Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age

Across industries and sectors, and at every level of experience, most of us feel effects form our "flight from conversation."

At home, families sit in silence at the dinner table. We text (and shop and tweet) during class and while on dates. At work, executives email during meetings. We live in a technological universe that enables constant communication. We’re connected more than ever; not necessarily to one another, but to our keyboards and touch screens. Meanwhile, we’ve sacrificed conversation, and in fact, we seem to fear it – to the detriment of life and business, says renowned social psychologist and MIT Professor Sherry Turkle.

Texts and emails offer an escape from looking, listening or revealing ourselves, explains Turkle, founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self who has spent more than 30 years investigating the intersection of digital technology and human relationships. We seek and find ways around real, face-to-face conversation – in the office, at home, in politics, and even in love – and it’s undermining everything.

“New hires, young consultants, are coming out of the best colleges and business schools. They have done amazing things both academically and in their extracurricular lives. But they are struggling with the simplest workplace conventions and conversations,” she writes in her forthcoming book, “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age” (Penguin Press, October 2015).

Generations Y and Z are tech savvy, but socially clumsy; their inability to express empathy, and understand the perspectives of colleagues and clients is impacting business. Turkle, who is recognized as a top visionary, idealist and thinker, believes the first workplace training should be in conversation. Unfortunately, because we assume employees know how to listen and respond, it’s not a priority.

But it’s not only twenty- and thirty-somethings who are struggling. Across industries and sectors, and at every level of experience, most of us feel the effects from our “flight from conversation.” How often do you text or email when you could stop by or pick up the phone? With the loss of face-to-face interaction, we’ve also lost the complexity and depth so critical to creativity, innovation and leadership.

It turns out, the more you talk to your colleagues, the greater your productivity and commitment to work. Conversation, Turkle says, is a cure. It’s up to us though – as leaders, managers, parents, peers – to champion conversation, making it the norm and modeling the behavior.

By talking about why talk is important” organizations can create a genuine conversation culture where people build trust, get information and build the connections that help them get their work done.

“Reclaiming Conversation” – a follow-up to her 2011 best-selling book “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other” – is “less ‘here’s the problem’ and more ‘it’s time for mobilization,’” says Turkle. A recent review by Publishers Weekly noted it “makes a winning case for conversation, at the family dinner table or in the office, as the ‘talking cure’ for societal and emotional ills.”

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