Distraction Central: Resolving to put down the phone and listen

cell phone in hand
Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

Last year, I resolved I would put down my phone when people were talking to me.

I find it perturbing to talk to a person who cannot make eye contact because their gaze is glued to a screen. So I was already trying (not always successfully) to look at the person talking to me.

Then in late 2018, I saw this video by the brilliant Simon Sinek on how cell phones can degrade in-person interactions even when we’re not looking at them.

“There is a subconscious reaction to the device,” Sinek says. “When it is out it makes the people around us feel that they are less important.”

Sinek recommends physically putting the phone away when having a face-to-face interaction – not holding it in your hand or laying it face-down on the table, but actually putting it away.

My 2019 New Year’s resolution was to follow Sinek’s advice. And do you know what happened?

I failed.

It was hard. So much harder than I expected.

Here’s an example. A friend might tell me a story that reminds me of a video. Wanting to share this funny/insightful/relevant content, I pick up my phone and start searching YouTube, even as my friend continues to talk.

In my mind, I’m still engaging with the conversation – this is related to what she is saying! This will be my next contribution to the conversation! But really, from the moment my hand touched the phone, my brain has at least partially checked out.

I stopped listening to understand and began listening to reply. And since my reply requires turning my attention away from the speaker, I’m not really listening at all.

It was just as hard at home. Maybe harder. Imagine me sitting on the couch reading the news when my first grader runs up.

“Mom, guess what?”

At first, I’m good. I put the phone on the couch and look him in the eye.

“What, bud?”

“I invented a new villain for the game I’m playing. He has mind control powers.”

“That’s cool, buddy.”

He runs away and I pick up the phone. About a minute later, he’s back.

“Mom, what’s that thing called where you can move things with your mind?”

I put down the phone again. My hand lingers this time.

“Telekinesis.”

“Oh, right. He’s got telekinesis, too.”

He runs off. This time I almost finish the article before he comes back.

“Hey, Mom.”

I lower the phone again, but it stays in my hand. I wonder if Simon Sinek has kids.

But let’s say Sinek is right. What is the long-term impact of listening to my son with my phone in my hand? Will he feel like I’m not really that interested in what he has to say? Like I’m just paying attention to him until something better comes along?

Or am I modeling the behavior he will one day emulate? When Ron Srigley asked his college students to give up their phones and write about it, many found their phones were a sort of digital armor preventing genuine connections. Am I setting my boy up to keep a safe emotional distance between himself and others?

Let’s think back on the conversation with my friend. Was the video really that important? Couldn’t I have verbally shared what I thought was relevant about it without having to find it in that moment?

Yes, I probably could.

If I really wanted her to see it, I could have sent a link to it later. Rather than making my friend feel instantly unimportant, that would have shown that I was still thinking of her after the conversation ended. It could deepen our connection and reinforce the belief that I was listening and trying to understand her point of view.

Now here we are at the start of 2020. I have a whole list of resolutions this year. But right there at the top is give my full attention to the person speaking to me.

If you are willing to share your thoughts with me, the least I can do is put down the phone and listen.

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