Your Brain at Work

Using neuroscience to improve daily life

The End of the Conversation?

Losing the art of conversation, right when we need it most.

I recoiled in horror recently at a story in the New York Times about using twitter-like tools in a high school classroom. The project is well-intentioned: they wanted to get kids more comfortable with speaking up by giving them digital tools to do so. The trouble is, now the kids are staring at screens all day instead of interacting with each other or the teacher. While the project appears to increase interaction overall, I'm not sure this is such a good idea.

The average empathy level of college kids has plummeted in the last decade. One hypothesis: We're not spending time reading social cues as much anymore. We're staring at screens, having "conversations" on text, email or via social media.

With less attention being paid to nuanced facial movements and tone of voice, we don't get to store the billions of patterns in long-term memory that our social network (the one in the brain) needs to draw on for interpreting complex social landscapes. The irony of the social media world is we're becoming less socially-oriented.

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I wander through the offices of another large organization nearly every week. While the view out the window might be different each time, one thing is consistent: the mazes of cubicles are disturbingly quiet. We've all gone digital. People across a hallway skype each other about where to go for lunch rather than speak in person. At first blush this appears like it should be helpful. We're all so busy that many grabbed moments of saved time might add up to more productivity. The downside is we're losing the art of the conversation, right when we may need this skill the most.

With the rise of teams, work today is more social than ever. Good collaboration is critical to success, yet collaboration requires carefully navigating complex social undercurrents to get things done. Conflict is only ever a poorly written email away. With less time being spent in "real time" with others, our social circuitry may be less developed than we need to get work done efficiently.

Without good social skills, when the pressure to deliver is on, it's all too tempting to retreat to executing alone, or worse. On the Deepwater Horizon rig in the gulf, as the problems leading up to the explosion mounted up, the conflict among the teams become ever more intense. Instead of collaborating under pressure, this team argued fiercely, inhibiting possible solutions.

Not only is our work more social by nature, it is also getting more intangible, more conceptual. The trouble with intangible ideas is they are hard to hold in mind. The circuitry in the brain for an idea is richer when we speak aloud than when we are just thinking to ourselves. In this way, when we can speak to another person in real time, it is easier to think deeply about subtle ideas, and therefore to view an idea from multiple points of view, to make new connections or innovate. We need more and better conversations, right when forces are pushing us the other direction.

Organizations wanting to improve their effectiveness could do well to invest in improving the quantity and quality of real time conversations. A first step is an honest appraisal of how poor we are at them. My own research shows that on average, we are less then 10% effective at helping other people solve  work problems in conversations. We also need some fresh insights about to have better conversations overall. In this area, neuroscience can be a big help, with studies on empathy, persuasion and communication providing both evidence for common sense (but poorly used) practices, and breakthrough ideas too.

In a knowledge economy, digital information can flow fast and free. When everyone has the same digital information, value is created not necessarily by knowledge but through insights about that knowledge. In this new economy, human connections, and the conversation especially, is becoming a lost art that is ripe for a rebirth.

 

The 2013 NeuroLeadership Summit is going local with three days of events in three different locations. Click here for more information.

David Rock is executive director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Group, a global consulting firm.

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