Our world…our busy schedules…our phones, devices, and screen time…are rewiring our systems. When I was young, children were out in neighborhoods learning how to get along and how to problem solve with others. Now children are often scheduled into various sporting practices, dance classes, and other activities. These are great chances to provide time for children to interact and learn some social skills; however, they are social opportunities that are masked by structure. Some parents keep their young children busy by giving them phones or some kind of screen for pacification. Furthermore, many parents are more connected than ever to work, emails, texts, and much more. Technology creates avenues for us to multi-task which creates the illusion that we are getting more accomplished. But are we? At the sacrifice of what? Going through emails while in a team meeting? Texting someone while meeting with family or friends for dinner? Adding details to a work project while your child is trying to get your attention? Showing your children that it is acceptable to give only partial attention or to completely tune out the people around you?
The changes run deeper. Are we really connecting with others? We are texting and emailing a lot, but are we missing something? We are only getting part of the messages. We are missing the nonverbal cues, the intonation, and the emotional connections. And now many people are not really comfortable when they enter into face-to-face interactions. And it is only getting wider spread as we shop online, use self-check outs, and “maintain friendships” through social media.
Technology is changing how we think and how we feel. It is changing social communication. I am in agreement with Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, when she asserts, “My argument is not anti-technology. It’s pro-conversation. We miss out on necessary conversations when we divide our attention between the people we are with and the world on our phones.” Here is a Ted Talk by Sherry Turkle called Alone Together. So true. Humans were created to be social beings, to interact with each other, and to be in relationships with each other.
Our systems are being re-wired and our feelings are at-risk. Do we have the ability to recognize the nonverbal cues that others are sending our way? Are we sending the nonverbal cues that support our intentions? Are we able to think socially? For example, “When I do this or say this, some people might feel or think this.” We can have a lot of impact on people around us and how they feel. It is also important for people to develop empathy. What does that mean? According to Merriam-Webster (www.merriam-webster.com), empathy is
“the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”
Empathy is key to relationships, communication, academic performance, positive behavior, leadership, and life skill success. People who are successful communicators are empathetic. The good news is that empathy can be developed through teaching of social communication. Empathy must start with being present and being intentional.
When I lead social skills groups for children, this is the overall goal—teaching these individuals to be present and intentional around other people. This begins with social greetings. It’s important to acknowledge others. A simple “Hi” and “Bye” will do. Eye contact is important but it does not need to be held for a length of time. I encourage my clients to “check in with their eyes.” Eyes do a lot for communication. They can be helpful in signaling to others about what we are thinking or talking about as well as letting someone know we are paying attention to him/her. Eyes also send messages about feelings (happy, sad, mad, etc.). Our eyes help us to watch the body language of others. Bodies are often sending messages without even saying a word! A shoulder shrug signals the message “I don’t know.” Someone looking away and moving away from us signals that he/she is not really interested in maintaining a conversation. There are many more social skills that I incorporate into the curriculum of the groups that I lead. Being present in an interaction means actively listening to others, using your eyes and body language, asking and answering questions to support conversational flow, and more. Being intentional in an interaction means staying focused and thinking socially—considering the thoughts, feelings, and needs of others.
What about adults? Being present and being intentional as described above is the foundation; however, as adults, we must take this further.
- We must also model being present and intentional to others and expect interaction from them. The future of our world depends on this. We must develop and model empathy; we must be understanding, aware, and sensitive to others. Of course, there is The Golden Rule—treat people how you want to be treated. Many people operate with the mindset of “well that person did it to me”—we must fight against this thought process. It is destructive!
- Look for opportunities to interact and support others. When in a work meeting, stay completely engaged with the business at hand (do not work on your email or text others). When out to dinner with family or friends, stay off your phone. When shopping, avoid self-check outs. That cashier needs that job so choose to bring your items of purchase to that person. When you approach, use your social greeting. Make eye contact. Make a difference. Express your gratitude. Wish him/her well for the remainder of the day.
- Create windows of time in your day when you limit screen time for yourself and your children. Focus on increasing face to face interactions. Talk. Play games.
- Play games- face to face. Not on devices. This supports cognition and language development. It creates opportunities for social skills practice (verbal expression, turn taking, eye contact, thinking socially, and more). Here are some of my favorite hands-on games: Memory, Stone Soup, Hoot Owl Hoot, Balance Beans, Monopoly Jr., and Banana Split. Car ride games are awesome, too! For example, virtual hide and seek—“I’m hiding in a room in our house that has…” the person gives a description and another person guesses. Also, interstate Bingo and state license plate tallying are good games too. These suggestions encourage people to make connections in their outer world rather than allowing devices to keep people in their inner world.
We can all make a difference in our world.
Be pro-conversation. Fight the re-wiring.
Be present. Be intentional.
Robin Hicks, MS, CCC-SLP
Robin is an ASHA certified speech/language pathologist with over 25 years of experience and owner of Speech/Language Therapy for Kids, LLC, in Hartland, Wisconsin. She works with clients ranging from infants through young adults while specializing in Autism, Apraxia, Articulation, Fluency, Phonology, Pragmatics, Language, Sensory Feeding, and Voice. Robin strongly believes that a caregiver’s involvement in therapy sessions is the key to carryover and progress. Prior to owning her private practice for the past 7 years, she worked at a pediatric outpatient facility, in telepractice, a special education cooperative, and a public school setting.