We are riding a tidal wave of technology: Smartphones, the Internet, texting, tablets, email, social media, YouTube, etc. promise to get us more and more, faster and faster. And, they are making good on their promise. Technology has taken us to places we might never have gone. It has connected us with people we might never have met. And it has provided us with a way to access unlimited sources of information we might never have been able to access in a way that is fast, efficient and comprehensive. That’s the good news. The bad news is there’s a price to pay—interpersonal communication is at risk. Just go into any eatery and you can see four friends (or family members) at the table each scrolling through their Smartphone while dining on something scrumptious that they are photographing and posting on their social media page. They aren’t talking to each other. What’s the point of going out for a meal with friends (or family) without interpersonal conversation?
Although we know technology provides many benefits, we tend to rely on it too much for important interpersonal communication especially at work. It’s a paradox. Technology helps us get in touch―and it prevents us from being in touch. It helps us save time―and makes us waste time. It helps us communicate―and it can prevent us from being understood.
As a communication and presentation skills consultant, I regularly see people struggling to be understood and to understand others. Interpersonal conflicts are widespread in most organizations and listening seems to be a lost art. The more we rely on technology, the more these communication challenges become increasingly difficult. It’s one thing to rely on email to keep in contact with people miles away, but it’s quite a different thing to rely on email as they only way you connect with your coworker sitting in the cubicle right next to you.
We often hear people say they spend several hours a day reading and responding to email messages. Many of them require further clarification so still more email is sent and received. Surely some of those messages could have been communicated in person or on the phone, thus minimizing the probability of communication breakdown. But people do not answer their phones and will avoid conflict at all costs. Since a large percentage of the impact of a message is non-verbal (eye-contact, gestures, posture, voice, etc.), that leaves only a very small probability you will truly be understood when you send an email that is more complex than a simple, impersonal message like “Can you meet me at 2:00 pm?”.
Get off your butt and talk to people. Look them in the eye. Listen (this means stop talking, think about what you’re hearing, be sure you understand and if you don’t understand politely ask for clarification). This will help you increase productivity and avoid misunderstandings which often lead to energy draining conflicts. And, stop texting when you’re walking across the street. Don’t get me started on texting!