Digital and Face to Face Conversation: The Emerging Skill Set


Conversation doesn’t happen when two people just advocate. Advocating is what we do when we tell, when we assert, when we ‘put out.’ The digital realm is designed for us to mostly advocate. We press enter and our text is advocated. We send a photo and we are pushing that photo at someone. Emails, tweets, smileys and likes are all acts of putting out, of advocating. It’s all push. Even when we post a question, in the digital realm it has the quality of an output. When people reply and respond, they usually respond with more advocacy. Comment discussions on Facebook or under a posted video soon turn into hundreds of “I think statements”, with little in the design of the platform for silence, reflection or for genuine inquiry. Every mouse click or tap on gorilla glass is a little bit of assertion, usually from the region of our head, far less our heart.

Conversation – whether online or face to face –  is of fairly low quality when we simply exchange advocacy. You speak, I speak. You tell, I tell.

Conversation arises when we speak, not only to other people, but also from, or out of other people – from what they say, inspired and influenced by it. Speaking out of another person requires you to be open, responsive, in a mode of inquiry. Inquiry isn’t about delivering and presenting, it is about seeking and asking. When we inquire, we seek our next statement through the person or people in front of us. Conversation is often of a higher quality when we form what we say out of what has been said to us. when combine material and content coming into us from outside. That way we have at least one more point of view! If everyone is in a state of inquiry, we can find that the number of points of view grow. The more points of view into the world, the more diversity of view, and the richer picture is that can inspire our own thoughts, feelings and actions. We share ideas; we don’t just exchange them. Conversation really happens when we not only act upon the world, but when we interact with it.

Conversation builds out of the raw material of shared inquiry. Occasionally we may advocate, but even then , we do that in order to serve and enhance the quality of the conversation. Sometimes we put out, we advocate, especially when inquiry helps us reach more or less temporary conclusions about something. In a high quality conversation, that occasional adocacy fuels further inquiry.

How well and often do you really listen?

Listening is important in conversation, for what we say arises out of what it said to us; what is said to us reveals to us our next words. Sometimes they reveal a need to be silent, to pause and reflect.

In the digital realm, chat and messaging is physically designed to encourage advocacy. We type and then press “enter” or “submit”. That is our turn to speak over; we then wait for something to be typed back “at” us.

Without the many clues of eye contact, body language and tone and quality of voice, we get our clues from emoticons, smileys, reading into the length of pauses, and into the words themselves. We often type quickly, with fingers and thumbs. Many people now thumb text at lightening speed, and most people two-finger type on keyboards. Typing often looks hurried when you watch it.

If we want to move away from a mode of digital conversation dominated by advocacy then we may need to slow down, to read what has been written, to pause and reflect on it. It can be helpful to read the words aloud, or to voice them in our head. We then take a little more time than usual to type. We read “into” the words of the other, as poetry, as literature, and we allow ourselves to be inspired by them. What are the words saying. But also: who is saying them? What time of day is this? what mood am I in? what bigger story is this message a part of?

Of of this inspiration comes our response. Conversation online is better when it is heartful. We can feel more free online and that can open the door to being more poetic and eloquent, but also more cold and “in the head”.

From advocacy to inquiry

Online conversation benefits from more inquiry and less advocacy, more from questions than only advocacy and answers. It is better when it is poetic in the sense of being warmer and more musical because we lack human physical companionship when we type “to” each other. We can make up that difference by adopting a more literary style that is mindful of the lack of physical closeness. We might describe our surroundings to the other person, or we might just pause, picture them, imagine them, and then choose words that connect with their individuality.

Online communication is a recent development in the history of humanity and the way we socialise and communicate. I believe online conversation, at least in these early stages, requires more generosity of spirit and forgiveness because, for many, without the physical presence of the other, it can feel clumsy, clunky and cold. We can stumble into sharp intellect and a kind of functional way of speaking. Or we can role play an avatar that, at least at first, feels fake and insincere.

Conversation online can be quick, effective, clumsily worded and lazy, dressed up as relaxed and cool. We often reply only to the last thing that has been typed (as we do in speech when we may only respond to the last thing that has been said). Yet online it is often the first thing we type that represents the important context, our real needs. We should take time to read it all. Just as we can listen properly to another in physical space, we can also give the present of our presence, online. Reading it all is the equivalent of fully listening online. And in a mode of inquiry, we seek the essence of the communication, the full meaning and context. If we are unclear, we inquire further. Quality online communication can be lightening fast when you are skilled at it, when you have adapted to the digital world. Without those skills, online communication can be empty, risky and even hurtful.

