Cell phones have revolutionized the way that we communicate.  Many people attorneys believe that having a cell phone has made them more efficient and productive.  But is there a cost?  Can cell phones actually hinder communication.  My answer is yes.

According to new research from Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein, cell phones can actually harm the interactivity of in person communications when the cell phone is visible.  The researchers asked participants to spend 10 minutes chatting to each other about “an interesting event that occurred to you over the past month”. The participants sat in a private booth so that there were no distractions.  For half of them, close by but out of their direct line of view, a mobile phone was placed on a table-top. For the other pairs, there was a note-book in place of the phone.

The participants who had chatted with a phone nearby, as opposed to a notebook, were less likely to become friends with the other person even if they interacted a lot.  They also reported feeling less closely connected to their conversational partner.  In a second study participants were divided into four groups involving mundane topics, meaningful topics and phone or notebook.  Understandably the participants talking about meaningful topics felt closer or more intimately connected to their conversational partner.  However, this extra level of intimacy was missing for the participants for whom a mobile phone was visible.  The participants often didn’t even know that the cell phone was present suggesting that the effect was on a non-conscious level.

This research is part of the broader concept of non-conscious priming; where an object can sub-consciously affect a person’s behavior.  In addition, on an observational level, the phone implies that the person is not interested in the conversation; that they would rather be discussing something else with another person.  It can also suggest that the person in the in person conversation is not important.

This research also remains consistent with the fundamental views regarding listening.  As part of the wide literature, including my own book, it is important to actively listen to another person by removing distractions.  Listening is a sign of respect and eliminating obstacles to a clear interaction is a further sign that the person in the room is important.

The implications for mediation are very clear.  Remove obstructions, distractions, and articles that may interfere or detract from the interaction.  In addition, perhaps you might consider making the obvious gesture of letting the other person know that you are shutting off the phone putting it away.

If you don’t believe that cell phones are disruptive and potentially offensive to the person in the room, watch the next video.

Listening actively is a critical means of helping to resolve a dispute.  Don’t let the phone call or text take away from that.

Source: Andrew K. Przybylski, and Netta Weinstein (2012). Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation quality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships DOI: 10.1177/0265407512453827

By Steven G. Mehta