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Dealing With Technology

mobile phone

The results of a recent TIME survey of about 5,000 people of all age groups and income levels in eight countries: the US, the UK, China, India, South Korea, South Africa, Indonesia and Brazil are staggering. About 45% of the people said they can’t spend more than one day without their mobile, with 62% checking it at least once an hour.

The size of the impact and speed of change in modern technology is shocking. I grew-up with restrictions on the amount of minutes I could speak on the landline (it was very expensive at the time!). When I started my working career e-mails were a novelty. Although I am not one of those people that live in the past, and I do have a smart phone and use e-mails on a regular basis now, I recently noticed that my expectation of other people’s behaviours had not changed.

For me, and probably for most people of my generation or older, looking at your mobile while at the dinner table or in a work meeting or a training session is a disrespect to the other people in the room. It seems, however, that this is becoming normal behaviour. Almost one in five respondents to the TIME survey said they’d check their phone regardless of whom they were dining with.

Phones and facilitation

Even though I was familiar with the use of technology in our day-to-day life, I had not given this much attention until recently, when I facilitated a workshop to a group of generation Y. The number of people using their phones during the workshop annoyed me. At the time I read it as disrespect and that got on my nerves to the point that I was repeatedly telling them off and being very authoritative, which is not my normal self. My annoyance with what I perceived to be their lack of interest made it difficult for me to engage with the group with a Whole Person approach. I ended the day over a bottle of wine in a restaurant questioning my decision to have a career in facilitation. If these types of people were the people I was to engage with, I would not only fail miserably but also hate my job.

Initially I blamed it all on the group’s age and the habits of generation Y. A while later a personal experience taught me that I was also using the same technology and addicted to my mobile, checking it more often than I realised. After a busy week in a project I was facilitating in Mozambique, I decided to spend the weekend relaxing in Inhaca Island, off the coast of Maputo. The place is beautiful and the weather was fantastic.

I had a great time until I checked my e-mails on Saturday evening. In my inbox there was one of those long e-mails about the workshop, where things did not go according to plan. I dwelled with the decision to read it or not and went for it. In hindsight that was a bad decision. I could do nothing to change the past and I would only pick-up the actions on Monday anyway. Suddenly my Saturday did not seem so enjoyable anymore. I went to bed with my mind spinning.

The next day I had recovered and went for a nice walk along a deserted beach. Still not having learned from the day before, I checked my mobile again. And then there was even worse news. The type of news that make you sad and powerless and questioning the meaning of life. A great colleague, who I respected and admired, and who had made enormous contributions for sustainable development and a more just world, had passed away suddenly at the age of 45. This was a blow to my weekend. I could not enjoy it anymore and yet, there was nothing I could do.

A weekend without my mobile

After that weekend with professional and personal bad news, which I could do nothing about, I decided to run an experiment and I spent the following weekend without my mobile. I was going away again for a safari in South Africa. And this time I did it “old style”. I sent my parents the hotel details, so if something happened they could reach me, and left the mobile at home.

Interestingly I missed it less than I expected. There were three times in total where a smart-phone would be handy. The first was when my friend who was giving me a ride was late. He knew I had no mobile, and that I would be waiting at the meeting point at the shopping centre corner. The alternative he found was to send a taxi to fetch me and take me to a café where I could wait for him. This made me think we always found ways to communicate with people before mobiles existed, and if necessity comes people will find ways around it.

The other moments I could have done with my mobile was:

  1. When I needed to set an alarm clock for the early walks in the safari. Luckily I had my sports watch and that had an alarm.
  2. When the lights went off and I had no torch. I managed to go around the camp, find the restaurant’s employee exit door (the restaurant was closed by then) and negotiate a candle with the manager. Again, we can always get around situations with a little bit of creativity.

In fact, I liked so much the experience of being without a mobile that I am making a conscious effort to be less dependent on it. I bought a travelling alarm clock that comes with a torch, so that I do not have to have my mobile with me when I go to bed. I am now part of the minority who do not go to bed with their mobiles. In the TIME survey, 84% of respondents had their mobile in their bedrooms when they went to sleep and 68% had it next to their beds.

Changing my attitude

The changes in my personal life inspired me to make changes in my professional life. I have also changed my attitude towards my own use of a mobile during workshops I facilitate. Before I would check it and use it during the times when the participants were performing activities that did not require my intervention. Now I keep it in airplane mode and use it only as a chronometer (I might get a stopwatch in the future, so that I am completely mobile free). I find this helps me to be “more present with the group” and that my energy doesn’t dissipate to other areas of work. I use the time now to reflect on the questions that come to me on that day. This makes me feel more connected with the “here and now”.

I recommend anyone to try it. There is a feeling of freedom that comes with not having to reply instantly to people. Just let your loved ones have an emergency telephone number in case they need to reach you. It is easier than you might think. And then once you have tried it, it is also easier to accept the difficulty other people have in putting their mobile aside.

In a twisted way, I became more accepting that for some people not using their mobiles in a workshop is just too much to ask. And as I said in my previous blog: “Don’t ask more people what they can’t give you”.

Of course, some people will be abusing their liberty to use gadgets in the room and might be using their phones, ipads or laptops to shop for a new bicycle (as I caught one of the participants in a workshop I co-facilitated doing). In the end, how different is that from looking out of a window daydreaming about buying a bicycle or thinking of the shopping list? I am guilty of daydreaming in workshops, meetings and even in conversations over the dinner table! So again, I can understand that using gadgets has become a different way of daydreaming.

Reflecting and experimenting with different strategies

Reflecting and experimenting with different strategies on how I should treat technology in the room was part of my personal development on the Whole Person Facilitating programme at Oasis. After considering the impact of technology (the modern form of daydreaming) on me and on the participants, rather than trying to control it, I have adopted a light-touch approach. I simply ask that if people have to take calls, that they leave the room. I also transfer the responsibility of the development and learning to the participants, so if they want to use their gadgets to do anything that is not related to the workshop subject, it is their loss and their choice, not mine.

This light-touch approach was incredibly powerful when I facilitated the same group for the second time around, about 6 months later. The same number of people were using their phones, but I was more understanding of their needs and did not make a fuss. The workshop flowed much more naturally and the group and I enjoyed the day much more.

It is like a noisy neighbour’s party: if you can’t stop it, you might as well go and join it!