You can work to start paying attention to the way you talk to yourself about yourself and shift your self-talk to become more positive.

Engaging in Positive Self Talk

For example, if you're giving a presentation to higher-ups at your company, you might realize that you keep telling yourself something along the lines of "I'm not going to remember anything I want to say when I get up in front of the CEO."

Instead of telling yourself something so negative that will only increase your anxiety, transform your self-talk into positive self-talk with a statement such as:

"I am well prepared for this presentation, and I know the material like the back of my hand. I'll have notes to help guide me through. Even if I miss a point or two, the audience doesn't know what I planned and won't know if I don't cover every little detail."

3. Meditation

Picking up a meditation practice can help naturally reduce communication anxiety. Mindfulness meditation encourages you to sit quietly and focus only on your breathing and bodily sensations. It's crucial as you notice sensations emerging that you aren't tempted to evaluate, judge, or label them.

With practice, you can quickly become calmer before giving a speech or when you feel anxious.

An Employee Meditating

Meditation can help reduce the stress associated with communicating with others, allowing you to focus more on the present moment. 

4. Positive Visualization

Another way that you can manage stress and reduce anxiety surrounding communication is positive visualization. This involves picturing something positive– such as successfully giving a speech or interacting with someone you just met– in your mind's eye.

Positive Visualization

If you're wondering whether this technique is worth trying, you might be interested to know that it's commonly used in professional sports training because it's so effective.

5. Power Posing

Believe it or not, striking what is known as a "power pose" for only two minutes can help to reduce anxiety and increase confidence. When you hold yourself in one of these positions (for example, doing your best impression of Superman or Wonder Woman,) your body chemistry changes. Researchers at Harvard found that cortisol levels decreased and testosterone levels increased when people used this technique.

An Employee Power Posing

Though it might sound silly, it's such an easy method that it's worth trying. When practicing your speech or presentation, try striking a pose before each run-through and then try it again before the actual event.

6. Virtual Reality

There have also been some reports that virtual reality (VR) can be a helpful tool when working to overcome communication apprehension.

Person in Virtual Reality

Using virtual reality, individuals can practice going through situations and contexts that would typically make them anxious to prepare for the actual event.

7. Relaxation Techniques

You might find that learning many relaxation techniques can help you combat anxiety surrounding communication.

One option in this regard is to learn some breathing techniques. The simplest breathing technique involves sitting up straight in a chair with your arms at your side and breaking in deeply through your nose for five seconds. When you exhale through your mouth, count to seven and repeat this process ten times.

A Woman Relaxing

Another method to help you relax is progressive muscle relaxation. This simple exercise involves sitting in a chair and going through each muscle group in your body, contracting and releasing each one. Starting with your toes, you can tense your muscles and hold them there for a few seconds before releasing them. As you work your way up through the body, pay attention to the feeling of tension and relaxation.

Guided imagery can also be a helpful tool to promote relaxation. There are countless free guided meditations available online and through popular meditation apps like Headspace and Calm. You can also record yourself reading a guided meditation and listen to it when you're feeling the impact of communication apprehension.

Understanding Your Communication Style to Combat Communication Apprehension

As with most things in life, the fear of speaking with or in front of others is often much scarier when we don't understand why it's happening. In general, the more information you have, the better. An essential component of being a good leader is self-awareness, and learning more about your particular communication style could help you gain insight into your anxiety surrounding communication.

A Team Communicating

Our best-selling training tool, What's My Communication Style, can help you understand the style you use when communicating with others in various situations. Using a twenty-four-item assessment, you'll be able to determine your preference for one of the four communication styles. There's a good chance you'll have a eureka moment during the assessment, where you learn something new and invaluable about your communication style.

Do you have any questions about communication apprehension or how you can beat it? If so, please feel free to leave us a comment, and we'll be sure to get back to you within a couple of days! We always make it a point to reply to all our readers' comments and questions, and we'd love to help you out however possible.

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About our author

Bradford R. Glaser

Brad is President and CEO of HRDQ, a publisher of soft-skills learning solutions, and HRDQ-U, an online community for learning professionals hosting webinars, workshops, and podcasts. His 35+ years of experience in adult learning and development have fostered his passion for improving the performance of organizations, teams, and individuals.