Communication anxiety is one of the most common fears in the United States. It appears in particular contexts such as interviewing for a position, speaking in an unfamiliar environment, meeting new people, asking someone for a date, writing a letter, partaking in a wide range of public speaking situations, or communicating with someone in authority. This paper explores methods such as assertiveness training, systematic desensitization, cognitive restructuring, and communication orientation motivation for the treatment of communication anxiety and the fears associated with it.
Communication anxiety can be described as an apprehension of anticipated communication suffered by a person that can seriously affect their communication skills. (Horwitz, 2001). It is often defined as “the hidden communication disorder” because it is rarely acknowledged or discussed. Communication anxiety is also known as communication apprehension or stage fright and ranges in its effect from minor nervousness to paralyzing phobia (Horwitz, 2001).
Trepidation about communication is one of the most common fears in the United States. According to the National Communication Association, around 75 percent of all Americans are not comfortable with communication (as cited in Sullivan, 2009). Their fear might appear in particular contexts such as interviewing for a position, speaking in an unfamiliar environment, meeting new people, asking someone for a date, writing a letter, partaking in a wide range of public speaking situations, or communicating with someone in authority (Sullivan, 2009). Many studies suggest that communicatively apprehensive people often opt for online communication instead of face-to-face interaction (Donsbach, 2015). According to McCroskey, individual’s level of apprehension is closely linked to the lack of confidence in receiving positive feedback from others, desire to gather positive evaluation of one’s performance, and disproportionate sensitivity to the reaction of other people to one’s communication behaviors (Donsbach, 2015). In order to better understand the issue, anxiety communication scholars use various types of communication apprehension measures such as Personal Report of Communication Apprehension, Test of Singing Apprehension, and Writing Apprehension Test (Donsbach, 2015).
Stage fright is a manifestation of communication anxiety in the public context (Sullivan, 2009). It is associated with the “fight or flight” instinct and other psychological and physiological symptoms such as increased heart rate, quick and shallow breathing and trembling (Sullivan, 2009). Many people report that their experience of public speaking seems to happen in slow motion (Sullivan, 2009). Especially severe cases of communication apprehension might cause nausea, vomiting and temporary loss of consciousness. Communication anxiety and the fears associated with it can be solved by assertiveness training, systematic desensitization, cognitive restructuring and communication orientation motivation (Sullivan, 2009).
The acquisition of assertive behavior is linked with the reduction of communication apprehension and social anxiety disorder. Even though the effect of assertiveness training is not always associated with tangible outcomes, it still can be perceived by the heightened level of self-control.
Assertiveness in communication is conceptualized as the middle ground between passive and aggressive interactive responses (O’Donohue, & Fisher, 2009). The psychological explanation for two extremes posits that both of them are shaped by the outcome expectations of an individual. Therefore, in order to reduce the level of communication apprehension and increase assertive responding, people undergoing assertiveness training must learn how to manage their outcome expectations (O’Donohue, & Fisher, 2009).
Assertive communication presupposes the existence of proper social skills. Therefore, assertiveness training is closely linked with the development of verbal and nonverbal behaviors (O’Donohue, & Fisher, 2009). Appropriate posture and eye contact are closely associated with a high level of self-control. They are often considered the main prerequisites for executing an assertive response. Other behaviors that play an important role in communication are facial expression, gestures, affective displays and body movements (O’Donohue, & Fisher, 2009).
Assertiveness training usually starts with the proper evaluation of a set of skills and performance competencies related to assertive behavior. They can be measured with the help of self-report instruments as well as behavioral observations (O’Donohue, & Fisher, 2009). Clinician-administered measures are used for the assessment of skill displays in clinical settings. They help to evaluate diagnostic components of anxiety through the set of structured clinical interviews. Self-report measures are designed to assess communication during social interactions and other displays of social behavior in the individual’s natural environment (O’Donohue, & Fisher, 2009). Self-monitoring requires a person to describe their perception of social competencies along with a range of dimensions. Behavioral measures are considered the best strategy for the observation of skill displays and performance competencies (O’Donohue, & Fisher, 2009). Social interaction tasks in analog and real-world settings contain a set of problematic interactions that serve as arenas for evoking communication responses in relatively high demand situations (O’Donohue, & Fisher, 2009).
