On September 11, 2001, the world changed. The scream of commercial jets shearing into seemingly impenetrable structures, the hell of melted steel towers crashing from their moon-tickling heights, the image of ghost-gray human forms, and the banshee wail of sirens brought us to our knees. Our brains imploded with terror, rage, agony, pain, and heart-searing emotions.
We did the one thing that humans instinctively know to do.
We used our voices over phone lines, across cellular space, from the back yard, and out into the office corridor. We talked during morning walks and bike rides, in the Y.M.C.A. locker room, grocery store and playground. We tapped out messages and sent them into Internet space. Technology aided us but did not own us.
We put our arms around family and friends, talked to strangers, cried in congregations, cheered firefighters, police, and maintenance workers, and prayed in whatever tongue and manner fit us best.
Our instincts overcame our professional demeanor, our hierarchies, our organizational charts, and our titles. Everyone had a story to tell, a voice that needed to be heard, and a piece of information to be processed. We sought out places where fellow humans lit candles, broke bread, gave blood, and stood silent. We connected.
Then, with the passage of time … we slipped back into our personally disconnected world for a cyberspace replacement.
Consider this plain talk. But like common sense, it’s not so common.
The more I pursue my three-plus-decade career as a business consultant, the more I hear a common thread when it comes to human connection.
“No one cares.”
“No one listens.”
“I’m inundated by e-mail that leaves me with more questions rather than answers.”
“Customer service is a farce. They don’t want to talk with you.”
“No one has ever asked me what I really want to do. It’s just a job.”
“At family dinner, everyone is looking at cell phones instead of each other!”
I’ve experienced chat rooms and found them one-sided and flat. I have seen e-mail turn into internecine warfare that could have been prevented by a face-to-face or voice-to-voice conversation. I’ve watched the dismay on a client’s face as he revealed that people never talked to each other in the company. I’ve been told of people in side-by-side cubicles who send each other e-mails instead of having an actual conversation.
And you’ve seen it too. You’re amazed when someone actually looks at you and asks a question of concern and depth. You’re dumbfounded when someone returns a phone call and spends serious time helping you. And you bristle in frustration when you sit in a meeting called more to showcase a senior exec’s ego instead of generating a wealth of ideas.
And yet, we all hear talk about technology and communication and global communities.
Blah, blah, blah. Why is it that our souls still hunger for something more in our lives?
I contend that what we seek — the thing that society thrives upon — is meaningful human connection. At base, we’re social animals. And the most human of all connection is conversation. I think we’ve forgotten how to talk to each other — if in fact some of us ever knew. I think, in many instances, we have never been taught how to listen. At the deepest level, we’ve probably never stopped long enough to even listen to ourselves.
Can we learn from, work with, and make more permanent these connections? Can we step from behind the emoticons of e-mail that never convey real emotion? Can we purposely break down barriers between departments and people in organizational life? Can we connect with customers as people rather than as id numbers or as filtered sounds left on a voice mail merry-go-round that is rarely merry? In our 24/7 world, we’ve lost not only the connection with each other but the connection with ourselves. And at our deepest level, we somehow know that if we could only find time to have an internal conversation with ourselves, we’d achieve a better sense of place and purpose.
As our world continues to implode in harsh one-sided, half-truth speech, the need for real dialogue becomes paramount. Consider these suggestions for saving our endangered human ability to converse:
- Consider someone whom you would like to know better. Invite them for a meal, a cup of coffee, whatever. Put away the cell phone and just talk. Ask what makes them tick. Seek what you have in common.
- For at least one day, ban all email and text messages from people who are in your same building. Pick up the phone instead. Even better, stick your head into the cubicle. One company I know forbids all electronic devises from entering a meeting room. People must actually listen and talk with each other—round table and no designated leader and a well-crafted agenda.
- Become informed rather than opinionated. Dorothy Parker once quipped, “On a battle of wits, I never argue with an unarmed man.” When we merely parrot what people say without checking the accuracy, we muddy an already dark pool of talk. Consider unbiased sources for checking facts: http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/, or http://www.snopes.com/.
- Use a free service like zoom.us to bring people into “your computer room” with you. The ability to see each other as well as hear adds an essential element to conversation: the face! Sadly, I have heard some employees say that they don’t want to be seen because they do other tasks rather than actively participate in the teleconference. What a deep shame.
Talk is not cheap—it is priceless.