Over the past few years, researchers have found the mere presence of a phone in front of two people trying to have a conversation can distract them both. With a device in sight, the brain anticipates a potential disruption–and focusing gets even harder when the task at hand is more cognitively challenging than just talking.
What does that mean for team productivity when everyone brings their devices to meetings, tapping away on them while someone up front is trying to speak? How does it affect the relationships you’re able to build when your coworker yanks out a phone during an office happy hour and starts texting? Should you say anything?
Lately, I’ve begun to. I decided not long ago to take it upon myself to call out my friends and colleagues on their inconsiderate use of technology. It’s an experiment in doing something pretty unthinkable these days: asking for someone’s full attention. It’s takes some vulnerability to speak up, but I’ve found it’s also provoked worthwhile conversations about the importance of being present.
Here’s what my experiment has taught me, along with some language you can use to coax someone back into the present from the glowing allure of their screens.
What To Say And How To Say It
In my experience, it’s not just the words you use that matter, but the love and respect with which you say them. What you’re really saying is, “I want to connect with you.” Here are a few expressions to keep on standby for the next time someone whips out their phone mid-conversation:
- “Hey, is now still a good time to talk? I see you’re doing something important on your phone, so maybe you need to do that first.”
- “I see you’re really busy right now. I really want to connect, but if you need to tackle that, let’s meet up later.”
- “If you need to check in with email right now, that’s totally cool, I’ll circle back when you’re done.”
- “Could we both agree to put our phones away for dinner?”
- “I’m feeling distracted from what we were saying since you’ve been checking your phone. Can we start over?”
- To a friend: “I love you. Could we do a no-phones catch up session?”
- “I have an awesome idea for our pitch next week. Could I ask for your full attention for just five minutes so I can share?”
- “I’m sure you’re really good at multitasking, but I don’t feel heard right now. Can we talk when you’ve finished texting?”
- “Could you wait until after we hang out to post that photo?”
With the wrong tone, any of these phrases can sound passive-aggressive or condescending, so make sure you actually feel as patient and compassionate as you want to come across. In my experience, these requests still make the other person feel flustered at first. But from there, the interaction usually shifts into more authentic territory, and occasionally it’s even started a really good conversation about presence, technology, and the pressure to be responsive at all times.
My favorite (and least aggressive) way to convey the same message in this kind of situation, especially whenever there’s a power imbalance (someone more senior at work or someone I don’t know very well), is to respond with silence. I simply stop talking when the person’s eyes drop to their device and wait until they notice what I’m doing. I’ll do it with a warm smile and hold the space with confidence; what I’m saying is worth being listened to, and I know it.
More Conscious Tech Starts With You
But don’t forget: The same principle applies the other way around. If you catch yourself responding to a notification instead of the person in front of you, call yourself out: “I’m so sorry, it’s really important to me that I prioritize you over anything happening on my phone, so let me put this away and give you my full attention.” That’s not something that will be easily forgotten and can actually become a learning opportunity for both of you.
Here are some other ideas for using technology more consciously:
- Host (shorter) device-free meetings and events.
- Ditch your device at mealtimes and grab a conversation buddy instead.
- Use a time-management app like RescueTime to track where you lose the most time online.
- Pick up the phone if you’re going back and forth on Slack or email.
- Turn off all (or most) push notifications.
- Put social events, self-care, and creative thinking time onto your calendar–publicly, so other people can see it.
- Leave your phone on airplane mode for the first and last hours of the day.
- Give yourself daily cut-off times for responding to email.
- Set digital boundaries with friends and colleagues during your time together.
- Practice walking around the office device-free, looking friendly and available.
In general, it takes two people to perpetuate an unconscious and disconnected interaction. So be the one who looks up first. Be the one who holds the silence, with kindness and respect, until the devices are put down. Be the one who speaks up. Most of all, be the one who leads by example–by offering her full attention.