Communication apprehension (CA) intervention techniques are systematic, empirically grounded methods employed in a variety of settings to reduce communication-related anxiety, most commonly in public speaking contexts, where many speakers experience stage fright. Communication scholars have developed, adapted, and tested a variety of effective methods to treat speech anxiety due to its pervasive nature and deleterious effects. Although most contemporary CA theories view communication apprehension as being a multidimensional construct comprised of interrelated cognitive, affective/ physiological, and behavioral components, different interventions emphasize one component over the others. That is, some theorists viewed speech anxiety as stemming primarily from thoughts, internal dialogue, and/or images associated with public speaking (e.g., Ellis 2001). Others emphasized the physiological consequences of autonomic nervous system activation. And still others underscored the lack of public speaking skills as the primary reason people experience speech anxiety (e.g., Kelly 1997). Thus, treatments are typically categorized as cognitive, affective, or behavioral in nature, and instructors and counselors employ either one or a combination of the treatments outlined below.
Visualization and Performance Visualization
Visualization (VIS), a cognitive approach, was developed by Ayres et al. (1997). In the procedure, speakers listen to an approximately seven-minute script read by a trainer, played on a cassette tape, or shown on a video. This guided image task requires participants to follow the script, vividly imagining positive, upbeat images of a successful speech. The VIS procedure provides a plausible scenario of public speaking success by creating a general picture of anticipation and reactive behavior regarding the communication performance throughout the day a speaker is to deliver his or her speech. The script consists of specific, detailed content, starting with the person waking up, dressing, walking to class, greeting people, and then successfully delivering the speech (Ayres & Hopf 1993).
VIS has been tested extensively, and has been shown repeatedly to reduce self-reported CA in public speaking situations better than placebo and control conditions. It is also adaptable to other contexts, like initial encounters and writing, and its effects hold over time. VIS can be self-administered on a CD or video tape, providing an effective intervention for individuals reluctant to seek treatment in a workshop setting.
Performance visualization, a variation of VIS, includes a behavioral practice component. The treatment involves viewing a video of an outstanding professional speaker, repeatedly imprinting the linked mental images of the video-taped speaker, and eventually replacing the vivid images with oneself as the speaker. The speaker also prepares by alternatively imagining the speech, practicing the actual speech, imagining again, etc. until the speaker is satisfied that the speech matches the image. A full description of the complete procedure is available in Daly et al. (1997, 401).
There are several positive effects of performance visualization. First, it enhances behavior as well as reducing CA, and does so more effectively than other interventions or no treatment, although its impact is moderated by whether speakers can produce vivid images, or are able to control the nature of the images effectively. Second, exposure to performance visualization itself alters the way high apprehensives envision themselves as public speakers. That is, after exposure to the treatment, high-CA speakers see themselves in a more detailed, confident, and positive fashion. In addition, outcome studies indicate that speakers derive even more benefit if the video-taped model speaker more closely resembles the speaker in question (e.g., the same gender, excellent student model vs a famous orator). Finally, performance visualization also effectively reduces CA and improves performance in job interviews.
In general, available evidence suggests that both VIS and performance visualization are effective, but performance visualization is the preferred procedure because it enhances communication behaviors. However, VIS is still of considerable value because of its simplicity, ease of use, and time requirements.
Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy and Cognitive Restructuring
Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), formerly rational emotive therapy (RET), focuses on thoughts/beliefs that lead to negative emotional and behavioral consequences (Ellis 2001). An REBT practitioner views fear/anxiety as a consequence of an irrational or dysfunctional thought/belief about an “activating” event/stimulus, such as riding in an elevator or giving a speech. Consequently, REBT seeks to identify and address the dysfunctional thought processes and/or belief systems that lead to anxiety. Accordingly, the primary therapeutic thrust of REBT is the identification and disputing of irrational thoughts. REBT uses direct, confrontational, Socratic dialogue and other interpersonal exchanges with an individual in order to identify and challenge irrational beliefs.
REBT has been adapted as an effective intervention for reducing speech anxiety in a group workshop setting (Ayres & Hopf 1993), although it is more time consuming and requires more training than the administration of other interventions. In this context, an upcoming public speaking situation is the activating stimulus, and a speaker’s belief, or worry about giving the speech would evoke anxiety or fear. For example, if a public speaker thought that the consequences of getting up in front of an audience would be catastrophic or unbearable, a trained instructor/counselor would identify and challenge that belief in order to ameliorate the consequences of the dysfunctional thoughts, thus putting the feared event in a more realistic, rational perspective.
