Admittedly this is a primarily business-related question, since I'm about to enter the workplace, but it spans personal life too, so I am asking here.

I hate making and taking phone calls. Whenever I have to use one, I become flustered and anxious. This is primarily due to not being able to understand/hear what people say, particularly a quiet voice in a fast accent I am not familiar with. I end up having to say 'what?' or 'pardon?' several times in a row before giving it up as a lost cause. (As an aside, this is not a problem face to face, as I can hear okay and also pick up body language.)

This ultimately ends up in a vicious circle of not understanding, becoming flustered, and understanding even less.

Also, I always end up hanging off with 'see you' which is how I end a conversation with my acquaintances, and is inappropriate for a phonecall to someone who I will never see again!

How do I cope with this issue? What can I do to gain confidence on the phone?

  • Is it possible that it is an issue with speaker volume on your phone? – John Jul 22 '17 at 19:01
  • @John possibly, but the clarity of phone lines is an issue too (crackly line). Also, some people sound like they're talking from across the room, while speaking 200 wpm :/ It's less of an issue with people who's voices I recognise, as well. (Probably because I already know their vocal nuances) – marcellothearcane Jul 22 '17 at 19:06
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    @marcellothearcane Please note that I am trying to think of reasons -- and not to be argumentative. Standard phone handsets actually operate at an abbreviated band of the human hearing spectrum. Is it possible you have been exposed to some loud noises in the past that have hurt your hearing within the handset spectrum? – John Jul 22 '17 at 19:40
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    I'd encourage you to get your hearing tested. People of any age can have hearing loss. – Ellen Spertus Jul 23 '17 at 3:18
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    Seconding and thirding the hearing tests. Since you can understand people perfectly well when face to face with them, you may be unconsciously compensating by picking up other clues. – SQB Jul 26 '17 at 6:49

I assume that you have already looked into technical solutions regarding bad reception (turning up the volume, requesting a better phone, etc), and that you also rule out physical hearing issues.


I have the same issue with phone calls, and I assume that it is a combination of missing visual signals and anxiety. You can't do anything practical for the first (I assume video calls or in-person meetings are out of the question), but you can try to work on the second.

For me, it helps enormously to be prepared. Before making a call, I write down what I want to achieve with the call, what topics need to be covered, what questions I have, what the other person will likely ask me, and so on. This helps with the anxiety, and with less anxiety, actually understanding the other person becomes easier.

You might also want to try some common practices against anxiety. Meditation, listening to music, deep breathing, etc. Whatever helps you to get in a good state of mind before a call.

Finally, as with most things, practice helps. You might want to consider using the phone more often in low-stakes situations (calling friends and family, ordering pizza, etc).

During the call

Anxiety can result in you talking fast, and that can result in the other person talking fast as well, making understanding difficult. So try not to talk too fast yourself.

You may also want to take notes during the call. Anxiety may lead to you forgetting things the other person has mentioned, and writing them down can help you keeping track of that. Having a written record to reference can also help with your problem of understanding, as you have a context for what the other person is saying. Taking notes may also help you to really listen to the other person.

Handling poor understanding

I also know the situation where I am asking "what?" five times in a row before giving up. Obviously, giving up is not a practical solution, especially in a business context.

If you are somewhat understanding the other person but are not quite sure, a good method is to summarize/rephrase what they are saying. If you think you heard "We need to foo the bar by tomorrow", you could say "OK, I will foo the bar by then", or "If I understood correctly, you want me to foo the bar?". In practice, you would want to use different phrases than the other person. This is a great method even when you are sure that you understood the other person, as it helps to make sure that there are no misunderstandings.

If you do not understand the other person at all, you should make that clear. After saying "what?" or "I'm sorry, can you repeat that?" once, you should offer the other persons possible solutions to the communication problem instead of just repeating "what?". You might say "It seems that I am having bad reception, can you slow down and speak clearer?", or you might suggest other forms of communication: "This is getting rather complex. Can you send me the details via email?"


Perhaps you can start the conversation with a request: "Please speak slowly and clearly because otherwise I will not understand you".

The advantage of this approach is that it forewarns the speaker that you have a specific requirement that he otherwise will assume is not there. It also gives an automatic explanation to the reason why you are saying "What?". They will then immediately recognize how to fix the situation. The downside to this approach is that it will probably not take too long until they "forget" and start to speak at normal speed again -- though one would hope that they would not do this. (I had a similar challenge when I was trying to understand someone who was speaking Creole French to me. It would start slow and soon be at "too fast".)

As another thought, you can try using a custom headset:

  • An easily useable volume control.
  • Speakers for both ears to be more in line with talking live.
  • Technology that will filter out ambient noise on your end.
  • If or when it exists, high fidelity telephony.

To the existing great answers, I'd like to add that if they're giving you directions, phone numbers, addresses etc, you can ask them to kindly text you those details just to make sure it reaches you correctly.

If it's a conversation with close friends, you can also choose to text them by SMS or online instant messaging apps. That won't work for business settings, though.

For business calls, it'll be good to request them to send an email with the important details. This has to be given thought before saying. You cannot ask your superiors or customers to email you, but you can ask others probably.


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