Why is it that we live in an era where technology provides the opportunity to communicate with each other at the touch of a button, yet we still seem to live in an increasingly disconnected, divided world? It seems as if being constantly available to each other rarely correlates to our ability to connect and communicate. Or rather, connect and communicate well.
There is a difference between being able to talk and conversing. Being able to text or call somebody has nothing to do with actually holding a conversation. It seems as if we are finding it more and more difficult to be present with the people we are physically with, and this may have something to do with that underlying feeling of availability we have to the people we are not with. I recall being told about something called ‘phone awareness’ that humans have, where even if we don’t have our phone with us we have an attentiveness to where it is at all times, such as upstairs or in your bag. Social media introduces us to terms such as ‘keeping up’ and ‘updating’ people about life updates and events, giving us a false sense of involvement with each other. You may be able to read that Sarah is getting married or that Jennifer is flying to a conference in Atlanta, but this one-sided stream of information doesn’t qualify as conversation, and only leaves you less and less inclined to reach out to ask Sarah or Jennifer about their life news.
The constant availability and vagueness of what to say and when to say it reduces the chance of engaging in a meaningful way. I could comment on their post or I could respond to their message. As we scroll through our feeds we are faced with unsolicited opportunities to reply to anybody at any time about anything. But the consequence of not answering to a comment or message is much less awkward than what it would look like to literally ignore somebody who was talking to you face to face. Comments on photos and statuses often don’t illicit a response. Whether or not they’re read or responded to, they still sit in the void of unsolicited and unrequited interactions.
While I understand and appreciate much of the accessibility that social media has to offer, it does not simulate the benefits of authentic human interaction. At least not proportionately to the amount we have used it as a replacement.
I recently watched a Ted Talk by Celeste Headlee where she states that within conversation we are often guilty of listening to each other with the intent of waiting to reply, rather than to understand the other person. In a face to face conversation, if you are only listening quietly as a way to spend time before replying, you are doing both you and the other person a disservice by not understanding them. A key ingredient to quality conversation is to learn something from or about the other person. This way you are able to respond with more authenticity and relevance, rather than just, as Headlee says, ‘shout barely related sentences at each other’.
A great way to approach communication is to look at a different method of conversation - debate. To be able to ‘argue’ effectively is an art. Psychologist Jordan Peterson is renowned for his ability to effectively engage in debate. He is articulate in the points he is trying to make, while still acknowledging his opponent’s side and concerns. He has shared that his secret for being ‘good at’ discussion is to take the other person’s recent statement and paraphrase it in your own words, and then to expand on it. Paraphrasing the other person’s point indicates that you either do or don’t understand what they are trying to say, and provides the person with a chance to correct you. If the other person realises that you understand them, they are less likely to shut down or become negatively confronting, as well as they are more likely to approach your ideas in a more open-minded way. Debate and disagreements do not need to be a hostile environment. When two people are understanding of each other, the environment is more conducive to progress.
Similarly, in the field of counselling, one of the most effective tools for communication is paraphrasing and summarising. In my training to become a counsellor we learned on day one that the most helpful skill to hone as a counsellor is to be able to listen - actually listen - and then provide a summary in our own words of what the person just said. This way, if any information is misunderstood, they can clarify it. This allows the person and the counsellor to ensure they are on the same page.
Being able to echo information back is an excellent way to digest and process it. Whether it be in friendly conversation, in debate or in a counselling session, there will never be a disadvantage to clarifying what the other person is trying to say. On the receiving end of it, people love to feel understood. If you think back on a time where you deeply connected with somebody and felt understood by them, I’m sure you can recall how great it felt. People reap significant benefits from verbalising their thoughts, and reap even further benefits from feeling heard. Using conversation as a platform for connection, learning and positive stimulus can be extremely beneficial for personal growth and understanding.
So why is it that we have so much difficulty in connecting? Perhaps borrowing etiquette from social media has misaligned us with what we see as being an appropriate way to treat the people around us. To be able to converse with somebody and give them devoted and undivided attention is one of the ways that we can most deeply respect them. When we honour each other with our valuable undivided time and energy, and do it with genuinely good intention, I promise the benefits will be worth it.