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I am a middle-aged software engineer at a largish law firm. As a part of my job and at least on a weekly basis I participate in conference calls featuring three or more people made up of co-workers and often times vendors too.

I previously worked 18 years at a different and much smaller law firm where I was only very infrequently involved in such calls. As it's turned out, such calls make me rather anxious, usually when multiple people start talking at the same time and stepping on each other's words.

This makes me highly anxious and my supervisor makes a point of pinging me on it, as my voice raises and changes in tone, reflecting my anxiety. He interprets this as me being impatient, angry and rude. This behavior has also been reflected in my performance reviews. I've since explained as much to him about the anxiety, in hopes he'll understand better.

Additionally, I am hard of hearing (I use an assisted hearing device), and I am sure this contributes to my anxiety. My hearing-loss is bi-lateral, so while I usually hear something it comes out garbled. Add to that multiple voices stepping on one another and it is a recipe for anxiety. Even for a programmer I am not especially introverted and do well enough in small groups and in person.

Does anyone have any thoughts or advice how I can mitigate these anxieties? Am I alone? Probably not.

closed as primarily opinion-based by Ælis, ElizB, avazula, sphennings, breversa Nov 16 '18 at 10:29

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • The person I know with hearing difficulties, relies a lot on watching faces/mouths. Is this something you miss in conference calls/ find more difficult in big groups? Since you say you do well in small groups/in person? – Tinkeringbell Sep 4 '17 at 13:18
  • @tinkeringbell Yes, most certainly it does add to the anxiety. – Steve Sep 4 '17 at 13:21
  • Is it possible to add video-conferencing? And a chat channel to capture the gist of the conversation or at least the actions decided on? I have the impression that a good discussion leader would at least reduce the confusion. – Bookeater Sep 4 '17 at 14:43
  • @Bookeater It may be possible on occasion but frequently not, nor would that solve people from talking over one another, really. These are telephone conferences I am a part of but don't organize. I'm pretty sure I just need to remind myself (continuously) to moderate my tone, volume and anxiety level. – Steve Sep 4 '17 at 14:47
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because managing anxieties is a personal skill not an interpersonal skill. – sphennings Nov 15 '18 at 15:03
9

So, I do not have hearing problems myself, but a co-worker has. Just as you, he relies heavily on watching faces/mouths when having a conversation, which makes having a conference call hard for him. Here is what he does:

  • Make sure the equipment used during a conference call is of good quality. For him, this means he makes sure co-workers he works with (and has a conference call with regularly) have access to good-quality headsets/conference microphones, since the ones in our company laptops are not the best. Depending on your employer, this may not be feasible for you, but at my workplace there is a stack of headsets and I take one home whenever I am working home the next day. Then, during daily stand-up or other meetings, I use this head-set, and return it the day after. Make sure a conference microphone is used on the other side as well, since three people using the same microphone on a single laptop will not make things easier to understand.
  • If you are having a conference call with new people present, make sure that it is known to everybody that somebody with hearing difficulties will be joining the conference call, and would people please remember that you can only hear them clearly if they talk one at a time, since you can not see their faces, and would they please show some consideration if you are unable to follow the conversation, since technology can be fickle. At my workplace, this is the task of the call organizer, and he/she is also responsible for reminding people when they start talking together all at once. So if at all possible, contact the organizer and ask them to take things into consideration to make your life a bit easier.

Even if all people present know about your problems, and are willing to adjust, you can not prevent them entirely from talking over each other. It still happens at my workplace, after more than a year. We try our best, but sometimes we do need a sharp reminder from our co-worker. All you can do is have a standard sentence prepared that you can use. It is okay to raise your voice a little for this announcement, so people can hear you talking on the other side. Just refrain from taking part in the discussion with a raised voice, this may indeed be interpreted as being either impatient, angry or rude.

People, I'm sorry but you were all talking together so I missed most of what was said. Could you please remember to talk one at time, and repeat what was said for me?

Sometimes, even just hearing some-one talk is enough of a reminder that 'oh yeah, we are forgetting about our co-worker again'. It happens often enough to me.

3
+100

usually when multiple people start talking at the same time and stepping on each other's words.

In real life you can see the other person start talking, so it is easy to avoid, but that's a problem with conference calls when the ping time is not that good. There is a lull in the conversation, then several people start talking at once, but it takes like 0.2-0.5 seconds for the audio to reach everyone, so everyone has time to say a word before they realize everyone's talking, then it becomes a mess. Then either everyone shuts up and the process repeats, or it gets louder and louder.

This is similar to packet collision avoidance on a network running on a shared medium, and the solutions to this are well-known.

The Ethernet or WiFi strategy is to have everyone talking go silent, then wait for a random time before resuming. Ideally this time should be longer than the network ping time, so once someone resumes talking, the others have enough time to hear and stay silent. This won't work on humans.

The token ring strategy is to have the last person talking say "your turn, Steve" after they're finished.

The USB strategy is to have a boss who tells when everyone shoult talk, in turn.