Strategies for assertiveness training
Self-help resources are recommended as adjuncts to assertiveness training because the person who lacks assertiveness skills and wants to initiate their development cannot directly capitalize on the observational skills of a specialist (O’Donohue, & Fisher, 2009). There is a plethora of material available in print and on the Internet that can guide a layperson through the process of the acquisition of assertive behavior.
Therapist-based treatments are shown to be the most effective in the development of assertive communication skills. The therapist assesses the possibility of honest and respectful communication in the context of different forms of verbal and nonverbal exchanges (O’Donohue, & Fisher, 2009). The treatment starts with the basic elements of assertive behavior, gradually moving through the hierarchy of skill sets necessary for the improvement of the current client’s behavioral patterns. They offer behavioral alternatives to the communicatively apprehensive people across such contexts as giving and receiving compliments, making and refusing requests, providing, and receiving feedback (O’Donohue, & Fisher, 2009).
Many scholars have suggested that communication apprehension is the problem that is usually developed over an extended period of time. Therefore, there is a significant variation in the degree to which people feel apprehensive about various types of communication (Sellnow & Sellnow, 2005). According to numerous cognitive science studies, anxiety is a habit that is triggered by the anxiety-producing situation (Sellnow & Sellnow, 2005). It can be unlearned through the extensive course of desensitization treatment.
Systematic desensitization was developed by Wolpe in 1958 (Sellnow & Sellnow, 2005). His method hinges on relaxation and visualization. Numerous studies indicate that this is the most effective type of communication apprehension treatment. Moreover, nearly eighty percent of all people who tried this method reported experiencing a significant reduction in the level of anxiety (Sellnow & Sellnow, 2005). The process of desensitization focuses on changing the learned emotional reactions that are being produced in an individual that is having difficulties with communication during a particular type of communication event (Rickheit & Strohner, 2008). Heightened blood pressure and heart rate, quick and shallow breathing and trembling are among usual physiological manifestations of emotional response to a negative stimulus of communication (Rickheit & Strohner, 2008).
The systemic desensitization involves a three-stages approach to the treatment during which a communicatively apprehensive individual learns how to relax and maintain a calm state of mind for an extended period of time. It puts an emphasis on the biofeedback that heightens awareness of somebody functions and allows them to control them (Sellnow & Sellnow, 2005). The Three-steps method of systemic desensitization changes the individual’s reaction to the negative stimulus and makes them less sensitive to it (Sellnow & Sellnow, 2005).
Three Steps of Systematic Desensitization
Progressive relaxation activities are known to contribute greatly to the reduction of communication anxiety (Sellnow & Sellnow, 2005). The two most helpful approaches to the relaxation exercises are breathing techniques and progressive muscle relaxation therapy. Most importantly, the use of breathing exercises before a public speaking event can significantly reduce the level of stress and, thus improve performance. For example, it has been proven that sighing immediately before the start of communication can decrease a person’s anxiety level (Sellnow & Sellnow, 2005).
Progressive muscle relaxation therapy is an important part of relaxation activities. The method was developed in 1938 by American physician Edmund Jacobson and it still remains the central part of the deep relaxation activities (Sellnow & Sellnow, 2005). Progressive muscle relaxation therapy is a set of exercises for such muscle groups as biceps and triceps, neck and shoulders, face muscles, abdomen, back, stomach, thighs, feet and toes (Sellnow & Sellnow, 2005).
Progressive visualization activities are the second phase of systematic desensitization training (Sellnow & Sellnow, 2005). They involve visualization of gradually more uncomfortable communication conditions that follows muscle relaxation therapy. Communicatively apprehensive people are being asked to concentrate on the relaxed state while visualizing themselves in situations like talking on the telephone, asking someone for a date or engaging in public speaking (Sellnow & Sellnow, 2005).
