Anxiety and Communication

In honor of World Mental Health Day’s theme for this year, the workplace, here is a guest blog post by Markus van Alphen that talks about how to deal with anxiety in the workplace. 

One of the most powerful theories on how to motivate people on the work-floor is Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory, which stems from research into job satisfaction and is therefore all about motivation. The term Observational Listening was coined to propose a way of listening that focuses on emotions people are currently experiencing. The common factor between these two is emotion, how these affect the communication process and by extension how emotions are key when wanting to motivate others.  In this post I will briefly touch on these ideas and then focus on a specific emotion: Anxiety.

Self-Determination Theory and the basic psychological need for safety

Self-Determination Theory states that the fulfilment of three psychological needs influences job satisfaction: Mastery, connection and autonomy. The need for mastery is in a nutshell the feeling that you are good at what you do. The need for connection means you don’t only go to work to earn a living, but also because of the good feelings you get from positive interactions with your colleagues. And the need for autonomy is the respect you receive for yourself as person: You are allowed to be who you are and also may choose how and when you do the things you do at work. So the good feelings you get when these three needs are adequately fulfilled in your job makes you feel good about yourself and therefore happy about your job.

If we extend these needs into the social arena, the need for autonomy and connection seem to be essential for wellbeing and need no further explanation. Social mastery needs some elaboration: It has to do with competency in terms of being able to anticipate others’ behavior, reacting appropriately to this behavior and the ability to influence others. In short, it has to do with a feeling of being in control, or the basic psychological need for safety.

Current emotions

It isn’t difficult to see how these basic psychological needs tie in with someone’s current emotional experience. When people feel safe, connected and autonomous they generally experience a sense of wellbeing. Bear in mind, though, that everyone differs in their needs and to what degree they require these to be fulfilled. Also note these are psychological needs, not material needs. Many people who find themselves in objectively dangerous conditions still feel safe as they feel they (to some extent) are able to react appropriately or even exert influence on their situation.


Anxiety is a very basic emotion and has a positive intention: It prevents you from doing silly things, things which could endanger your existence. The survival instinct is so strong, that almost all sensory perception is first filtered by an organ in the midbrain: The amygdala. This organ is responsible for our so-called negativity bias: We first need to scan the environment for potentially dangerous situations, as these have priority. So anxiety really is an adaptive emotion, it ensures we survive. It only becomes a problem when its intensity isn’t appropriate for the actual situation at hand.


On a very basic level, human beings are social because we need each other. Exclusion from the group that surrounds us is a potentially dangerous situation, something borne out by research: When a person ventilates a view which is different from the majority of the group, their amygdala react. They react irrespective whether the person actually experiences fear when standing up for their view. Also when they feel excluded for what or whom they are, this will lead to anxiety.

Anxiety and communication

In the same way anxiety has its role to play in communication. In first instance it prevents us from saying silly things, things which will obviously lead to our exclusion from that group we would like to belong to. On the other hand it may also inhibit us, prevent us from saying the things that should be said (when others cross our boundaries, for example), prevent us from making contact with others (think of shyness, for example) or simply cause us to provide politically correct responses so as not to stand out too much from the group.

So what can you do when dealing with an anxious other? Firstly you will need to be able to recognize an anxious response: eyes wide (or wider than normal: both eyebrows lift), the tightening of the lip, the rapid breaking of eye-contact and moving uncomfortably are tell-tales. As people seldom feel competent in an atmosphere which doesn’t feel safe, your task is to ensure you provide a space in which you and those around you may speak freely. Giving well-meant compliments from time to time may also be beneficial, although those with (extremely) low self-esteem won’t really believe the compliment anyway and see your compliment as manipulation.

A safe space

So what can you do precisely to create that safe space where even anxious people are stimulated to speak more freely? Practicing Observational Listening is a good start: By concentrating on what the other understood by your message (rather than what you meant), you see their current emotions more clearly and can respond to their emotions more sensitively. Also by being a role model, showing for all to see that you are an empathic person of integrity who acts accordingly. And by displaying some of your own vulnerability in the appropriate use of self-disclosure. Thereby you are the safe space where even anxious people feel safe enough to speak about what’s on their mind.

Note: The academic version of the book Observational Listening is already available. The self-help version is expected around the end of 2017.





About Markus van Alphen

Already after completing his degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Cape Town, Markus realized the impact individual characteristics and interpersonal interactions have on people’s work and lives. This led him to complete a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology at the University of Amsterdam.

As Thought Leader he proposes how the art of Observational Listening can lead to improved communication and interaction between people in a variety of contexts, whether professionally or personally.

He currently works as a worldwide therapist for individuals, couples and families using webcam technology. He is a trainer, lecturer and curriculum developer in undergraduate and postgraduate psychology, counselling students at various colleges and universities across the Netherlands. He writes books in the field of psychology and is also a contributing author for various professional literature. As a restorative practitioner he works hands-on, being called in to resolve incidents and initiate the process of conflict resolution, as well as train others to implement the restorative approach.