What’s good for your health is good for your communication and consensus building skills. In “A Day of Rest,” actress Leelee Sobieski writes about how taking a weekly break from communications technology improved health and happiness for her and her entire family.
Sobieski started small, simply swearing off phone calls and e-mail for her day of rest. She did make telephone exceptions for her mother and son, and she was considerate enough to let her friends and family know, in advance, what she had planned. She welcomed them, instead of phoning or e-mailing, to drop by for a visit.
Eventually, Sobieski built up to completely shutting down the phones, Internet, and even television on her day of rest. She began to find that her friends not only accepted her Tech Sabbath, but did start dropping by to visit. She, her family and friends begin doing things like taking walks in the park and playing board games on these days.
I felt a bit of envy when I read about how refreshed she felt after her days of rest. She was not only ready to get back to work, but had more new things to share with her acquaintances. She adds, “And I feel like my spirit has been reset, like I’ve fallen in love with my husband and daughter all over again. It’s just the one day, but it makes the whole week better.”
But what does this have to do with communication and consensus building? Think about it. Would you rather engage in an important or difficult conversation when you feel refreshed, like your spirit has been reset, like you fallen in love with your family all over again? Or would you rather have this conversation after a steady diet of electronic input? Health—physical, mental, and emotional—improves our ability to do any task, including a mental task like tackling a difficult problem or having an important discussion.
But there’s an even deeper consensus building benefit to a Tech Sabbath. Notice what Sobieski began to do once she shut off all of her communication devices. She engaged more deeply with others in person, taking walks and playing games. As I teach my clients, nothing, not even Skype, is as good as face-to-face communication when the topic is important or potentially conflicted.
We simply don’t connect as well electronically. We don’t pick up on the cues in facial expression, tone of voice and body language, cues we might not even be consciously aware of, but that help us understand the feelings behind a person’s words. There are blends of these cues, such as an eye movement coupled with a hand movement plus a subtle shift in posture, all occurring simultaneously with a statement made in a particular tone of voice, that we can not read on a screen, cannot hear on the phone, and cannot see by videoconferencing.
When we can take in these cues, even subconsciously, we not only understand others better, we can make ourselves understood better. We can often detect and correct miscommunications on the spot, before they spawn failed projects or arguments.
Of course, Sobieski and her loved ones were probably not engaging in difficult conversations while walking in the park or playing games. However, they were engaging in the kind of high-quality personal interaction that hones their communication skills for other occasions. If I could ask her, I bet Leelee would tell me that she solves problems more creatively and handles conflict better since she began taking a Tech Sabbath every week.
Indeed, one of my concerns as a communications skills author, trainer and consultant, is that people growing up on computers and smart phones will find it harder to learn and assimilate the skills I teach because of their relative lack of experience with in-person interactions.
I confess I may never take my Sabbath as far as Leelee Sobieski has. I spend a lot of time doing solitary work, like writing and preparing instructional materials. And I don’t have a boss or a lot of coworkers to badger me. So I will never stop answering the phone for a whole day, especially on the weekend. Hearing from friends and family is part of my Sabbath from solitary work, and they are the ones most likely to phone on the weekend.
However, I have made a small start by changing my e-mail habits on the weekends. I check my “serious” e-mail account on Saturday and Sunday, but not as often. Any business related e-mail that can wait until Monday does wait. My other e-mail account, the one I use for list servers, I gladly ignore all weekend.
For my next step, I plan to stay off Facebook at least one day each weekend. I am a serious-minded person, and therefore, so are a lot of my Facebook friends. We tend to post serious news and deep ideas amid our personal updates. I am grateful for this source of inspiration and of information about my religious denomination, my city, state, country and world. But I’m learning that a day off from the serious stuff feels a lot more like a true day of rest. Like Leelee Sobieski, I feel energized and better able absorb and deal with serious side of life after a break from it.
I invite you to join me in experimenting with a weekly break from at least some part of your usual electronic communications. Let your friends know what you’re doing so they won’t worry. You’ll probably find, like Leelee did, that people “just get it” and respect your wishes. They might visit more often and even follow your lead toward keeping up their interpersonal skills while they refresh and energize themselves for the coming week.
 The Oprah Magazine, May 2012