The third step of systematic desensitization is to engage in progressive experiential activities (Sellnow & Sellnow, 2005). Those might include talking with a friend on the telephone about some personal experience, introduction to a new acquaintance, speaking in front of a small group of people, and walking to the front of an auditorium and giving a speech (Sellnow & Sellnow, 2005).
Communication apprehension intervention is the set of grounded in empirical evidence methods for the reduction of speaking-related stress (Donsbach, 2015). Cognitive restructuring is one of the most common techniques for overcoming communication anxiety. It is a part of the cognitive behavioral therapy and sometimes called cognitive replacement (Donsbach, 2015). Cognitive restructuring utilizes a wide range of intervention techniques aimed at the modification of the system of beliefs of a patient, elimination of destructive verbal and perceptual patterns (Donsbach, 2015).
According to Ellis, Beck and other cognitive theorists, the majority of social and behavioral dysfunctions are linked with the people’s distorted beliefs about themselves (as cited in Hepworth, Rooney, Dewberry, Strom-Gottfried, & Larsen, 2009). Therefore, cognitive restructuring is concerned with changing patient’s thoughts, behaviors and feelings that are related to problematic behavior (Hepworth et al., 2009). Those changes can be achieved through the set of therapeutic methods aimed at recognizing misconceptions and cognitive distortions that inhibit adequate cognitive functioning. It is important to understand that other elements of information processing such as adverse environment or scarce resources also contribute to faulty assumptions. Moreover, not all cognitions can be considered faulty in the variety of sociocultural structures with different factors influencing the way in which people think. According to Berlin and Pollack, the relationship between sexual orientation, race, gender and a plethora of cultural interactions cannot be minimized (as cited in Hepworth et al., 2009).
Empirical Evidence and Use of Cognitive Restructuring
Cognitive restructuring methods are known to alleviate low self-esteem problems, unrealistic expectations of self and others, phobias, apprehension and depression (Hepworth et al., 2009). The study conducted by Feeny suggests that they can be highly effective in the treatment of communication anxiety (as cited in Hepworth et al., 2009). Moreover, restructuring methods are extremely useful for the intensification of self-efficacy in adolescents. The works of Giacola et al., Liau et al., and Clark reveal that cognitive restructuring methods for treating communication and behavioral disorders in children are only effective when they are used in conjunction with enactive performance-based techniques (as cited in Hepworth et al., 2009). Studies, specific to communication anxiety, conducted by Bailey imply that cognitive restructuring treatment produces better results when combined with the involvement of family. Moreover, it can only be effective when age-appropriate strategies are applied (Hepworth et al., 2009).
The main critique of the use of cognitive restructuring method in the treatment of communication anxiety is that it does not guaranty a certain outcome (Hepworth et al., 2009). Furthermore, even though it can facilitate a patient in willingness to remove cognitive barriers and help them develop new behavioral patterns, it does not provide them with the skillset necessary for overcoming adverse social forces (Hepworth et al., 2009). It is also important to understand that, although such dysfunctional behavioral pattern as communication anxiety is usually attributed to the set of misconceptions and cognitive distortions, it can also be caused by a variety of biophysical problems and chemical imbalances (Hepworth et al., 2009). Therefore, the number of possible disorders must be considered before undertaking a procedure of cognitive restructuring.
Communication Orientation Motivation
Communication orientation motivation (COM) is the set of methods for the reduction of communication anxiety. It is specifically designed to help communicatively apprehensive people to adopt a skill of communication rather than focus on the performance aspect of their speeches (Verderber, Verderber, & Sellnow, 2008). Communication anxiety interventions can be divided into two categories: behavior-centered and cognition-centered interventions (Verderber et al., 2008). Cognitive approach, which is the basis for COM method, assumes that thinking process can serve as an explanation for negative outcomes related to the public speaking (Verderber et al., 2008). According to the developer of communication orientation program Michael Motley, there is a direct correlation between performance orientation and public speaking apprehension (as cited in Verderber et al., 2008). When people regard the process of delivering a speech as a socially demanding situation requiring special skills to excite and engage their audience, they usually experience worrisome thoughts that lead to the heightened level of anxiety (Verderber et al., 2008). On the contrary, those who are able to adopt a communication orientation and regard a public speaking event as an opportunity to have a conversation with an audience have a greater chance of succeeding in delivering a speech (Verderber et al., 2008).