In online conversation, many people multi-task. We get easily distracted as well. This can be chosen, even a skill. Many young people type into their phones whilst talking face to face with friends. But for many it means we only half listen online. Sometimes we do not reply for minutes, hours, even days. An online chat of just a few sentences can take a whole week! Unless both parties expect that and are used to it, one can feel ignored, disrepected, undervalued and even abandoned. And even skilled multi-taskers may be unaware of how much one conversation can leak into another, polluting and affecting it. Our impatience with one person in one online chat can make us impatient with another person in a separate conversation. We can also suddenly dump one person online for another, on a whim or a sudden change in immediate priorities. That can (and does) happen face to face but it’s less easy to effect, less likely and far more visible. It is often accompanied by an apology or seeking permission of the other person. When I’m texting or messaging, what else I’m doing or who else I’m typing or talking to at the same time is not visible to the other person. We occupy two, even many conversations if we multi-task. Many people do that secretively, furtively, others more openly. It can divide attention, dilute conversation and even create edginess and stress. When it isn’t done skilfully it can make us inefficient and even dangerous at work, or crossing the street.


So, a new skill set or a reason to step back? 

There are several implications for how we can educate and prepare younger people so they can be more mindful and skilled in both online and face to face conversation as well as the skill in overlapping and switching between the two:

– learning how to advocate and inquiry (including how to process advocated content and how to ask questions)

– developing the ability to multi task and knowing when this is damaging to conversation and relationships

– learning the skills of being eloquent and heartful online – when to be functional and when to be inspirational

– practising how and when to place digital activity and devices in our physical social lives

– learning the value of listening and being silent

Digital conversation bears many similarities to face to face conversation, and often appears to enhance and even replace it. Yet physical world conversation offers its own unique qualities that foster deep, nuanced connections between us. It isn’t a matter of replacing one with the other. It’s about identifying and learning to emerging skills that create virtues out of physical, virtual and the combination of the two types of conversation.

Quickening, enriching and enlivening the digital conversation


Story 1 – We can be mindful and place the digital in the physical

Jen waking along the beach with Sam her dog on Brighton beach. It’s just after sunrise and that morning sun is spectacular, golden as it rises over Brighton Marina. She takes a picture with her smartphone and posts it to her timeline. She then takes a moment to look out to sea, the sun too bright to look even near for long. Then she types these words below the picture. “They say a sunset can be golden. Well this one is pure white gold.” Later, she’s walking the same route home and the sun is setting over Worthing pier. She captured a deeper, red gold and s purpling sky. This time, she feels, no words are needed. Across the world, a hundred and ten people share both moments. An online friend, Marcia, posts two images of her own, a sunrise and sunset over Byron Bay in Australia on Jen’s timeline. When she looks at them, she smiles, feeling genuinely warmed.

Story 2 – The physical can be sacred and precious and that doesn’t deny the digital

Neil is on a train. He has had an exciting day and he has a lot to tell his partner Jo. The train is crowded and the particularly exciting bit of news about his job offer as something he can’t wait to reveal to Jo. The train journey will last an hour. But Jo never tells his news to Jo in front of other people. He loves sharing privately and in the intimate surroundings of their home. He used to spend the whole journey chatting to Jo and others in his family and social circle. Then he stopped when he noticed the deflated feeling when he would retell the news of the day at home and Jo looked like she’d heard it before, even when there was more detail to share than he could on a voice call or by text. Neil cut down and dowloaded some novels to his EReader. He would still not be able to resist texting hints of his day and, this evening, Neil feels the urge to text “I’ve got some good news!”. Jo would reply “What ? What? And then they’d play a fun game of tease and reveal. This time, Neil savours the silence. He looks out of the window and watches the sunset world rushing by. He reads a bit of his novel. And inside, a conversation is gently wand warmly brewing. When he gets home, he still waits, and finally tells Jo about the new job when they are settled after supper, each finishing a glass of wine. Almost offhandedly, Neil says: “Guess what?” “What ?” asks Jo, seeing the glint in Neil’s eye. Neil grins. “I got it. They have offered me the job.” Jo heads over to where Neil is sitting, and Neil is glad he waited for this conversation to share his news with Jo.

