Just thought I’d preface this post with a note about my general relationship with technology. In short, I don’t like to be around it. I find computer monitors mind numbing. Keyboards send sharp pains up my right arm. I spent many years resisting pressures to buy a cell phone. True, I did organize my entire life through a digital organizer up until last year, but then again, I was happy with the same model for 9 years, reluctant to upgrade my agenda into something that would connect me to everything and everyone at any time.
A while back, my friend Fiona shared an article with me called The Human Moment at Work that had her looking more closely at the effect that too much email communication was having on her work relationships.
The author of the article Edward Hallowell is a psychiatrist who has been treating anxiety disorders for the past 20 years. He describes a disturbing trend that he has observed in his patients, which is that more and more people are coming to him with problems that stem from a lack of face-to-face communication in the workplace. He argues that as email and voicemail have become increasingly dominant vehicles for communication, our ability to communicate has actually decreased. Having fewer “human moments” in the workplace causes us to experience more misunderstandings, self-doubt, and feelings of isolation, which then hinders our ability to approach our work with intelligence and creativity.
He also talks about how this dynamic manifests at the biological level: “Nature equips us with hormones that promote trust and bonding…Most abundant in nursing mothers, these hormones are always present to some degree in all of us, but they rise when we feel empathy for another person- in particular when we are meeting with someone face-to-face. It has been shown that these bonding hormones are at suppressed levels when people are physically separate, which is one of the reasons that it is easier to deal harshly with someone via e-mail than in person.”
In the context of our work at Organization Unbound, the article left me wondering how organizations can become more deeply expressive of their missions if the trend towards communicating through email, text-messaging and voice mail continues to intensify. Won’t the values and deep spirit underlying our work get lost in transmission? A year ago, I would have said yes. Now I’m not so sure.
I have certainly been on both the giving and receiving end of unsuccessful attempts to communicate emotions and complex thoughts via technology. It is easy for empathy to slip away and for us to dangerously over-rely on assumptions in the absence of non-verbal cues. But I don’t think it’s a given.
A few weeks ago, I joined several members of the Kufunda Village community in an audio conference call that was richly layered and deeply authentic, in some ways more so than if we had all been in the same room with each other. The lack of visual cues and the more frequent and long-lasting moments of silence heightened my awareness of myself and my relationship to others in the conversation. My listening skills deepened, my own sense of being heard was more acute, and my usual tendency to speak a lot and at length was subdued. The culture of learning and deep listening that is at the heart of Kufunda was very much at the heart of our conversation, despite not having face-to-face contact.
It wasn’t technology alone that made the conversation come alive. It was the tech-induced silence, coupled with the awareness of the value of this silence and the intention to really hear and connect. It was the use of a virtual talking piece, the invisibility of which intensified its presence and role, as each person was forced to describe when they were picking it up and placing it back in the middle of the “circle.” It was the invisibility of the people themselves and my recognition of this as a gift that allowed me to more fully tune into the emotional quality of the tone of voice and choice of words that people used.
This experience has led me to wonder if it is possible to bring “human moments” into more removed technology like emails and voice mail, the modes of communication that were identified as most anxiety-inducing in the article. It seems like any mode of communication would have some strengths and avenues of connection that are powerful- we just need to be more conscious of seeking them out. If we are aware of them and use them with intention, they become doorways for bringing the kind of spirit we want to create in the world into our daily work.
This is a new area of exploration for me. I’d love to hear other thoughts and experiences, particularly relating to emails, text-messaging, voice mail, listserves, etc.