Both And

“Go ahead,” she’d say, while she kept typing away on her computer.

She and I had a number of important company issues to discuss, and I’d scheduled a set of one-on-one meetings with her. But every time we got together, she barely paid attention to what I was saying. After several of these meetings essentially with myself, I told her that I couldn’t meet with her again unless she agreed to stay off her computer and engage in a quality conversation with me. She did, and we made great progress resolving the issues.

We all hate it when those we’re talking to divide their attention between us and their phone or computer, but we’ve probably done the same ourselves plenty of times. I have, more often than I care to admit. It’s so tempting to send one more quick text, and then to check for the reply, and then…

The degradation of quality conversation by our tech devices has been a hot topic of late, which is as it should be. But the problem is that, for the most part, we’re having the wrong discussion. The technology is too often demonized; email is a time-suck; social media and texting are addictive.

The truth is that technology has both distracted us from paying attention to one another and deepened our connections to one another.

I recently got a text from my niece, a college student in Wisconsin. “Should I do my study abroad in Thailand or Czech Republic?” I loved that she reached out to me that way. Texting and social media have allowed me to develop a stronger bond with my nieces and nephews.

Getting our communication style right is not about choosing one medium over another; it’s about figuring out which one works best for the experience you want to have.

It’s about integrating technology into our relationships thoughtfully.

Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT who studies the psychology of online connectivity, wisely wrote in her recent book Reclaiming Conversation, “We face a significant choice. It is not about giving up our phones but about using them with greater intention. Conversation is there for us to reclaim.”

The consternation about the intrusions of our devices reminds me of the hand wringing over online learning vs. face-to-face learning a few years ago.

Online learning was the new way of learning. It provided a quality alternative, at low cost, gave students flexibility about when they took classes and could be accessed by people all around the globe. Classroom learning was passé; it was too expensive, couldn’t be conformed to students’ schedules, and couldn’t be scaled. Yet, we quickly realized that the best learning experiences integrate online and offline components.

Take the case of MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses. In the last three years, over 25 million people from around the world have enrolled in them. But though many have been taught by first-rate professors from top institutions and have been expertly crafted, a tiny percentage of those who’ve enrolled have completed the courses. Marie Cini, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Maryland, argues that this is because they left “thousands of students without clear facilitation and direction, which leads to low retention.” The education community and innovative companies are now championing a blended learning approach — a model that requires both online and face-to-face participation.

When I first started with Twitter, as Head of Learning and Organizational Development, I met with many managers and employees. I had big ideas about providing more digital learning. I wanted to take virtual learning to another level, essentially creating an internal Twitter to connect our whole organization. As I passionately shared the idea with one of our engineering managers, he enthusiastically nodded his approval. “That sounds amazing!” he said when I finished. “But are we also going to still have live conversations about how to have 1:1 meetings?”

We at Twitter are evangelists of the power of social media platforms to connect people and share information at lightning speed all over the world. But we’ve also nurtured quality offline connection among our people. We design both in-person learning experiences and online learning tools that constantly curate valuable information for employees to access and facilitate self-directed learning.

It’s vital to be tapping the power of online connection, and the reality is that, most often, we can’t simply turn off our devices and leave them in a drawer. But we’ve also got to insist on time for uninterrupted face-to-face conversation.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve put my phone down and closed my laptop more. I’m more energized by the conversation when I’m really listening. I’m connected to the person, not just the conversation.

Even in a world of limitless, instantaneous, global connection, the most powerful medium of communication is that of two people listening.

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