“Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.” - a 16-year-old boy to Sherry Turkle, psychologist and sociologist studying technology and its effects.
With texting and social media allowing communication to happen without even opening our mouths, it’s no small surprise that “verbal communication skills” is one of the top things employers look for in a new hire.
In fact, verbal communication is number four of the top ten skills employers most want.
According to Turkle, “Face-to-face conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits. As we ramp up the volume and velocity of online connections, we start to expect faster answers. To get these, we ask one another simpler questions; we dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters.”
There’s no doubt verbal communication is important. But in an age when it’s much easier to pick up your phone and send a faceless text than to drive to a coffee shop for a face-to-face conversation, we don’t get much practice.
How can you sharpen those much-desired verbal communication skills in the 21st century?
Here are some ideas to get you started:
Go on a walk, take a nap, cook a meal, meditate, or simply do nothing.
Next time you stand in line at the grocery store, talk with the person in front or behind you instead of hopping on your phone.
Simply reading will boost your vocabulary, build your attention span, and, through example, help you articulate your thoughts more clearly.
When you have a conversation with someone, intentionally listen to what they’re saying instead of thinking about what you’re going to say next.
Learn their name, where they’re from, and what they like to do in their free time. Be sure to greet them by name the next time you see them. This might prove to be extremely difficult, especially for those on the shyer side, but it’s a great way to expand your comfort zone in a “safe” environment.
Decide which (if not all) face-to-face conversations you won’t allow to be interrupted by digital voices. Work on being fully present. As you start weaning yourself off your phone dependence, your friends will learn they may not get an immediate response from you by text. And that’s okay. Seriously.
Text messages can be great for short messages like where to meet, yes or no questions, a quick check-in, or a simple note of encouragement. But the higher the stakes the message, the more important it is to use more nuanced methods of communication.
Set boundaries for yourself—when you will or won’t use your phone. By modeling these skills and disciplines, you are not only setting a good example, but also helping your children develop healthy communication skills that will last for a lifetime.
When people (especially your children) are speaking to you, put down your phone. Even if you’re an awesome multitasker, listen fully to what they’re saying and carry on a distraction-free conversation.
Turkle suggests three “sacred spaces:” the dining room, kitchen, and the car. Find out what works best for your family.
Help set up study groups, offer to chauffeur a group of teens to Dairy Queen, or host a volleyball tournament at your house. Not only will this help your student grow their communication skills, you’ll be helping other teenagers get more face-to-face time.
Growing your communication skills isn’t an overnight process. Nor is there a perfect, one-size-fits-all solution for doing so. But there’s a lot of truth in the old adage, “practice makes perfect,” and that certainly applies to honing your verbal communication skills.
We can all use a little help in using technology as a tool, instead of something to hide behind. There’s nothing scarier than saying, “Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”
Let’s work to make that “someday” today, for ourselves and for others.
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