One of the casualties of our electronic era is that we seldom take time for face to face conversation. In the workplace, people in adjoining offices e-mail each other rather than popping in the door for a friendly word. Students walking across campus talk to each other on cell phones though they may be only 50 yards apart.
Families believe they are connected because they keep track of each other’s whereabouts by text messages, but few words are exchanged. Many families no longer eat meals together, as everyone rushes off in different directions to sports practices, meetings and work shifts. What is lost is interaction between personalities, thoughtful reflection about local or world events, and shared decision-making.
Thanksgiving and Christmas may provide opportunities for families and friends to get together and share face to face time. But sometimes those holidays can be a blur of anxiety about whether the gravy will thicken, whether Aunt Betty will insult her brother again, or whether the kids will get out of hand if seated at a separate table. Then again, it might be better not to mention world events, for that will just set off Uncle Bob who doesn’t see eye to eye with anyone else in the room.
We talk about stopping to smell the roses, but these days it doesn’t happen much at Christmas or any other time. In order to get face to face time, it may be necessary to call a family conference to decide where to go on vacation next year, or whether the family can afford to get a dog. Shared decision making, in which everyone, even the kids, has a voice, is a great way to solve family problems. The trick is not to interrupt whoever is speaking – not an easy thing to do, but crucial in family meetings, just as it is in formal mediations.
Face to face time is essential for friendships too. Just sitting down for coffee or lunch with someone you haven’t talked to for awhile – I mean really talked to, not just tweeted – is a boost to everybody’s spirits. It’s a statement of caring, of attentiveness, one that says, “You matter to me, and I care what you’re thinking.” Sitting together and talking is entirely different from working together on a project or seeing someone at a meeting.
Taking time out to talk changes the dynamic and lends depth to a relationship.
In a charged political environment where everyone wants to assert opinions, it can be refreshing to ask the other guy what’s going on in his life rather than telling straight off about your latest discovery. And when he tells you, you could ask a question that will encourage him to tell you more, rather than retorting with your own take on the matter. Responses that “thicken” the conversation rather than stopping it are important in the workplace, just as they are in mediation.
Communication is always important, but taking time to savor it makes all the difference in a family, in the workplace, and in friendships. That’s something Twitter just can’t do.
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Janet M. Powers is Presiding Officer of Mediation Services and Professor Emerita at Gettysburg College.