So, unless network latency is below a couple tens of milliseconds and you can hear the other open their mouths before they talk, conf-calls will inevitably become a noisy mess.

I suggest explaining this to your boss (he's probably annoyed too) and help him realize that he should just make a friendly introduction along the lines of "Have you noticed how when there's a bit of lag, these calls become a noisy mess?" (most likely everyone will agree at the same time in a big noisy rumble)

"I'd like to try something: when you've finished talking, if you want to pass the mike to someone, say their name. Or say my name, and I'll do it."

This will result in a lot of first-names being spoken, but it should reduce the mess and make it a lot more understandable for everyone.

Does your confcall software have a "I want to talk after you" button?

This makes me highly anxious and my supervisor makes a point of pinging me on it, as my voice raises and changes in tone, reflecting my anxiety. He interprets this as me being impatient, angry and rude. This behavior has also been reflected in my performance reviews. I've since explained as much to him about the anxiety, in hopes he'll understand better.

If, after the previous one has finished talking, he says "Steven." (thus signalling you're on air) then you won't get interrupted so your anxiety should recede, I guess. What do you think about this?

Additionally, I am hard of hearing

I'm not, but my father is, so we had the opportunity to experiment a bit.

You could try a high-quality headset that can go a bit loud without sounding like cat scratchings.

There are also headsets for the hearing-impaired, that you can configure according to your frequency-dependent hearing loss. These are used without the hearing aids, and leverage the fact that a large headphone speaker has a much better fidelity and intelligibility than a tiny hearing aid speaker.

You could use a standard (good quality) headset and software on the PC to filter the audio and boost the frequencies your ears have trouble with. Maybe the soundcard's parametric EQ could be enough...

Also, some hearing aids support Bluetooth, if yours do, then you could use that, it will remove one step in the signal chain and should sound more intelligible.

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I read two problems in the question: conference calls are mechanically difficult (due to problems hearing other participants clearly), and conference calls cause anxiety (maybe but not necessarily a subset of the first problem). For the first problem, I don't have anything to add to Tinkeringbell's answer except my endorsement.

For the anxiety, there might be some variations on my advice depending on what exactly is behind it, but in general I think that you might be well-served by imposing order on the calls to the extent that you can.

This does not mean instituting a system where only one person speaks at a time-- my experience with conference calls suggests that that will never happen. But instead, when people talk over one another, you can follow up with a quick summary of what each person expressed and a request for clarification if you couldn't hear. Something like, "So, Karen, you think that we should pursue strategy X, but Todd brought up concern Y about doing so. And then Taylor said something else, but I didn't quite catch it."

You probably can't do this with every single comment people make, but even a little bit of a running summary can really help tame a chaotic call. I haven't used this technique on the phone much, but I've had great success using it in unruly groups in-person. It also helps me to feel calmer because, as I organize things in my mind, I'm not trying to insert myself into a chaotic conversation but am instead just trying to make sure that my understanding of what's been said is correct. And if, after confirming my summary is right, I have something to add, well, I've often just created a space for myself to do so!

If this is hard for you to do, due to maybe an aggressive speaker on the call or discomfort with "jumping in" at all, it might be feasible for someone else to help. For example, if your supervisor is usually on the calls as well, he or she might be willing to do the running summary. A key trait of this approach is that it doesn't just deliver value to you (even if it does help with your anxiousness or make it easier to glean information from the call), but it makes things clearer and more orderly for everyone on the call.

Finally, with some notable exceptions I've found chaotic groupings of people responsive to someone taking charge, even in a minor way. People are generally willing to pause and confirm someone else's understanding, if that person asks. And if it becomes a convention on the calls that "Steven likes to summarize things and make sure we're all on the same page several times each call", you might find that people start making sure you hear and understand what they have to say, and since the free-for-all makes that less likely their behaviors may change to suit.

1

Dealing with Anxiety Without Control.

My work requires a lot of conference calls. It isn't unusual for the calls to have three or four countries on the line. The firm I work for solves difficult problems for large facilities; along with their own technical staff. So it is almost always true that there are people in the call I have never met or spoken with before; and further that these people don't follow any CC rules at all. They do and say whatever they want; come and go as they please, and may or may not be on the next call with this client. Due to the international nature of our clients, calls can occur at any point on the 24 hour clock.

Even the people on our side are not fixed: Due to the nature of work the team assembled to solve it depends upon the problem: I'm American, but only about a third of our specialists are Americans. My particular super power applies to about 25% of clients. Other super powers on our side hail from Germany, Sweden, the UK, France, Japan, China, Canada --- and more I'm not thinking of. The firm I work for has specialists scattered around the world, and most (like me) are not 9-to-5ers, but are invited to teams when their skill is needed.

So, although I don't have a hearing problem, I often deal with strongly accented English from non-native speakers I cannot control. (I am never in charge of these meetings; I am not a project manager). Further, clients often discuss something during the call with each other, in a language I don't understand.

How to deal with it?

Preparation, and Zen.

Do what you can with your OWN equipment; make sure you can work hands free and wireless.

If you can record the call, do it.

