Back in February I sat in a meeting at which people were ruing the loss of personal connection now that so much of 21st century life is conducted online. And this was before CV-19 plunged many of us into an exclusively virtual work environment.
Since the advent of lockdown, there has been much discussion of what exactly we are losing when we interact using videoconferencing. (Although my colleague Vic Bryson makes some interesting observations about ways in which it can actually bring us closer). And many of my clients are currently preoccupied with how to reduce isolation and keep their people engaged.
Certainly the proliferation of communication channels - email, linkedin, Zoom, Whatsapp, Teams, Instagram, Twitter - can seem to result in less, not more, real communication. It’s true that, in general, the more the experience resembles being in the same room as someone, the greater the opportunity for the interpersonal connection that creates strong relationships, both personal and professional. There is a spectrum with writing at one end and face-to-face at the other, with phone calls and VC somewhere in between. And there is no substitute for being able to look into somebody’s eyes, smile and make physical contact with them. How we all miss the handshakes and hugs.
But perhaps the problem is not the medium but the way we use it. The real obstacle to connection lies in the choices we make about where to spend our limited span of attention and how we respond to distraction. Tempting as it is to believe we can do several things at once, multi-tasking really means switching focus rapidly between different tasks. And the quality of attention given to any one task is diminished. This may not matter for the mundane, but we only create relationships that go beyond the transactional when we give them time and attention. And this is just as true face-to-face as it is online: an exchange with someone who is typing or swiping does not feel like an exchange at all.
By comparison, some of the phone conversations I had in 20 years as a Samaritan volunteer were incredibly rich. People who are wrestling with a serious personal problem tend to commit all of their attention when they ring the Samaritans. As a volunteer you learn to block out anything else that is happening in your life or in the room; to focus all of your attention on the caller and to listen deeply, picking up what they are saying and - in the silence - what they are not. This mutual attention and commitment to the dialogue can create a powerful intimacy, despite the fact that you cannot see or touch them.
Similarly one of the most impressive abilities of the best actors I worked with, as a film and TV director, was their ability to commit all of their attention. A take lasts, on average, 45–60 seconds, but it is surprisingly difficult to concentrate absolutely, to the exclusion of all else, for that length of time. I lost count of the number of times I would tell an actor I wanted to do another take because something had been missing, only for them to say “yes, I lost my concentration”. Sometimes this was caused by something external – a movement or noise off-camera - but more often it was because stray thoughts had interrupted their focus and prevented them living truthfully in imaginary circumstances, which is what acting is.
Most of us do our best work when we can achieve flow state, what professional sportsmen and women call being ‘in the zone’. It requires working with total focus and without disturbance or distraction. And flow in communication can create intimacy and move relationships from transaction to trust.
It’s obvious, but worth repeating, that many of the most successful people are world-class time managers who make fabulous decisions about what's urgent vs important. They may be ruthless about not wasting time and managing their ‘to-don’t’ list, but when something matters, they give it their full attention. The solution to busy-ness is not to multi-task, but to prioritise and to hone the ability to focus. And this is as true about relationships as it is about anything else. If we are feeling disconnected, it may be telling us something about this.