We live in a world that is increasingly digitally connected. It is a time of incredible technological innovation, and the speed of change is truly breathtaking. Nothing is permanent anymore, least of all in the world of business and work. It truly seems as though anything is possible with technology.
Impact of digital communication
While this is a phenomenally exciting time to be living through, our obsession with digital technology as the primary means of communication is in danger of stunting our growth as human beings, who are fundamentally social creatures. We innately value connection, conversation and interaction as the cornerstones to our happiness and success in life.
I recently delivered a series of workshops at a company who are young, vibrant, ambitious, innovative in their field, succeeding and growing rapidly, and dealing with internal communications issues. To be fair, the companies who are not struggling with internal communications issues are the exception rather than the norm.
You see, we are losing the ability and the confidence to perform the skills that we would have taken for granted as human beings not too long ago; communicating easily and succinctly, working well with others, listening with intent and empathy, problem solving and critical thinking.
Before I continue, let me assure you that I am not anti-technology. I think it is an amazing tool, when used as a tool that truly enhances our lives, frees up our time, and allows us to spend more time on things we enjoy and with people we love. I check tide times and the weather app in the morning to plan my beach run. I use whatsapp groups to organise and plan fun gatherings with my friends. This is technology helping me to do more of the things I love to do more easily.
But when we allow digital communication to replace face-to-face communication, in our work and home lives, then we have a responsibility to stop and consider the impact this choice is having on our own wellbeing and our relationships with one another.
Let’s consider two here today.
The pressure to be pitch perfect
We don’t reply straight away anymore in a text conversation, like we would in a normal conversation. Instead we consider what we will say, how we will say it, and how it will make us appear (witty, sound, aloof, sexy, flirty, intelligent), before hitting the send button.
We have normalised editing, filtering, and cleaning up our conversations
The impact of this is that we are no longer entirely comfortable with real life conversations, especially spontaneous ones sprung upon us by people we have just bumped into, because we don’t have the time to edit and filter them to our satisfaction.
And so we tend to avoid them more and more, choosing to text, email, SMS, anything but run the risk of having to conduct a real time, off the cuff conversation.
But what’s the worst that can happen? We might say something a little clumsily, or maybe say the wrong thing, or say the right thing, but a little too eagerly! This is conversation my friends. It is rich, and messy, and full of mistakes and hilarity and tangents and occasional embarrassment. But it’s real, and imperfect, and human.
Because you see if we think we need to be perfect all the time in what we say and how we say it, we will become anxious when placed in situations where we haven’t time to curate that perfect response. And those situations are the everyday. In real life communication.
It’s not you, it’s me. Or maybe it’s you…
It is a widely held belief that digital communication makes us more efficient in our dealings with one another. For anyone who has had a forwards and backwards email exchange where emails are skim-read and so only partially answered, ideas are misinterpreted, and tone is read where there may or may not be tone, you will understand my raised eyebrow here at the efficiency of the exchange over, say, a 5 minute phone call or an in person conversation.
Absolutely there are times when email can be more efficient. We now operate across different time zones and with greater flexibility in when and how we work, so it’s not always practical to phone or meet someone to discuss something.
But we must accept that by relying solely on the words to communicate, we have added a whole new layer of complexity to how we understand and interpret one another. Albert Mehrabian, in 1971, in an experiment on how we communicate, suggested that just 7% of communication is the verbal, the words we use. A whooping 93% is non-verbal communication, which is our body language and tone of voice.
Now, there has been wide dispute over the accuracy of the figures, but what is clear is that the vast majority of how we communicate is non verbal.
And so it will come as no surprise that there is great scope for being misunderstood in an email or a text message. All we have to go on are the words, and on them we place our own tone, intention, meaning, and emotional interpretation.
From a workplace communication perspective, this added layer of complexity created by digital interaction is a new territory to navigate.
Let’s take a break from the mini god
There’s no easy answer to this. Digital is an integral part of our lives now. It has enormous potential to allow us to create, innovate and imagine with greater agility, speed and sheer imagination than ever before. But until we break our adoration of this ‘mini god’ in our pockets, our addiction to its shininess and promise, we will continue to add layers of complexity and anxiety to our communication with one another. As if human relationships weren’t complicated enough I hear you mutter under your breath.