How to communicate with anxiety-ridden introverts

Sat, 05/19/2012 - 20:43 -- webmaster

This modern age has been bestowed with multiple forms of communication, most of them virtually instantaneous. We have phone, email, chat, text messaging (SMS), and other mixes and variants on those basic capabilities. For most people, this amount of connectivity is amazing and enhances life to an amazing extent. And for the most part, I think so too. But too much connectivity has its down sides, especially for people like me.

Introverts can have different communication needs

As an introvert, I find talking to be stressful. The demand for immediate responses, often interrupted before proper thoughts can be completed, is uncomfortable. Quite often I will be in a conversation and I'll have something useful to add, but some other person who perhaps thinks quicker or more often just doesn't have the filtering that I have will blurt out something before I can respond. This typically leads the conversation away from whatever point I was going to make, frustrating me because I was almost ready to provide something useful to the micro-society but was blocked by a joke or some other sort of small talk. When repeated this becomes self-reinforcing, making me less likely to even try to engage in conversation.

I was reminded of how bad this can get when I last went to the doctor. I had some issues that I thought needed professional consideration, but when I was trying to explain and list them the doctor would interrupt me and ignored much of what I was able to say. She seemed more interested in getting a single quick diagnosis and prescription out of the way so she could get to the next patient than she was in solving my problems. Of course, as an introvert, I was unprepared and incapable of just telling her to shut the fuck up and listen to me - which so many of my friends would have been not only capable of, but glad to do. I left the doctor's office frustrated and more anxious than when I entered, and some of my issues never even got mentioned.

Another thing that bothers me is how conversations, especially spoken ones, can get sidetracked and never return to important topics. I might be on the phone with a client talking about their website's design, and we start discussing some minute and probably irrelevant detail that they think is important but is really just a checkbox click for me. That goes on for a while and I forget some other important point that we really needed to discuss.

And of course, since talking and chatting are immediate and continuous, there's no way to take notes. I can't write or read while other people are talking or sending IMs, so I have to rely on my limited memory or the IM's often too short scroll buffer.

Add on top of that the fact that, at least for cell phones, there is a cost to use the service; and you might start understanding why I prefer email.

I've never heard of it being a problem for anyone else, but for me when I hear the voice of someone I know (or might know) it acts like an interrupt - my brain tries to switch focus to the new target of concentration. This makes it impossible for me in situations like when a group is sitting around a table and there's two conversations going on. My brain wants to focus exclusively on each separately, which clearly isn't possible. This is also a problem when I'm on the phone with someone or trying to read something: if someone nearby starts talking it interrupts my focus. [Right now as I type this a roommate is playing some video in the other room, and I can only concentrate enough to write when there isn't any dialog.]

Finally, the lack of non-visual cues makes phone conversations the worst. There's so many ways that we send messages through body language that trying to convert all that information into speech and funnel it through the phone is painful and limiting. I'd guess that introverts (and those high on the autism scale like myself) have a harder time making those conversions and interpreting them, leading to miscommunication. Of course the same thing can be said about chat and email, but at least there we can use things like emoticons.

Efficient and Comfortable

Email has several advantages, many of which are somewhat more important for introverts:

  • An immediate response is not expected, so you can take a few minutes to give thoughtful consideration to the topics being discussed.
  • You aren't getting constantly interrupted with new information/questions/jokes/trivia which can make you lose your focus.
  • You can compose your response in a more professional manner, eliminating typos and reducing grammar mistakes - giving your audience a better impression of you - important for those of us who are perhaps overly concerned about how others see us.
  • You have a trail of information and decisions. This is highly useful in business, and I often find myself doing email searches to dig up old info. In fact, that has become so useful that now I typically put bug fix notes into emails when I reply that I've fixed something, so I have the fix documented in the conversation.
  • There is less stress involved in preparing an email response. I find that when I am chatting or IMing with someone, I send a reply and then just sit there waiting for a response. I can't move on to something else because if I do then their response will come right as I'm getting into that - with the interruption adding to the frustration.
  • It can be used with systems like GTD (Getting Things Done - see graphic at right).
  • It is quiet. Talking on the phone is noisy and in public it can be annoying to others. I might be over-sensitive to how much it bugs other people, but I hate talking on the phone in public because I hate bothering people. It can also be a security problem; talking about business secrets on the phone is just plain dumb.

Chat isn't where its at

You might think that chat/IM would be very handy, and it is. But its usefulness to me is limited to quick info grabs. Recently I've been doing some work and the boss would IM me to discuss the project's status. He might mention a small bug, something that I instantly know how to fix - so I go to fix it, thinking it will take 30 seconds or so. But since it is an IM conversation, half way through implementing the fix I'd receive another message, requiring me to respond, interrupting the fix.

Most people in that case would be able to happily ignore the new message and complete the task, returning to the conversation with hardly a thought. Not me, unfortunately. I know its something that I can work on, but I just have to check the message. So I get frustrated, again, because by the time I can return to the conversation with a report that I was able to fix that bug in less than a minute, the conversation has now veered wildly onto something else.

If the update request had been sent in an email, I would have a nice, simple to-do list that I could work through in a matter of minutes. I could write a concise response, giving details where appropriate and asking for more information if needed. But instead, the instant demand response conversation means lower quality information transmission, causing confusion.

I can certainly see how, for most people, chatting online would be a very effective method of communicating. It just isn't for me, and it might not be the thing to use with other introverts.

Enough kvetching

So I have some basic rules that I like to follow. If you're dealing with an introvert, autistic, or anxious person they might be helpful with them as well.

  • Phone calls are for emergencies only - things like calls to Porc411 or "I'm on the road and we got stuck in a traffic jam so will be late to the appointment". It doesn't need to be a life threatening emergency, but calling someone on the phone just to chat is rude. Remember, whenever you call someone you are always interrupting them.
  • Chats, SMS, and IMs are good for things where you need an immediate answer. Things like "Bob is here for the demo and we need to know what file to edit to do X", or when at the grocery store a SMS saying "forgot to put parmesan on the list".
  • For pretty much any other communications, email is preferred.

To sum up: In Person (simple conversation) > Email > Chat/SMS > Phone.

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