Relationship Rule #1: Focus on the One You’re With

I am reading a fabulous book right now called Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, written by Sherry Turkle. Turkle is a sociologist and psychologist who studies the intersections of these disciplines with technology. She teaches at MIT.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who:

  • Has attended or led meetings or presentations where the majority of the room stared at their phones during the time together;
  • Has tried to uphold screen time guidelines or limits with kids, teenagers, or even themselves; or
  • Has gotten engrossed in their social media feeds, only to look up an hour later wondering “What did I just do with the last hour?”

Speaking TogetherThe many thought-provoking concepts in Reclaiming Conversation could fill a year’s worth of blogs, and I cannot do the book justice and keep this post concise. One of Turkle’s concepts that really stood out to me is the impact smartphones have on conversations, even when they are not in use.

Turkle described how the presence of technology, which we all know is ubiquitous in work and social environments, has changed the way people interact with and connect with each other in person as well as over the digital landscape. For example, in face-to-face interactions, the visible presence of a phone – even if it is not touched or accessed – influences the types of topics addressed in the conversation.

“If two people are speaking and there is a phone on a nearby desk, each feels less connected to the other than when there is no phone present. Even a silent phone disconnects us.”

In Turkle’s research, students and adults alike described how knowing someone might be drawn to a more interesting social connection via the phone, or pulled into a separate discussion via text message, influenced them to keep conversations on safe, quick and easy-to-digest topics. One research subject even described how when she is with another person, she is conscious that the other person might need to check a phone during the conversation, and thus works to keep the discussion light to better enable her friend to shift focus more easily. In other words, the way people are utilizing technology like smartphones is driving choices we make about our behavior, even if we are not using the technology ourselves.

Every organization with which I work is trying to get more done in a day, with fewer people, and more quickly. Technology is an important tool for their leaders and employees. So what do these insights on how technology drives our behavior mean for organizations and the people and relationships that make them up?

  • Your “device-free” or “laptops down” meetings may not provide sufficient time or mental bandwidth for team members to really explore complex or difficult topics if phones and laptops are still physically or audibly present. It is possible that even if people are not using technology, they are aware of or planning for the potential draw on others to attend to a simple request or urgent emergency.
  • It is not enough to turn a phone over or set it aside when engaged in “face time” with a colleague or team member. Putting the phone out of sight and out of mind provides more opportunity to forge a deeper connection and relationship in your time together.
  • Building teams of people who have strong relationships and connections with each other requires an investment in in-person, technology-free conversations. Sure, conversation can happen over the phone, and virtual teams must rely on technology to accomplish their goals. The relationships that yield deep connections between people, however, are stronger and more meaningful when they are established and reinforced in person.

I have a love-hate relationship with technology. I love the productivity my personal technology enables and the volumes of information I can access through my smartphone. At the same time, I work in a people business where relationships and connections are important to me and to the organization with whom I work.

When my teenagers first received smartphones, my husband and I developed a long list of rules to help them develop a healthy relationship with the technology. Enforcing those rules became tedious for all of us. After a year of experiences and learning, and a few difficult conversations, we threw out the contract and simplified our expectations with our teenagers. We now have one rule that is still difficult to enforce, but which keeps us grounded on what is important to us. I have been reminded of this rule a lot while reading Reclaiming Conversations:

Focus on the one you’re with.

For deeper relationships with your team members, colleagues and friends, focus on the one you’re with. To do this, you have to first be with someone, in person and in conversation where you share ideas, insights and information. I encourage all of us to do more of this.

For more information on Sherry Turkle’s research and insights, check out her 2012 TED talk TED: Connected, but Alone? A list of recent interviews on Reclaiming Conversations is available here.

Heather Nelson is a partner with PeopleResults. She is a better conversationalist than her text messages and blogs let on. You can reach her at or on Twitter at @HeatherGNelson1. Sign up to receive the PeopleResults blog at Current.