• Rory McDermott

Are technology and modern culture affecting our ability to build meaningful relationships?

If you feel like your relationships are superficial both at work and in your personal life or you simply crave deeper and more meaningful connections then I hope this article helps you along the way!

As a relational coach, I consider relationships to be the key to a happy personal and professional life. People are by nature social beings and we change, learn and grow through relationships and experiences. If you have seen the film "Into The Wild" you may also have heard the quote; “happiness is only real when shared” which suggests that we must share our experiences with others to bring real fulfilment.

In both a work and personal context, the more strong relationships you have the more support you will have to help you in good times and bad. It can be helpful to think of relationships like a spiders web with you in the centre. The more connections you have the stronger the web will be, making it more resilient to adversity or change.

Real relationships are harder to forge today than they ever have been before as technology and cultural change have significantly disrupted peoples traditional ways of connecting with each other. Smartphones, for example, allow people to have a connection to all of their social media, games, dating platforms, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp etc. 24 hours a day!

At this point, you are forgiven for thinking this means it should be easier than ever to create great relationships.

The reality is although people have more routes than ever before to build relationships, they are much worse at nurturing them and creating meaningful connection.

Sadly, people are becoming addicted to their phones and relying on likes, shares, swipe rights and digital contact with others as a short-term fix. The science behind this is that each fix is created by dopamine a chemical which we know is released by the brain each time we get a like on Facebook or a match on a dating site like Tinder. Dopamine is the same chemical which is released when we drink, smoke, eat great food or have sex.

People born before 1980, tend to have a more balanced approach to the use of technology but we are seeing more recent generations are increasingly suffering from depression, the inability to cope with stress and addictions to social media.

Our modern culture, which is also driven by technology is one where we can have whatever we want, when we want it. If we want new clothes, they can arrive the next day. If we want to go on a date, we can swipe right and go out that night and then again the next night if we don't click.

The problem with this instant gratification is that we aren’t developing the skills, patience, and resilience needed to form deep and meaningful relationships. The truth is that relationships take time, they have ups and downs, they can be challenging and hard but if we walk away at the first sign of a problem then they don’t have the time to grow, flourish and overcome the inevitable hurdles.

In a professional context, this clearly impacts on how people focus, how they take on board feedback and how they are managed and motivated. Our loyalty to friends and to our work is decreasing. Historically people would have and had a steady and progressive career with one or perhaps two employers. However, more and more people have an expectation of rapid development and if they don't get it they move on. This can, of course, bring benefits to employers as well as problems but I wonder whether solving the underlying causes, rather than simply putting in gimmicks such as games consoles, slides and table football would be a more effective approach?

We also live and work in a culture of self-protection, where weaknesses are frowned upon and in a professional context, they are likely to hinder progression. This means that our corporate leaders act strong, are emotionally numb and don’t show their peers or subordinates any vulnerability. They generally have the same doubts, fears, and insecurities as the rest of us so it's sad that this is what they have had to do to get to the top. It also perhaps accounts for the reason why fewer women work at the top of the UK's major businesses as they tend to show more empathy. It's a shame this is not considered a positive trait!

So we know the problem but how do we solve it?

A good starting point, if you haven’t seen it, is to watch a TED talk by Brene Brown on Vulnerability (link below) she has found through extensive research that the difference between those who have real connection, love and relationships is that they have the courage to be themselves, to be authentic and to be vulnerable.

By this, she means the person who has the courage to say they feel scared, to say I love you first, or in a work context to raise a concern about the path of a project. This courage to be vulnerable, she says is the only difference between those who felt deeply connected and those that didn't. 

If you want to take some simple steps to help you build better relationships with friends or at work then try the following for at least a month and see what happens.

  1. Reduce your use of technology and focus on face-to-face interactions. When you are in a meeting at work or at dinner with friends, focus on the people around you, not your phone! By focusing on being present you may notice the colleague who looks out of sorts or the friend in need of support and you may even start to notice your own feelings too.

  2. Have the courage to show your true self to others and even in a professional context you probably need to show more of yourself than you do now. Practice by revealing something about yourself in person to a colleague and see if it enhances the relationship. Remember this isn't about moaning or unloading your problems but is about being real and authentic, noticing a change in others and showing empathy.

  3. Invest in more face-to-face time and don’t give up! Strong relationships aren’t built on social media, text or email and take time to develop. Could you go for a coffee rather than whatsapping or could you meet someone rather than e-mailing?

Please like, share and connect and I'd love to hear from people who have made similar changes and get any other tips that could help others!

Rory McDermott is an executive coach and founder of uniQua People Group. A specialist People practice that helps organisations and individuals to grow and develop. 


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