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How to Get Someone to Put Away Their Phone and Actually Listen

Published November 8, 2018

No, it’s not just you.

If you’ve ever doubted that you had your boss’s full attention while her laptop is open in front of her, stop doubting. Despite her protests that “I’m listening, go ahead.”

She wasn’t.

Decades ago, research settled the question of whether you and I can do two things at once. We can’t. But emerging research shows that even the simple presence of a cell phone—much less its glowing screen and constant beeps—interrupts our ability to connect.

The problem is that manners haven’t caught up with technology. In one online survey, my colleagues and I found that nearly 9 out of 10 people say that at least once a week, their friends or family stop paying attention to them in favor of something that’s happening on their digital devices. And 1 in 4 say these interruptions have caused a serious rift with a friend or family member.

But emerging research shows that even the simple presence of a cell phone—much less its glowing screen and constant beeps—interrupts our ability to connect.

So, what do you do when faced with these interruptions? According to a VitalSmarts survey, not much. Only 1 in 10 people speak up to the offender, while the vast majority remain silent by either ignoring the behavior (37%), giving dirty looks or showing disapproval in other nonverbal ways (26%), or simply walking away (14%).

Too many of us are waiting for social norms to evolve naturally and catch up with a raft of novel social situations we face. But they won’t. Norms develop when a critical mass of people begin to confront those who violate them. Each time someone is called out, not only do they learn, everyone who witnesses the awkward moment, takes mental notes as well: “Note to self: Answering my phone in the middle of a funeral does not make me popular.”

So how can we accelerate this necessary change, especially in the workplace? Let’s say, for example, you’re frustrated with coworkers who interrupt you to answer phone calls or texts. Or you are tired of presenting in a business meeting to people who are checking their emails.

It starts with speaking up.

And though it may seem awkward and uncomfortable, our collective response to these behaviors will establish new norms of modern courtesy.

You have to adhere to the norm—and speak up when others cross it.

Here are a few ways to begin the process:

Discuss the data

  • If you’re trying to change norms in a group, you might begin by sharing the “why.” Share the studies like the one we cited above. If people aren’t convinced about the impact on social connection, show them the evidence that the presence of a cell phone impairs productivity too. Don’t raise this kind of discussion after obvious transgressions when team members might feel shamed or defensive. Lightening the mood and having fun with the situation can make the issue easier to discuss.  Engage the group in conversation about the upsides and downsides of having tempting devices lying tantalizingly in view during attempts to generate high-quality dialogue. Propose ground rules like, “Be totally present” and “Keep the phone in the bag.”

Make it personal

  • If the norm you’re trying to change is with a single individual (boss, spouse, friend), don’t bludgeon them with data. Make it personal. Once again, don’t raise the issue while they’re devouring their phone. Wait until you’re not feeling diminished and they won’t feel ashamed. Then say something like, “I’ve been noticing that I feel much different about my conversations with people when I or they are semi-distracted by technology. I’d like to both make a commitment to you and ask for a commitment from you. When I’m talking with you, I want to give you my full attention. And I’d like to ask for the same. And if it’s not a good time for you to focus completely, I’ll wait until it works for you to do that. Would that work for you?”

Hold the boundary

  • Now comes the hard part. You have to adhere to the norm—and speak up when others cross it. That means that if you sneak a peek at a device in a way you agreed not to, own up to it. And the instant you see others do the same, be prepared with a non-punitive, but crystal-clear acknowledgement of the violation. If you’re trying to change a group norm, ask each member of the group to join you in owning the change. Agree on a simple and clear phrase like, “Scott, tech-check”—as a way of reminding Scott that this is a no-tech time. In a one-on-one setting, try something like, “Looks like you want to check your email. Would you like to do this later?” Be prepared for ruffled feathers, an annoyed look, or a defensive response the first few times you address violations. But have confidence it won’t take long before manners align with the new norm.

 

Today’s technology allows us to communicate quickly and effectively with a large network of friends and acquaintances we would not have access to otherwise. While there are great benefits to these advancements, they should not trump social norms of respect, courtesy and politeness—especially with those we care about most. It’s time we learned to speak up and address these interruptions and safely build mutual understanding of their appropriate use in our life.

This article originally appeared on The Harvard Business Review.

About the Author
Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny

Author, Speaker & Social Scientist

VitalSmarts

Joseph Grenny is a four-time best-selling author, keynote speaker, and social scientist for business performance. His passion and expertise are human behavior and its impact on business performance and relationships. His work has been translated into 28 languages and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500 companies. Joseph is the co-founder of VitalSmarts, an organization committed to teaching others how change human behavior effectively.

Years at GLS 2013, 2014

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