The main benefit of the Motley’s method lies in the fact that it does not require the supervision of the trained specialist. Moreover, it is less time-consuming than traditional approaches such as communication training and rational-emotive therapy (Ayres, Hopf, & Peterson, 2000)
A Test of Communication Orientation Motivation (COM) Therapy
Motley provided an abundance of anecdotal evidence concerning the efficacy of his method. However, much-needed experimental data on the treatment of public speaking anxiety by applying COM approach was scarce. The research conducted by Motley and Molloy in 1994 supported scientists’ claim about the effectiveness of COM intervention in treating communicatively apprehensive people (Ayres et al., 2000). However, it was criticized for the fact that 103 participants of the study did not engage in public speaking but rather reported that their level of PSA was lower (Ayres et al., 2000). Moreover, the research conducted by Booth-Butterfield was not able to confirm Motley and Malloy’s results (Ayres et al., 2000). The lack of consistency in the clinical and empirical evidence on the efficacy of COM therapy called for an additional study that would verify the claims of Motley and Malloy (Ayres et al., 2000).
The more systematic approach was taken in the research conducted by Ayres et al. in 2000. 136 participants were asked to fill in the self-perceived communication competence questioners before delivering a speech (Ayres et al., 2000). Based on their scores, they were prescribed different treatment conditions (Ayres et al., 2000). A week after intervention, they delivered another speech before the audience of eight people. Participants were then asked to complete PRCA, State CA, WTC and SPCC measures (Ayres et al., 2000). The overall analyses of the data revealed that even though there was not a visible impact of COM treatment on the willingness to communicate, communication apprehension was reduced. The study also indicated that if low competence inhibits the desire to communicate, then reduction of CA might lead to the higher WTC (Ayres et al., 2000).
Communication anxiety is a very common fear that ranges in its effect from minor nervousness to paralyzing phobia. It can appear in a variety of contexts such as interviewing for a position, speaking in an unfamiliar situation or environment, meeting new people, asking someone for a date, writing, partaking in a wide range of public speaking activities or communicating with someone in authority (Sullivan, 2009). The methods such as assertiveness training, systematic desensitization, cognitive restructuring and communication orientation motivation have been proven effective in the reduction of communication anxiety and the fears associated with it.
Assertiveness training is the systematic development of verbal and nonverbal behaviors for the alleviation of communication trepidation symptoms. It usually starts with the proper assessment of patient’s communicative abilities and performance competencies that can be measured with the help of self-reported instruments and behavioral observations. The diagnostic components of anxiety are considered an important part of the evaluation stage of the treatment and need to be evaluated through the set of structured clinical interviews.
Systemic desensitization is another approach to the treatment of communication anxiety. However, it can also be used to overcome numerous phobias and behavioral disorders. Systemic desensitization focuses on changing the learned emotional reactions to the anxiety-producing situations. Individuals that are having difficulties with communication report having heightened blood pressure and heart rate, quick and shallow breathing and trembling. To alleviate those symptoms, clinicians recommend a three-stage approach: progressive relaxation activities, progressive muscle relaxation therapy and progressive visualization activities.
Cognitive restructuring is an empirically proven method for the reduction of speaking-related stress. It is one of the most common techniques for overcoming communication anxiety and is an integral part of cognitive behavioral therapy. Cognitive restructuring is the set intervention techniques aimed at the modification of the system of beliefs of a patient as well as the elimination of destructive verbal and perceptual patterns.
Communication orientation motivation is the approach to the treatment of communication anxiety that hinges on the notion that performance orientation might significantly hinder the ability to communicate freely. It assumes that thinking process is directly related to the positive or negative outcomes of public speaking. Communication orientation method does not require the supervision of the trained specialist, and it is less time consuming then communication training and rational-emotional therapy.
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