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Resuscitate your interpersonal acumen in the digtal age

Over this past weekend, visiting with family friends, I noticed my friend David’s 10-year old son, Carter, immersed in his iPad during the entire afternoon’s get-together. Carter sat in the living room surrounded by guests but in his own separate world playing games on his device, never really interacting with the group. In an attempt to engage him, I presented him with a good-natured challenge – for every thirty minutes he did not engage with his technology, I’d give him a dollar. Excited to earn some money, Carter took the challenge and by the end of the afternoon, devoid of the temptation of technology, he was interacting with guests, played outside with friends and even managed to do some homework. He earned five dollars and remarked that it was “more fun than I thought it would be.”

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Now, this was not easy for him. At first, he nervously eyeballed his iPad on the coffee table staring at it as if in a trance. He fidgeted and nervously touched the cover until he finally exclaimed, “I can’t look at it…I am going to hide it!” Carter took the iPad and slipped it under the mattress of a bed in an adjoining room and whispered to me, “don’t let me go in there, ok?” Later when one of the guests pulled out their phone, Carter gently suggested he put it away also (he couldn’t bear the reminder of what he was missing). If this isn’t addiction, I don’t know what is. And let’s be honest, Carter is not alone. Old, young, personally and professionally we all struggle with this addiction.

I share this anecdote because we live in a time when our interpersonal communication is dramatically compromised by technology. We see it and live it everyday. We spend more time interacting with our smart phones, tablets and social media sites than we do with each other. What is the cost?

Social psychologist, Sherry Turkle, says it best: “We live in a time when we expect more from technology and less from each other.” In her book, Alone Together, she describes how we want to be connected to each other but simultaneously want the ability to remove ourselves if we lose interest or want distance. For instance, we attend business meetings but text or check emails when we get the chance. We have lunch with colleagues to socialize but everyone is checking their phones while waiting to be served. We attend our children’s school events but look at our status on Facebook when our attention for the school play wans.

I voice these sentiments not to criticize or judge. I am an avid user of technology myself. I am, however, advocating for balance. Technology will only advance. We, however, have the ability to choose how and when to use it. Business is driven ultimately by relationships, not technology. We value our connections with our customers. We are grateful to work side by side with colleagues who we know and trust. These are all the results of connecting through strong interpersonal communication – face-to-face and toe-to-toe.

Here are a few simple recommendations that will help us all achieve better balance between human connection and technology:

  1. Create “no tech” zones: Establish ground rules for staff meetings where technology is turned off or put away during the meeting. You will find participation and contribution will increase substantially. At home, the dinner table might be that no-tech zone.
  2. Eyeball to eyeball: When you enter the workplace or move through the hallways refrain from burying your face in your phone and instead, leverage the opportunity to look your colleagues in the eye and wish them a good day or simply share a smile. Relationships will be built.
  3. Take time to talk: Know when it is time to have a conversation. Resist the urge to send another email or text and instead invite your colleague or customer for a coffee and conversation. Issues will be resolved more quickly.
  4. Be respectful: Technology is easy to hide behind. Avoid last minute requests and assignments because it is easy to do via email or text. Afford your colleague the same respect you’d provide if making the request in person. Respect will flourish.
  5. Ask for preferences: When building relationships with customers and co-workers, ask for their communication preferences. You demonstrate you care when you ask, “What is the best way for me to reach you?” “How would you prefer we communicate?” Your service ethic will shine.
  6. Leave phone home: I saved the hardest for last. Try experimenting with leaving your phone at home (and turned off) one day a week for one month. Notice how you feel and how you react to this deprivation. What did you learn about yourself and others? What did you gain? Were there tangible benefits?

I encourage you to integrate these six recommendations into your daily routine. Use technology when it makes sense and is effective. Revive your interpersonal skills – learn about each other and your customers. It is a simple but powerful commitment that can change the way you live and work.