What can you do about your fear of speaking? First, admit it. You are fearful when it comes to speaking in public, maybe during interviews, and perhaps when meeting strangers. By reading this blog, you’ve taken your first step in managing your fear – admitting it. Well done.

The second step is to find out if your fear of speaking is mild or extreme. To do that, consider taking “The Fear of Speaking Test,” also called the Perceived Report of Public Speaking Anxiety.

If the results on this test are mild, you may just need to take a few deep breaths before you next speak in your feared situations. If more extreme, consider the activity we described in Part 2 of this series – Progressive Relaxation.

As mentioned in that post, helpful methods to manage the fear of speaking generally fall within three categories:

  1. Relaxation
  2. Faulty Thinking
  3. Presentation Skills Training

In this post, we’ll focus on the second category – Faulty Thinking.

Faulty Thinking

The way we think has a direct influence on our feelings and our behavior. To manage our fears (in this case, the fear of speaking) we first need to understand how our thinking causes our anxiety. Next we need to change the way we think so we can reduce and perhaps even eliminate our anxiety. Anxiety is often triggered by faulty thinking. Here’s why.

First, consider an example where your thinking is sound. If you are speaking to an audience and you notice that someone has a gun pointed at you, you suddenly experience anxiety. Your reasoning is that you are in danger. Your thinking is correct and your judgment is sound. You have every reason to fear this circumstance. You are in real danger. You could be injured or even killed. As a result, you need to immediately decide how to eliminate or get away from the danger.

Now consider an example where you’re thinking is faulty. You are speaking to an audience and you notice that two people begin talking quietly to one another. What goes through your mind is that they are talking about you in a condescending way. In other words, you believe they are ridiculing you and soon they will tell others that what you are saying is worthless and maybe even foolish. Your heart starts to pound, your palms perspire, your mouth goes dry, and your knees feel like they are made out of rubber. After your presentation, they both come up to you and say, “We were saying to each other how valuable your presentation is to us. We’ll start using your suggestions as soon as we get back to work. It’s one of the best presentations we’ve ever heard. Thank you so much!” What you just learned is that your first way of thinking was inaccurate. It was faulty thinking.

Most people make some, if not many, decisions based on faulty thinking. Where does this thinking come from? Why do we jump to conclusions? All good questions. The point for this discussion is that faulty thinking can lead to anxiety. That anxiety can make us feel like we’re in danger when in reality, we’re not. In the second example, there was NO gun and there was no ridicule. We based our anxiety on our misinterpretation of the events.

There are many credible methods that address and can potentially eliminate faulty thinking. We’ll briefly discuss two of these methods that you might find helpful.

Systematic Desensitization

The first is called Systematic Desensitization, developed by Joseph Wolpe, a psychiatrist well known for this method. Systematic desensitization has the “patient” develop a step-by-step hierarchy of various levels of the feared circumstances starting at the bottom with the least feared circumstance and progressing up to the most feared circumstance. At each step, the patient imagines or visualizes the feared circumstance while at the same time, uses a relaxation method like deep breathing or progressive relaxation. Step 1 ends with a feeling of relaxation, then the patient progresses to Step 2 and so on until the highest fear step is “desensitized” with relaxation. You can find more information about systematic desensitization through your own Google search and through these references:

  1. McLeod, S. A. (2008). Systematic Desensitization. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/Systematic-Desensitisation.html
  2. Wolpe, J. (1958). Psychotherapy by reciprocal inhibition. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

The second source we’ll discuss to address and perhaps reduce faulty thinking is called Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). Based on the work of many researchers, cognitive behavior therapy is conceptually simple and straightforward. According to CBT, we base the actions we take on how we interpret what goes on around us. If we interpret what is happening in our lives the way most people would, our behavior is based on objective reasoning and sound judgment. But if we misinterpret what is happening around us, our behavior and actions can cause problems for us and even others.

Going back to the example of the two people talking in the audience, we misinterpreted the reason they were talking. The misinterpretation caused anxiety. The anxiety triggered physiological changes in our body.
The goal of CBT is to teach people how to take control of the way they think. The control causes them to challenge their assumptions, question their interpretations and consider them in light of other possible interpretations.

For example, considering the “audience” reaction above, one possibility is to conclude, “They are making fun of me.” Another is that what they are saying is important to them, “But has nothing to do with me.” And a third interpretation is that, “Maybe they are talking to each other about how much value they are getting from my presentation.” The goal of CBT then is to replace misinterpretations with sound judgment and objective thinking.

If you would like more information about Cognitive Behavior Therapy, here are some references:

In Part 4 of this series, “What Can I Do About My Fear of Speaking,” we’ll focus on the principle that “Practice Makes Perfect” and find out about “The Presentation Skills Learning System.”
photo credit: 2012 Green Heart Schools public speaking competition via photopin (license)

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