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The Quest for Connection

2003 October 9
by Malcolm Sleath

In the space of a few short years, your clients and the people who surround them have found they can communicate with more people than they ever thought possible. Often using disguises as if they were at a masked ball, they are finding a voice on the web, in chat rooms, special interest groups, and cyberspaces specifically set up for networking. This means they can find an appropriate place to say (virtually) whatever they like. They are learning to find voices within themselves that are different in character from the way they project themselves face-to-face.

The cynic would say this allows many people to indulge in fantasy and self-delusion, and of course it does. But that is exactly what children do when they are learning how to cope with the world; we call it play, and it should not be dismissed as having little significance.

I am sure people say things to me over the net they would find difficult to say when in the same room. Although I am a fairly open kind of person, I know the same is true of me. Is this why people like e-mail, chat rooms and text messaging so much? Partly. I also think it has something to do with the extra beat it gives you in thinking about what you are going to say. In theory the messages can be more considered. People dig deeper. They become more candid. And, as they do so, they begin to explore what they are really about.

What are the implications for our clients and each of us? For a start we have to realise that compared to what people experience on the web, our encounters might seem tame, ritualistic and formulaic. In organisational settings we often find ourselves wearing the ‘agent of the firm’ hat. We say what is expected of us. We try to elicit the desired responses. Sometimes I think that our so-called hard-nosed business culture has more similarities with the eighteenth century French court than we might care to imagine. We might no longer scratch on doors to gain entry to private apartments, but there is no doubt that the dance with the chief executive’s PA has a choreography that is just as mannered.

It is easy to gloss over the fact that when we meet people face to face and speak to them on the phone we are exposed to only the tip of the psychological iceberg. We tend to treat people as one of the stepping-stones on the path to the person we really want to talk with. We forget to connect, and then we go home and try to find an intimate and authentic encounter by pushing electrons down a wire.

So, every time you speak to someone, remember your own psychological hinterland. Recognise that they have one too. Know that they too are hungry for human contact that has more to it than ritual. You don’t have to turn every telephone call into a therapy session, but you might find a way to make it a richer encounter.

This article was inspired by The Support Economy. Next: Support for whom?