The Lost Art of Conversation

Federal Express has run a television ad recently that features a fictional department supervisor who delivers good news to his employees in person and bad news to them by text.  It’s a humorous commercial, but every time I see it I think of all the ways that technology has eroded the skills of conversation and personal interaction.

Conversation can be hard, especially when the subject is unpleasant or at least has the potential to end up there.  For those that favor stealth and avoidance, innovations such as e-mail, text messaging, twitter and the like have become crutches.  We can be harsh, blunt, rude, condescending and nasty using these methods of conveyance, all without the risk of a face-to-face encounter.

Don’t get me wrong; all of these tools and innovations can greatly increase our work efficiency, but far too often they are used as a replacement for personal interaction, and for all the wrong reasons.  And I’m just as guilty as the next guy.  I sometimes find myself delivering bad news via text instead of calling and handling things the traditional way.  It’s not a hard thing to do in today’s world…..but that doesn’t make it right.  You see, it’s not just the skill of conversing that’s being ignored.  Traits such as integrity and professionalism take a hit as well.   (And yes, I do recognize the irony in the fact that I am e-mailing this message to folks…)

Over the past few months, I’ve noticed a couple of things that are a little discouraging during mediations I’ve conducted.  One is the propensity of some attorneys to resort to texting their clients rather than calling them for instructions when those clients are not physically present at the session.  The other is the detached client that sits in the corner of the room, e-mailing, texting or surfing on his or her phone while the rest of us are trying to make progress toward a settlement.  In both of these situations, I’ve done my best to politely steer the focus back to the issues at hand, but I’m concerned what I’ve witnessed is a trend in today’s society.  Most people would rather check Facebook, view Instagram photos, participate in group chats, or do just about anything their smart phones will allow them to do than to have a real conversation with someone in person.

Just as a deposition is more valuable than an affidavit, a video deposition is better than an oral deposition, and live testimony in the courtroom is better than a video deposition, an engaged, conversant participant in a mediation has a greater chance of success than a participant who is physically absent or mentally checked out.  So much can be conveyed when a conversation is held – not just by way of the words used, but by body language, eye focus, expressions, attitude, gestures, and level of calmness.  Smart phones and computers don’t give you that; personal interaction does.  When trying to settle a case in mediation, sincere personal interaction and engagement are crucial to the process.

In December I spent eight days in Guatemala and I intentionally left my iphone at home.  I cannot begin to describe how wonderful it was to have clear focus on what I was doing, without the possibility of being distracted by phone calls, texts, e-mails or the internet.  For over a week all of my interaction with the human race was in person, and it was so refreshing.  I didn’t even know who won bowl games or NFL games during that time, and it didn’t phase me a bit.

I hope we aren’t headed toward an age when all meetings, conferences, trials and assemblies are held remotely.  When I consider the damage such an age would do to personal relationships, I am reminded of another television commercial from probably twenty years ago.  I’m pretty sure it was an investment company (Dean Witter, perhaps?) that ran the ad, and it opened with the company CEO announcing to all his salesmen that one of the firm’s oldest clients had just fired them, citing the lack of personal relationship that now existed between company and client.  The CEO then informed the salesmen that they would all immediately travel to visit person-to-person with each of his or her clients, to reassure them and to reestablish the personal relationships that had been eroding from years of phone messages, e-mails and stealth communications.  One by one, the CEO gave plane tickets to the salesmen and told them who they would be visiting, until everyone but the CEO had an assignment.  A young salesman then asks the CEO, “What about you?  Where are you going?”  The CEO smiled and replied, “Me?  I’m going to go visit our old client who just fired us.”

Don’t avoid tough conversations.  Recognize the value of personal relationships and face-to-face interaction.  When given the choice between pushing a button to send a message and seeking out the person to actually talk to him, choose the latter.  You’ll learn more, and you’ll probably strengthen the relationship.

Jimmy Lawson
Hamlin Dispute Resolution, LLC
Memphis, Tennessee and Little Rock, Arkansas
February 2, 2015