Some of our readers might remember the TV advert a few years ago from a well-known telecoms company that advised us that it was “good to talk”? In those days we did not have access to smart ‘phones, social media, and other communication tools that we have at our disposal today. Digital technology, as the platform for so many varieties of social media is universal, and within a relatively short time has become embedded in our day-to-day lives, both at work and at home. Great, I hear you say. Indeed, where would we have been these past two years without access to technology to enable us to work, communicate and go about our business?
However, there is mounting concern that digital communication has adversely affected the intimacy of our relationships. Back in 2014 there was evidence that Texting was overtaking telephone or mobile ‘phone talking as the most popular form of communication. Gallup found that texting was the most common means of communicating with people under 50. There were fewer “engaging conversations taking place” and instead rather clip and somewhat transactional texts, with accompanying emojis becoming the major way in which we stayed connected.
Move forward to 2022 and we find that social media has grown exponentially, spawning so many different forms. A fascinating statistical insight into the growth of social media, and its comparative utilisation by different age groups, is provided on the Statista website. Using a landline to telephone a friend is now seen as almost archaic, mobile ‘phones have morphed into SMART phones for a rich variety of social media platforms and their use for person-to-person conversations has diminished considerably. Highlights from the Statista site include:
- Social Media Penetration in the UK is at 88.51% (with advertising spend of over £3.6bn per year)
- There are 53million “active” social media users in the UK
- Children spend on average 40 minutes per day on Instagram
- 24% of people use Twitter, with over 40% accessing it more than 7 times per day
A particularly salutary statistic from Statista was that UK children spend on average 40 minutes per day on Instagram about 4 hrs 40 minutes per week. This compares to another survey conducted during 2021 showing that the UK family spends an average of just 4 hours per week in “quality time” together, including family mealtimes and activities together.
This is not to decry the value of social media, for information, fun, quick contacts, and there will be no stopping its relentless growth. But it should act as a wakeup call to all of us to take more time to ‘be present’ with our families, friends, workplace colleagues and neighbours. Notwithstanding the effects that digital devices have on our health and wellbeing, including quantity and quality of sleep and the impact on our cognitive processes, we risk losing the art of interpersonal or human communication. The irony is that we have never had so many positive ways in which we can connect to each other, yet our interpersonal skills are rapidly diminishing to be replaced by emojis, memes, screenshots, texting abbreviations and short-hand.
The art of the conversation, the quality of listening and talking is being lost for adults and in danger of never being acquired fully by children whose exposure to positive quality time in families is now less than the daily time spent staring at an app.
Talking and listening are fundamental skills to building relationships, to helping us to get to know one another, to spotting the signs when something is not quite as it should be. Active (generous) listening is a social skill and incredibly important. It helps us to prepare to listen, to observe the verbal and non-verbal messages that are being given and enables two-way dialogue and feedback for mutual understanding between the speaker and the listener.
Poor communication is one of the key reasons why leaders and managers fail to retain staff, why people feel isolated, excluded, or marginalised. That level of human contact is being lost and with it the opportunity to use engaging conversation, stimulating discussions with generous listening, to change lives, inspire businesses, increase understanding, and heal divisions. Being able to talk, being able to listen, and recognising the value of spending such quality time in such activity really does make a difference.
It is within our power to make this change happen for our own good and for the benefit of generations to come. The starting point is alarmingly simple but an enormous challenge to all of us. It is a question of creating the time and the space for conversations to happen — in the workplace, in the family home, in all our social settings. It is reclaiming some of that time now being spent on our devices and to say, “Talk to me, I am listening” and really mean it. Here are a few things to try:
- Make the time to talk. Not a hurried or snatched discussion but a planned time to talk, to listen, to share.
- Begin with a positive mindset, be relaxed and calm. Full attention on what is being said
- Try not to argue or disagree. Respect others’ views and perspectives. Maybe ask questions to clarify and understand what is being said
- Remember that expressing feelings does not come naturally to some so don’t expect people to change but instead show empathy and patience – arrange to talk again in a few days to keep the dialogue going
The good news is that we can all improve our communication skills, whether on screen or face to face. We all have a personal style and its helpful to understand how we come across and by seeking constructive feedback we can learn about ourselves and modify our tone, style, language. We can learn to explore different communication platforms.
Similarly, we can be more effective with engaging and managing challenging conversations and to create positive outcomes. In turn this also improves our relationships, reduces stress and mental ill-health and creates environments that are happier, healthier, and more inclusive. Talk, Listen, Change Lives. Starting today!
 At the Crossroads:3.0 Digital technology and wellbeing