Even a Silent Phone Disconnects Us

When you sit down with a friend, or a business associate, or a family member, how often does one of you or both of you place your cellphone on the table or in plain sight — face up — without really thinking about what you’re doing?

Look around you the next time you’re out to dinner or in a coffee shop. People do this … a lot.

There’s something almost reminiscent of the old west in this gesture of “unholstering” your trusty weapon … the better to draw quickly in repose.

Keeping your cellphone within eyeshot, whether you’re aware of it or not, actually brings a significant amount of tension and disruption to your environment. While your cellphone is not as disruptive as, say, a loaded six shooter, the phone nevertheless does change the dynamic of an interpersonal exchange.

I was teaching when I first noticed how powerfully distracting even a silent phone can be. During our first lesson, my student placed her phone (in silent mode) on the table in front of us, and I could see the texts and alert notices roll in, and both of our eyes would automatically dart toward the phone — as if something incredibly important was happening there. About halfway through the lesson, I had to ask my student to turn the phone over since I could feel it interrupting the flow of our learning.

The next lesson, she still put the phone on the table, this time facedown, but I noticed during lulls in the lesson, she’d quickly flip the phone over for quick checks. Theoretically, this should have been no big deal, but I knew better. I’ve seen what happens in my own learning when I bring my cellphone to the party — even facedown in silent mode. The temptation is just too great to check every ten or five or even two minutes.

I finally asked my student to take her phone and put it in the other room for the duration of our lessons. The learning went much better for both of us after that.

Teaching is now a chance to “practice what I preach.” I used to use my cell phone to time exercises and keep track of time during lessons. But now I use a simple wrist watch. It models good behavior for my students and keeps me completely focused on a lesson.

So … watch yourself.

Next time you notice yourself at a restaurant or coffee shop or kitchen table unholstering your gleaming new android or iphone … stop and think: “What could my phone possibly add to this conversation and relationship … and … how much would the person sitting across from me appreciate my effort to offer my undivided attention?”

Those two simple questions will help you keep your phone out of eyeshot … while at the same time keeping your eyes focused on what’s important — the human being sitting right in front of you.

Only when you’ve mastered this yourself should you move onto the next step: Asking someone to re-holster their own weapon … in the interests of having a better conversation and connection. It’s a bold step — best taken at first with only those closest to you — but one that’s fairly likely to be well-received provided you explain your interest in “controlling” their behavior.

It’s a little “experiment” you’re doing. And you wonder if they might play along…

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