Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I’m wondering how to deal with the use of electronic devices in meetings, conversations, and other public forums. At home, my kids are continually annoying my husband and me with their use of so-called smart devices. At work, we don’t have clear guidelines about electronic interruptions and it’s the cause of some tension and discontent. What can we do to (1) set clear expectations and (2) keep ourselves from seeing every electronic invitation as just cause for interrupting a live conversation?
Let’s start with a common example of the problem. You’re talking to Chris, one of your best friends, and her phone notifies her that she’s just received a text. You can tell Chris is torn between listening to you and checking her message. Trying to appear interested in the point you’re making, Chris craftily moves her phone so it’s now sitting at the top of her open purse. Chris then coughs into her hand—causing her to lean her head forward so she can catch a quick glimpse of the newly arrived message.
You can tell Chris is torn between responding to the message and talking to you, but you believe face-to-face conversations should be given priority so you continue with your point. But when you finish your idea, Chris responds by holding up her hand and signaling you to stop yacking. She then picks up her device and dashes off a response while you watch and wait. All of this is done with a flair that suggests Chris has just texted advice on how to complete heart surgery that would most certainly kill the patient should she not intervene, when in fact she’s just told her son to make himself a bologna sandwich. You find the whole experience annoying and mutter something to the effect of, “If Alexander Graham Bell could only see. . .”
Situation number two. You’re in a meeting when you feel your phone vibrate. You glance at the screen, notice the call is from home, and wonder what’s going on. There are eight people in the meeting, you’re not talking, and you don’t want to make a scene by exiting. So you gently pull back from the table, tuck your head into your chest, bring your phone to your ear, hit the redial button, and chat quietly with your spouse. He wants you to pick up the dry cleaning on your way home. You’re glad he caught you before you left work but can’t help but notice your boss giving you the evil eye. “Phone Czar!” you think to yourself. It’s not as if you missed anything important or interrupted anybody.
Or how about this? Your teenage son walks into the room with ear buds plugged into his head and you try to say something to him but he can’t hear you. When your son eventually responds, he more or less shouts at you. You tell him to turn down the volume or he’ll surely be deaf by age thirty. He retorts that he wouldn’t mind losing his hearing because then he “won’t have to listen to you complain.”
Variations of these electronic insults are manifest, myriad, and magnifying with each new invention. Why? Because as a society, we haven’t decided on the common courtesies and basic rules of electronic etiquette and we’re starting to drive each other nuts.
When you have the option to use a device to make your life more convenient—even if doing so might interfere ever so slightly with your face-to-face experience—you often take the digital path. After all, it’ll only take a few seconds and it’ll solve a problem before it grows out of hand. In contrast, when others interrupt a conversation by using a device for their convenience—well, that’s just plain rude.
We’re obviously not going to solve this problem easily or quickly. New forms of electronic disruptions are sprouting up faster than ever and with each new tool comes new violations of traditional social norms. The problem is very likely to continue for years. However, there are a few things you can and should do now.
First, create a “bug list”—an enumeration of the behaviors you find annoying or even offensive. Use this list to decide which issues warrant a conversation. You’ll let some problems slide because they’re not worth the discussion. You also won’t speak up to everyone since you don’t interact with certain offenders frequently enough to justify the conversation.
Once you have your list of problems, fight your burning desire to point fingers and act smugly. Don’t come up with a list of your ideas of what should and shouldn’t be done. You may have some very strong notions, but you don’t make the rules. Social norms are made by whole societies of people and consist of rough guidelines. They reflect current feelings and changing preferences, not scientific certainties. The guidelines you create need to be jointly developed and flexible.
So, instead of laying down your law, tentatively describe the problem. Ask others to share their view of the same concerns then move to a discussion of specific issues that are currently causing problems. Talk about the questionable actions and their consequences (often unintended). Establish basic principles such as “face-to-face interactions deserve priority” and “when genuine emergencies arise, excuse yourself from the conversation and move to a private location.”
Keep the tone of these conversations light and exploratory. Genuinely seek others’ point of view then jointly brainstorm solutions. Try out your new ideas and then make changes as necessary. In summary, go public, involve others, be flexible, and realize that new products are just around the corner so this discussion will continue for quite some time.
When it comes to encouraging yourself to stick with the rules, be prepared. You will be tempted to break your own code of conduct when doing so is convenient rather than socially sensitive. Motivate and enable your behavior with six sources of influence.
Source 1: Love What You Hate. Keep in mind the long-term consequences of maximizing your convenience at the expense of harming your relationships
Source 2: Do What You Can’t. Work on your crucial conversations skills. When others offend you, know what to say and how to say it.
Sources 3 and 4: Turn Accomplices Into Friends. Gain the support of others by continually going public with new challenges as they arise. As you discuss the issue, seek advice from a colleague or loved one who can give you feedback on how well you’re keeping your own rules.
Source 5: Invert the Economy. Reward yourself when you step up to the conversation and handle it well or when you take care to respect others over your electronic devices.
Source 6: Control Your Space. Use devices to solve the problem created by devices. For instance, a product was just announced at CES—the world’s largest consumer technology tradeshow. When a parent enters a room and talks to her teenage son who is wearing ear buds, the device recognizes the parent’s voice, turns down the volume of the device, and amplifies the volume of the parent. How cool is that?
I hope this helps you think about the growing electronic onslaught and provides you with a starting point for helpful conversations and a reasonable change in behavior.
I’d love to hear your creative strategies for controlling your digital devices so they don’t control you. Share your ideas below.