Cognitive restructuring (CR) is similar to REBT in that it views cognitions as antecedents to emotion/anxiety (Meichenbaum 1985). Consequently, it also focuses primarily on modifying cognitive processes. There are differences, however. REBT actively challenges irrational thinking, whereas CR teaches people to identify maladaptive thoughts and develop coping statements to counteract them. Ayres and Hopf (1993) have tailored CR to treat CA by emphasizing education, speech skills acquisition, and rehearsal.
Communication Orientation Motivation
Communication orientation motivation (COM) was developed and refined by Motley (1997), who posited that a communicator’s orientation toward an anticipated communication event is the key to understanding the potential for CA. One orientation is a “performance orientation,” in which the speaker views a public speech similar to the way a professional performer would view his or her performance in front of an audience. If a speaker has a performance orientation similar to an ice skater’s or gymnast’s view of performance, she or he is more likely to experience CA. That is, a communicator may view a future speaking requirement as a similar expression of some great artistic ability, or skillful demonstration. With such self-imposed performance demands, it follows that such individuals, fearing themselves to be lacking the requisite abilities, experience high CA. The other orientation is a “communication orientation,” which views a speech as a normal, everyday communication encounter, which serves to recontextualize speeches as less threatening.
COM emphasizes teaching people to focus on the message of a speech and how it is understood by the audience, rather than the speech as an anxiety provoking performance. This is accomplished by either reading Motley’s book of about 20,000 words, or in interpersonal counseling sessions. Motley and Molloy (1994) reported that COM significantly reduces CA better than systematic desensitization (SD), placebo, and control groups. Ayres et al. (2000) compared COM to SD, placebo, and control conditions, and found that COM, while not significantly different from SD, effectively reduced trait CA compared to placebo or control conditions.
Systematic desensitization (SD) was developed and refined by Wolpe (1958). In his initial experiments with cats, the sound of a buzzer was paired with electric shocks, and the cats subsequently developed a conditioned fear of the buzzer. After the conditioned fear was well entrenched (i.e., the buzzer alone elicited a strong anxiety response), the buzzer was paired with food, leading to a gradual extinction of the conditioned anxiety response. The observation of this counter-conditioning led to the development of SD as a treatment for anxiety in humans. The underlying principle of SD is that a person cannot be relaxed and anxious at the same time. In SD, people are trained in relaxation techniques and instructed to create a relevant, personally tailored “anxiety hierarchy,” comprised of a set of imagined “fear” situations arranged to be increasingly anxiety provoking (e.g. “lying in bed thinking about an upcoming speech,” to “preparing a speech alone in my room,” eventually leading to “delivering the speech”). People visualize these images until they can remain relaxed through the entire hierarchy. Full, updated, and detailed training procedures as well as a relevant standardized speech anxiety hierarchy are available in Friedrich et al. (1997, 305). Friedrich et al. (1997) report that SD as an affective treatment for CA has been significantly modified from its original procedure (e.g., group settings vs single sessions), yet is still effective.
Rhetoritherapy, a form of skills training (ST), is a behavioral approach designed to build relevant micro-skills related to the speech act (Kelly 1997). This approach is grounded in the assumption that speakers are anxious primarily due to skills deficits. Consequently, rhetoritherapy focuses primarily on behavioral skills related to composing and delivering a speech. The method includes instruction, goal setting, practice, in vivo assignments, and instructor feedback. Empirical evidence for skills training as an effective standalone intervention is mixed, although ST can take so many forms that generalizing across studies is difficult. This approach, as well as any other intervention, can be combined with others to address the multifaceted aspects of speech anxiety more comprehensively.
In general, data reported here and elsewhere suggest that the aforementioned interventions, used either alone or in combination, are an important ingredient in the remediation of speech anxiety. Research in this area is ongoing and will likely continue to refine the effectiveness of interventions for the pervasive problem of speech anxiety.
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- Wolpe, J. (1958). Psychotherapy by reciprocal inhibition. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
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