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How Technology Is Changing the Way We Communicate in Relationships

A Q&A with Amardo Rodriguez, Ph.D., professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University.

Thrive Global: How has technology and digital communication affected our relationships?

Amardo Rodriguez: In most cases, technology has adversely affected our relationships by releasing us of the hard intellectual, emotional, spiritual, existential and even physical work that is necessary to build deep, resilient and rewarding relationships. Make no mistake, forging such relationships is difficult, demanding, and sometimes even impossible. The reason? Human beings are enormously complex and fundamentally different in many ways.

We are of different minds, different temperaments, different experiences, different ambitions, different resources, different beliefs, different values, different fears, different ethics, different politics, different struggles. All of these differences have to be engaged and navigated openly, honestly and compassionately in order for our relationships to grow and flourish. This, in turn, requires time and space, courage and resolve, fortitude and resilience.

We have to be ready and willing to become something new in order for our relationships to flourish. In fact, that is the challenge and most often the problem—our unwillingness to become something new. Technology allows us to avoid the hard work that relationships demand by giving us the means to avoid people and situations that are intellectually, emotionally, existentially, spiritually and even physically demanding and challenging, but yet absolutely vital for our own growth and development.

Simply put, technology saves us from the rigors of life, thereby making us less resilient in terms of being able to extend the time, patience and forbearance that relationships need to grow and flourish. Consequently, the rise between mental illness and the penetration of technology into our lives should be noted.

TG: What does research tell us about how important it is to build and maintain strong social connections?

AR: In the end, strong relationships are born of trust, empathy and vulnerability. Other things, like commitment, are downstream effects. In other words, strong relationships are expressions of strength, such as the strength to risk being hurt, the strength to look at the world from the perspective of another, the strength to reveal our deepest selves to others. Strong people make for strong relationships, and strong relationships make us stronger.

TG: What can we do to create stronger relationships with the people around us, starting at work?

AR: We can begin by recognizing that relationships are really creatures of communication. Our relationship becomes our communication. Consequently, rather than focusing on any relationship, we should focus instead on the communication constituting the relationship. Is our communication honest and transparent? Does our communication reflect empathy and compassion? Simply put, does our communication promote beauty, generosity and possibility? If we get the communication right, the relationship will be fine.

TG: What advice do you have for someone who feels like their social connections are growing weaker, or they feel lonely?
AR: Relationships come with no guarantees. Sometimes, even after our most strenuous efforts, various relationships will implode and collapse. But such is the nature of life. This, again, is why strength is important, as in the strength to face the truth, cut our losses and walk away with dignity and grace.

Consequently, if our relationships are failing us in one way or another, we need to find the strength to look at our own complicity in the dysfunction. No relationship falls from the sky. We are always complicit in what our relationships become, either by what we are doing or failing to do.

Forming deep, resilient and rewarding relationships begins with recognizing that you actually need those relationships for your own health and well-being. Relationships are ecologies—the richer your relationships, the richer the resources you have available to you. In this way, deep, resilient, and rewarding relationships are a necessity rather than luxury. You therefore need to recognize that you have to be ready to put in the difficult intellectual, emotional, existential, spiritual and physical work that is necessary to form the relationships you need, which increasingly now means putting down the technology.

TG: Many experts say we’re in the middle of a loneliness epidemic. Do you agree, and if so, what can we do to turn things around?

AR: No doubt. Our rates of social isolation are exploding, and this is for nearly all groups. There is no controversy about this trend in the social sciences. It is also generally agreed that this trend is alarming. Social isolation adversely impacts every dimension of our being. It distorts our view of ourselves and the world. It diminishes our moral capacity. It engenders various neuroses and psychoses. It harms our physical health. It undercuts longevity.

By any definition, social isolation means misery. In lacking the strength to form and sustain deep, resilient and rewarding relationships, all that is left are the ravages that come from social isolation. Such is the crisis and despair many of us are increasingly facing and grappling with.

TG: How do our relationships at work impact our job performance?

AR: Increasingly, organizations are about relationships rather than structures, obligations rather than positions and incentives rather than titles. The new global economy is all about innovation, and innovation is fundamentally about communication and collaboration. Without the ability to listen compassionately to different things and different people, innovation is impossible. Without the ability to be honest and transparent, innovation is impossible. Finally, without the ability to refrain from judging, evaluating, and characterizing, innovation is impossible. So if we are unwilling, both individually and collectively, to create the communication conditions (and relationships) that support innovation and collaboration, the consequences and implications for organizations are real.     

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