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Save Face-to-Face!

By Michael J. Lyons

Call me old-fashioned but I see a disturbing trend emerging in our society and in the business world: In the past few years, as we have become more and more reliant on technology, our face-to-face communication has diminished and suffered. And ironically, the meetings industry – the standard-bearer for face-to-face communication – is an active participant in this shifting new era of communication behavior.

It has been proven over and over (and the “Meetings Mean Business” campaign has stressed) that face-to-face communication is more effective than email, texting, phone calls or facetime. The conflict lies in the fact that though face-to-face communication is the most powerful form of human interaction, technology has become an efficient and effective communication enabler - and is competing head-on with face-to-face at a rapid pace, whether we like it or not.

At this point, we are obviously not going to put down our devices and swear off technology altogether, but there is no substitute for face-to-face contact and we should not gloss over that reality.

Every relevant metric that I have seen indicates that we are interacting at breakneck speed and frequency through online media. But at what cost? Is communication now about rapid responses in lieu of thoughtful, measured exchanges? Are we really communicating? We are attempting to build relationships and draw conclusions based on short phrases, abbreviations and emoticons - which may or may not accurately represent the sender’s intended message.

And to make it worse, social media and technology have blurred the traditional barriers of space and time, creating a 24/7 world that poses a threat to the time-honored boundaries between our work life and personal life.

Ironically, social media is actually making us less social – and has become a substitute for the real thing. In the business world and in our industry, the use of electronic communication has overtaken face-to-face (and voice-to-voice) communication by a large margin.

This major shift has occurred because of two major factors: the global economy - which demands speedy information flow, and the changing demographic in our employee population - namely the Gen X, Y and Z generations who now make up the largest segment of the workforce. These generations have demonstrated a lack of comfort with traditional interpersonal communication and prefer to use instant messaging or other social media rather than stop by someone’s office for a talk. This new communication preference is forcing employers to adapt to manage a new set of expectations in their younger employees, and vice versa. But a bigger concern is raised in the process: the loss of social skills and the ability to speak clearly, articulately, and look someone in the eye without being uneasy.

The other issue is because most business communication is now done via e-mails, texts, instant messaging, intranets, blogs, websites, and other technology-enabled media - without the benefit of body language – the potential for misunderstanding increases.  In our high-stress, constantly rushed state of mind, we don’t always take the time to read and re-read each communication before hitting “send” and the subtle nuances of the message may be misinterpreted.

Conflicts can emerge over the tone (or brevity) of an e-mail, or who was included or left off the all-important cc list. When a text is written in all capital letters, does that mean they’re shouting? Are one or two-word responses a sign that the person is upset or doesn’t want to engage? We are left to guess what the sender means and in many cases, conclusions are drawn based on very little information.

Not only has this created a serious dilemma in the workplace, but more importantly, it has also seeped into our personal lives with alarming impact. We have all sent an email on our smartphone, checked Facebook, sent a text, or talked on the phone while in the presence of family members. Sometimes it seems impossible to avoid the constant connectivity that life in this century demands. But is this need to connect affecting our connection to the very people we love the most?

In order to “save face-to-face” we all have to do our part by making adjustments in our daily on-line conduct, and by encouraging as much face-to-face interaction as possible with all the people in our lives – both professional and personal.

We know that strong business relationships are forged through networking and getting to know people in person. It has been proven that clients buy from people they like, trust and have confidence in. But in order to develop that rapport, face-to-face interaction is necessary - on-line communication alone won’t cut it.

Michael J. Lyons is a meetings industry veteran, author, actor and professional speaker. For more information on Mr. Lyons, go to: www.lyonsspeaker.com

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