Story 3 – Valuing others gives us more value in physical and digital communication

Menia and Natalie are meeting up for their weekly coffee. Menia looks more serious then usual as they settle at a window table, “Are you ok?” Natalie asks of her usually cheerful friend. “Not really” begins Menia and she begins to talk about some difficulties at work and also in her relationship. Natalie notices her phone vibrating in her bag. She interrupts Menia. “Meni, I am sorry to interrupt and I should have said earlier, I am waiting for my mum and if she calls, is it ok if I take it?” Menia says, “Of course”. The conversation continues. The phone rings three times on vibrate. None of the calls are from Natalie’s mum and she only briefly looks at the phone to check, and doesn’t answer it. It does disrupt Menia’s flow a bit, but the effect is small and both friends relax and the reason for the phone being on has been openly shared. Menia feels better for confiding in her friend and Natalie then takes her turn and discusses some of the health issues her mum is going through, also feeling better for sharing worries. They then go onto chit chat and the phone rings. Natalie takes and call.

Becoming more mindful in the digital realm

The word “mindful” has become a bit of a buzz word in recent years. Yet being mindful is exactly the way to ensure we hold our own in the digital realm. When we are mindful with conversation we are often more skilful and get more value from our encounters with other people in our lives – friends, family and work colleagues. Mindfulness is about choosing when and how to communicate. It is also about choosing when and how to not communicate and when and how to switch between digital and face to face conversation. These days it also involves noticing what is happening in and around us. What is it that we notice? We notice our addiction to the digital world, to social media and to always checking in and responding and reacting. We notice the pull of the digital realm. We can even notice our own weakness in surrendering to it. I have always found it interesting that we are often invited to press a button on a screen called “submit”.!

Mindful conversation involves noticing when our next action dilutes or diminishes the conversation happening right now, in front of us, in favour of another, less valuable conversation. We flip between one conversation and another, we multitask and we don’t get synergy – a greater overall value; instead, we reduce the value of everything we are trying to do overall. When we are very mindful of our digital and face to face conversation, we prioritise what is precious and important, noticing our habits and compulsions. We start to put the digital to the service of our physical, tactile life. It becomes a tool rather than an driver. We get more value out of it by placing consciously – more mindfully.

Sometimes we will favour the digital over face to face or phone…

Story 4 – Looking after each other

Glyn is stressed. He as a presentation to give at the team meeting and he hates giving presentations. The meeting is on the other side of town. His friend, Karen, knows that when he is nervous, Glyn isn’t good on the phone. He forgets what you tell him. But she is worried he might be late for the meeting. He is a good, supportive friend. She carefully writes a short text: “Meeting is at 32 Bread Street. Ask for “Daniella Davis when you arrive at reception. You need to be there by 845 for a 9 start. Book your taxi at 8. See you in reception. And relax!”. Karen knows he will read the text and knows that a call or even going to his office isn’t what Glyn needs. A text arrives at 11.30am. “Presentation went fine. Thanks!”

Our conversations improve when we inquire more than we advocate. And they improve when we gain conscious, skilled control over the border between digital and face to face. It isn’t about turning one off in favour of the other – it is about managing both in ways that keep us mobile – not only physically but also emotionally and in the way we think. The digital realm, especially of social media, clamours for our attention and specifically pulls at us, enticing us away from the value of face to face. It does this with alerts and notifications that usually are set to “on” as a default. We have to control that as an act of will. You can have an entirely different, and even refreshing experience of your digital gadgets if you become able to choose each moment you engage with them, if you have the will power to silence the alerts and to prioritise the people physical in front of you. You cab then use the digital as tools to assist that interaction. And occasionally you may choose to dive in, to immerse yourself in the digital realm – surfing, researching, chatting, sharing, responding, and advocating. But it is always better when it is a choice – to both immerse and to exit freely. Two habits – together and separately, can hinder and even destroy that freedom: when you become habitually addicted to the digital in favour of the physical world, and when you become a serial advocater, unable to be silent, to listen, be open and curious, patient and responsive. Conversation goes out of the window, and your real freedom with it.

About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

Posted on November 2, 2015, in Key themes. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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