Make sure you know how to mute your microphone in an instant (I work from an office in my home; but interruptions happen. Deliveries, dogs outside, neighbors we are friends with, etc.)

Before the conference starts, I get a full list of attendees from the call organizer. I arrange a plain chart with names and roles on a legal sized paper; more than one if needed. I keep track of questions I have on the call, written near the person I think needs to be asked, or written separately.

I am working the whole call, trying to follow the conversation, contributing if I get the chance, or writing notes for my Qs and Answers if I don't get the chance.

After the call, I go over these notes and try to figure out what I still don't know, and who can help me with that. I will be contacting the project manager (or call organizer) with my questions and any answers I thought of, but it is important to do some of this while the call is fresh in my head.

The Zen, or Understanding:

I believe if people are talking over each other, chances are the topic is not settled. I don't make an effort to understand them (and get anxious for failing), I'm okay with not knowing what is going on and use that time to note the time and keywords to write a question later, by email. If they end up agreeing or gaining a new insight during the CC, I have a check-mark for that, if I don't understand the insight, a question-mark for it: They figured it out, ask exactly WHAT they figured out.

I do not think of my role as being the best in the room at anything except my narrow area of expertise. I will talk over people that try to TAKE my role or speak for me. But my role is not to contribute to every conversation.

Yes, the whole point of the meeting is to be real time and save time by hashing things out in conversations. But I know myself: I am not fast on my feet, I don't think of ramifications quickly, problems or responses or rational arguments that seem obvious in retrospect just don't occur to me in conversations. I don't think that way, and I am not paid to think that way.

So for me, the CC is almost never the end of the conversation.

I'm not anxious (anymore) because I have perspective. My job is to be great at one relatively narrow kind of task. If I am on the team, then all my crew on my team and all the crew on the client side want and need me to succeed at my one thing. Just as I want and need other specialists to succeed at their specialties, and I will help them in any way I can.

On our side, we have project managers whose specialty is to know everybody and what they do, to be a good conversationalist and to manage the information or decisions that come out of such calls.

I usually follow up with them, in emails or by phone, to get clarifications, to make arguments I couldn't make during the call, and to answer questions when I did not get the chance to talk (or just didn't think of an important point at the time). I can note who I think said what, and if I recorded the call the times in my notes let me review in private what was said.

A business CC is not a sports game or contest to be won or lost in the moment. I have been on CC that lasted an hour, where I did not say a thing other than introduce myself --- But a day later, after a few clarifications and a night's sleep, suddenly realized how to solve the problem being discussed with an approach that actually worked.

I think nobody really cares that I had no idea how to solve it and nothing to contribute during the CC. Including me! It got solved.That is what matters.

1

When I read your question, my first idea is "Jezus, those people are so rude!".

You say that people sometimes start discussing in the middle of the conference call, and you say this is making you anxious. Let's be real: the only people who like that kind of situation are the people who are actually discussing, the others are bored, annoyed, anxious, ...

I see only one remedy against this kind of situation, and that's preparation: before the conference call everybody must send to a central person all the items (s)he wants to discuss. That central person then sets up an agenda for the meeting, and acts as a moderator during the conference call.

When people start discussing in the middle of the conference call, then the moderator has the right (and the duty) to intervene and to propose to continue this discussion outside of the conference call.

For you, as far as your anxiety is concerned, I think it would be a good idea if your boss was that central person: you'd be very close towards the person in charge of the conference call, and in case you work on the preparation (like putting together the agenda), that would put you in a controlling state and your anxiety would reduce automatically.

Good luck

0

What was your boss's response when you said that you are anxious because you can't hear people? I don't know in which country you are, but in the UK your boss should make "reasonable adjustments" (legal term) to help you hear properly.

In quick practical terms, I agree with some of the things said above, especially the quality tech spec, I would summarise my practical advice as:

The best way to get them to help is if you approach (physically, by email or via a one to one call) them (the person who asked for the call or the call chairperson) by explaining things in this structure:

WHY you are not contributing during calls/or come across as rude

HOW this affects you

WHAT they could do to enable you to contribute.

Say to them something like:

(WHY) During conference calls I just hear garbled messages, (HOW) so I become very anxious as I can't understand what is going on. (WHAT) What would help me to be able to understand and contribute to these calls would be:

  1. *You/chairperson/person who asked for this meeting states at the beginning of the meeting that people should not speak fast or over each other, and if they want me to make sure someone understood or contributes to a specific item in the call, to mention their name first: "Mike, what do you think of XYZ?" Also the chairperson of the call stops people when they start speaking over each other and reminds them to speak one after the other. At the end of the call, the chairperson summarises the key actions to take by each person.

  2. Check with me at the end of each conference call (and set 15 min in the diary after every call) that I heard and understood all the actions I have to take. This should alleviate quite a few of my anxieties as I will know it's clear what my actions are after the meeting.

  3. If we got x y and z brand of headphones for everyone so their voices are clearer

  4. Moving the calls onto Skype or Zoom or other video conferencing so I can lip read and increase the chance of me understanding what they are saying.*

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