Hello? Are You Here?

“How’s work?” I asked a young family friend, who is six months into a new job at an advertising agency.

“It’s fine, I guess.”

“Ok. Not the answer I was expecting. You were so excited about this job last time I saw you. Tell me what’s up.”

“It’s my boss. At first, I was so excited to work for her. She’s brilliant, and I couldn’t believe what an opportunity it was to be mentored by her. But then I began to notice that I rarely ever get her full, undivided attention.”

He told me stories of meetings in the boss’s office in which she never stayed focused on her conversation with him for more than 10 or 15 seconds without glancing at her phone or saying, ‘just a minute, I have to take care of something,’ after which she would dash off a quick text or make a call.

“I scheduled a lunch out of the office with her, so maybe I could get her attention, and she spent the entire 10-minute walk, in both directions, on her phone. And she must have picked it up to look at 25 times while we were at the restaurant. Her phone is like an oxygen mask for her. She needs to reach for it constantly, or she won’t be able to survive. And when you’re with her, you definitely feel like you’re less important.”

I probed to see if this was just the self-conscious indignation of a young worker, expecting more attention than he deserved, but he quickly proved otherwise.

“She does it with clients. If we’re on a conference call with a client, she’s constantly texting on her phone and answering emails on her computer, saying ‘uh-huh’ and ‘yeah’ while the client is talking, but I know she’s missing half of what they say. And if we’re in a meeting with clients she keeps her phone on her lap and is constantly stealing glances at it under the table.”

We all know people like this, and we’ve all been guilty of this behavior at certain times. Hearing this story reminded me how much this behavior can destroy our business relationships, despite the fact that it has become acceptable.

The ability to maintain multiple instantaneous and continual remote conversations is one of the great conveniences of our modern work lives. But this convenience comes at a price: Every time you are communicating remotely with someone, you are not communicating effectively with the people who are physically present with you.

Here’s a fact: You can’t multi-task. What we call multi-tasking is actually “time-slicing,” where we shift back and forth between different tasks. So even if you are able to make these back and forth shifts quickly, anytime you communicate with your phone, tablet or computer you are momentarily abandoning the people you are with.

Building relationships with the people we work with — colleagues, customers, vendors, partners, et al. — is one of the most critical success factors in our careers. The ability to be present, fully-engaged and undistracted in your interactions with others is a key factor in creating relationship-building encounters and avoiding relationship-eroding transactions. Read my ebookEncounters to master the three elements of an encounter.

Here’s what I encourage you to do: For the next week, focus on the people who are physically present with you. Try these things:

  • Don’t put your phone on the table next to you in meetings or in restaurants.  Leave it in your briefcase, bag or pocket. Better yet, leave it in the car or at your office.
  • Don’t check your phone while you are in an in-person conversation with someone.
  • Don’t respond to texts or emails while you are in an in-person conversation with someone.
  • Don’t look at your computer screen when someone is in your office (or if you are in a conversation on the phone with someone).

Realize that you can only do one thing at a time, and make sure that one thing is the right thing: Be present.  Don’t compromise your in-person interactions for the sake of remote conversations, or you will damage your relationships with the people in your physical presence. We can’t succeed in our careers without building strong relationships, and, no matter what technology offers, there is no better way to build a relationship than when you are physically present with someone, fully engaged with them in a meaningful relationship-building encounter.

1 Comment

  • Bernie Dyme
    Jul 17, 2014 - 12:15 pm

    Nice post. Although I am a big believer in using technology to better communicate, one still needs to be mindful about relationships. The nature of relationships may change but they will never go away or be replaced by anything. The type of behavior you mention in your post is akin to being at a party engaged in a conversation with someone who is constantly looking around at other things. That person is not present nor is he or she effectively communicating any interest in anything other than you. As leaders, we need to set an example and make sure those who work for and with us understand that human contact requires attentiveness.

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