Look at Me, Not at Your Device

These are not rude people. The people gathered around the table are my treasured colleagues. I hired most of them. I was and am drawn to their compassion, empathy, generosity, wisdom and love of people. They are teachers, counselors, experts, thinkers, pastors and caregivers.

Yet, I sit at the table offended and become increasingly frustrated with them. I am unsettled. We sit at our weekly staff meeting and they will not get off of their devices.

They and I, I will admit, are addicted. Our mouths water for the moment when someone around the table requests that we check our calendars, so we might sneak a peek, simultaneously, at our Facebook or Twitter feeds. We look for the dopamine hit based on what someone outside of the room might have “liked” or shared of our “feed”.

It turns out that we are no different than anyone else in any other profession. We are all used to walking into our local coffeehouse and observing the familiar scene of people of all ages sitting on couches in circles, utterly engaged…..on their devices, that is. The furniture is designed specifically so people can engage in relational dialogue, but every head is turned downward towards their device. We have become conditioned to the idea that if something more compelling is happening in cyberspace, then the possibility of relational intimacy right in front of us diminishes. Indeed 50 percent of us now communicate digitally, rather than in person.

I get evolution of life and technology. I also get that our devices can create new and creative venues for relationships. I am fully supportive of progress. However, along the way, I just want to make sure that we don’t forget the importance of conversation as a way to foster intimate and authentic relationship. I don’t want us to forget the awe we feel from looking into another’s eyes to face both the elation and disappointment we cause in our interactions. I don’t want our fear of intimacy to be disguised by a text. I want to hear the words, “I love you”; “I am angry at you”, in person; not on a screen.

In her book, Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle, writes that even having our devices faced down on a table during conversations draws us away from personal interactions. The idea that something better is available on the turned down screen can’t help but to diminish our sense of presence and thus, even worse, our ability for empathy.

Indeed, when I read Turkle’s book, I realized it was time to make a change in my own workplace. I wondered how clergy could be clergy if our own sense of empathy is diminished by virtue of our addiction to our devices. And I realized through reading, “The Business Case for Conversation” by Erica Keswin in this week’s Huffington Post, that managers in all workplaces are facing the challenges I am finding at my weekly staff meetings. Keswin makes the case that devices are not only getting in the way of the ability to show empathy, but also hindering the corporate bottom line. She acknowledges that we can’t remove the devices, nor should we. But she offers “rules” to help us reach a healthy balance.

Based on those “rules”, I have put into place a no “device” policy at staff meetings. Any device whatsoever must be left in our offices. The experiment (I put it into place about two months ago) has been challenging. No one has complained to me yet, but I know it has been difficult because I salivate for my own device. And yet, nothing has happened on any of our phones that couldn’t wait for the conclusion of our 60-minute meeting. I just think some of us are in withdrawal.

I do notice that we look at each other more. I think we are more patient and generous with one another. And sometimes, we are even more present to disagree. Not to argue, but to healthily disagree in a way which makes us better…. and helps delve more thoroughly into the heart of a specific matter.

I love every trick my device can perform. But when I am able to pull away, nothing beats relationship, eye-to-eye; heart-to-heart; and soul-to-soul.

Perhaps you might want to take an hour off with your colleagues in your work place as well. Whatever makes for your bottom line, I bet it will be more profitable.

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