Speechless? Overcome Social Anxiety with this Communication Strategy for the Chronically Tongue-tied

Imagining the audience naked doesn't work if your boss is waiting for you to explain the discrepancies in your report. What to do when your brain freezes

Credit: Jackie Popp

Loose lips sink ships, but they may be better than the tongue-tied alternative

Communicating effectively can be difficult when your brain – and tongue – are prone to freezing up at the worst possible moments.

The hazards of speaking in public, and their antidotes – imagining the audience naked, that sort of thing – are well known. But what about situations that aren’t exactly public, but where you’re called upon to give an impromptu accounting?

When Social Anxiety Freezes the Brain

A potential employer calls with an unexpected question. A boss asks for a project update in a meeting, and all eyes turn your way.

You’ve approached someone with your idea, and they turn to you and say, “Sounds great. Tell me more.”

If you find yourself freezing at crucial moments like these, what techniques help?

I asked Dr John Cook, a Victoria psychologist who specializes in social anxiety, what’s going on when you can’t get a word out.

“What happens is our communications centres in our brain actually shut down. Scans have been done of people’s brains while under stress, and the areas involved with communication actually go dark. It’s a hard-wired biological response and it’s especially active when you’re caught off guard.”

The Best Communication Strategy: Do Nothing

It’s one thing to know what’s happening, another to fix it. Can you?

“The single best option is to do nothing. You almost need one of those little cards. The card should say, ‘This is an interesting question. Give me a minute. I’ll give it some thought and get back to you.'”

“Your mind is not your friend,” points out Dr. Cook. “It acts on ancient programming by throwing you into a fight/flight/freeze. Then it comes back with ‘Holy crap, I’m blowing it.’ And that spurs you to try and do something about it. But the single best option is to do nothing. You’re almost guaranteed to flop under the additional pressure. It’s a no-win situation.”

Speechless Now? Don’t Worry Later

Alas for the after-the-fact fretters among us, there’s little benefit in rehashing your flub next time you see the boss.

“Damage control is almost always a bigger issue in one’s own mind than it is in real life. It’s entirely between you and yourself.”

Cold comfort the next time you’re lying awake at 3 am, figuring out what you should have said to that guy in the elevator six hours ago besides um, er, and ah.