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.

The Nonverbal Advantage: A Conversation with Carol Kinsey Goman

By Cheryl Mahoney

Did you know that people make initial judgments about each other in 7 seconds–or less?  Or that you can improve your mood by changing your posture?  Or that on some basic level, we all show emotion the same way?

These are just a few insights I gained from a conversation with Carol Kinsey Goman, the author of The Nonverbal Advantage.  Her book is all about body language, especially in a business setting.  I was curious about how body language relates to some of the topics we often discuss here and at UniversalGiving–like leadership, relationships across cultures, and happiness.  Carol kindly agreed to an interview, and I’m happy to share some of her wisdom with you!

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CM: I’ve read that people judge each other based on body language in only seven seconds.  Do you have any advice on how to make a positive impression in such a short time?

CKG: Seven seconds is probably the longest length of time estimated.  We can do it in a fraction of a second.  The first thing people pick up on is your attitude.  Project the attitude you want to—curious, friendly, happy, receptive, approachable…

Another thing is simply smiling.  We forget how powerful a smile is.  When you smile at someone, and it’s a genuine smile…it’s as if you’ve given them some kind of reward.  Make eye contact; that transmits energy, interest, openness.  Look in their eyes long enough to know what color they are.  It gives that extra connection. 

You can also lean in slightly, lean forward.  We lean towards things and people we like and are engaged in.  Just slightly!  Put out your hand to shake hands. Initiate it, it’s the quickest way to initiate rapport.  Even a touch that’s less than 1/40th of a second creates a human bond. 

CM: If body language actually changes our mood, any suggestions on how we can turn that to our advantage?

CKG: What does the body language look like of someone in your family who’s come back from a lousy day?  We know that your mood can affect your body, but interestingly enough, the way you carry yourself, even your facial expressions, send messages back to your brain.  You change your brain chemistry just by putting your face in that expression.

To use this for good, if you’ve had that bad day, understand that if you will take your shoulders out of the place they want to go, hold your shoulders back, hold your head high, change your body and that will change your brain.

Charles Garfield discovered that with weightlifters, if they would smile as they lifted, they could lift a heavier weight.  The brain is learning through the smile, this isn’t so bad, I can do it.

CM: Your new book is about body language and leadership.  Can you tell us a bit about body language and how it relates to leading?  What should leaders be aware of?

CKG: Most of the time, human behavior in the business world assumed that people were swayed by reason and logic.  What we’re finding now, from the human dynamics group at MIT and other research centers, is that people are more likely to be convinced not by what you say, but by the kinds of signals most leaders don’t pay attention to.  For example, the tone of your voice and your body language.  When in conflict, most people will believe the nonverbals, not your words. 

CM: Do you find that women have different challenges than men in the body language signals they send?

CKG: Let’s look at female leaders vs. male leaders.  The biggest mistakes that women make nonverbally are particularly related to projecting power and authority.  It’s a question of looking for warmth and likability signals, compared to looking for power, status, leadership signals.  Everyone is individual and has their own baseline behavior, but in general, women do better on the likability and warmth signals, and less well on power signals.

Status and power are projected two ways, basically—one is height, one is space.  Men have the advantage just walking in—they’re taller and broader.  But they also expand into that space.  Women tend to condense.  For instance, when men stand, they will have their feet wider.  Women will put their feet together—we’ve now contracted, condensed.  I would advise a woman to widen her stance slightly.  It will make her feel more powerful. 

When women pacify in girlish ways, play with their hair, bite a finger…it looks flirtatious and childish, and robs them of credibility.  Excessive head nodding can look like a bobble-head doll.  Women do a head tilt, which can be a very positive sign of listening, but also can give a submission signal.

There is no good or bad body language.  What is it that you want to get over?  What is your message?  It’s not bad body language to tilt your head, it simply sends a signal that you need to be aware of.

CM: Much of our focus at UniversalGiving is on building international connections and relationships.  Is body language the same across cultures?  Are there cultural differences to be aware of as we encounter people from another country?

CKG: If you take a look at the brain…the limbic system is the part that first gets information, before the conscious part gets any of it.  You have already decided if this is a friend or a foe.  That kicks in to the conscious mind.  Under stress, everyone’s heart will race, they’ll fight or flee…  If it’s a limbic-driven reaction, the body language will be the same.

What isn’t true are those culturally determined differences.  There are high context or low context cultures.  High context cultures look for meaning much more in body language, in how close someone is, in the use of pauses—examples are Japanese, Chinese, Arab, Greek, Spanish, Italian.  What occurred in the past, the relationship of people, the context has more meaning.

Low context cultures are more like us in the United States, or Scandinavians and Germans.  We’re more focused on the word; it’s the contract.  That, of course, isn’t at all what the relationship-building cultures are looking for.  We’re looking to close the deal and they’re looking to build the relationship.

There are differences in how close we stand to each other.  Women would stand a little bit closer than two men who were talking.  But because we’re American, we’d stand a little farther apart than if we were French or Spanish.  We think they’re in our face, they think we’re stand-offish.  We’re a very touch-phobic society.  In Venezuela, they hug, they touch all the time.  Many cultures are even more touch-averse than we are, like the Japanese.

Emblematic gestures are culturally determined—the culture has agreed upon their meaning.  The OK sign means great over here, in France it means worthless, in many cultures it’s an obscene gesture!

The place we’re the same is universal emotional expressions.  This was long ago thought to be true—Darwin said so, sociologists said so.  Paul Ekman did a study on this.  There are seven universal expressions: joy, surprise, sadness, anger, fear, disgust and contempt.

Anywhere you are, joy looks the same.  If you think of the Olympics, when people win the Olympics, it doesn’t matter where they’re from—it looks the same.

Learn more about Carol Kinsey Goman and The Nonverbal Advantage on her website.  Carol, thank you for the interview!