The pivotal skills of a digital futureNov 07, 2019
As we become digital communication experts, our interpersonal and social skills are simultaneously being eroded. The intention of technology and AI is no doubt to enhance the human experience. But if the price of our digital connectivity is actually IRL disconnection and growing loneliness — which research indicates leads to a higher risk of early death — are we then not creating a digital culture that is actually destroying us?
The question is not whether or not to embrace technology. That would be like asking whether the sun will rise tomorrow or not. But the critical question to continuously ask is:
How can we make technology work for us instead of against us?
Will we be needing AI to teach us how to be human again? What fundamental specs of being human does technological reality invite us to consciously cultivate with more tenacity than ever before?
We touch our phones more than we touch each other. We send e-mails to the person sitting next to us, social robots are becoming the new best friend in town and guys begin to prefer an app girlfriend over a real one.
Research has recently documented that the experience of severe loneliness is equally bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Porn-induced erectile dysfunction in teens is a thing — due to the arousal system in their brains being formed by porn instead of the IRL meetings with flesh and blood. The intimacy and loneliness crisis is here. And we need to address it.
Loneliness is the new smoking
A recent Danish study indicates that men who feel severely lonely have a 90% higher risk of dying of cardiovascular disease — the same risk connected to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Several studies now indicate that loneliness is connected to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer. Other studies show that between a quarter and half of the American population and up to 26% of the UK population feels lonely. While we often imagine that loneliness is an old age issue, a large UK survey on 55.000 people indicates that 40% of 16–24-year-olds feel lonely sometimes or often.
Factors defining loneliness are:
- Having nobody to talk to
- Feeling disconnected from the world
- Feeling left out
- Not feeling understood
Can we blame it all on technology? Probably not. But the study did show that people who feel most lonely have “FB friends only” and that dating is the least helpful solution suggested by others. However, other factors like changed family structures, break down of norms, huge cultural gaps between parents and children, upbringing cultures all have a say. But it takes no rocket scientist to prove that a life behind a (touch)screen is not going to have a positive effect on humans’ ability to connect or feel love and belonging. Add to it a decline in long-lasting eye contact, escalating fear of physical touch, no ability to be mentally present due to constant distraction and of course, the constant pressure of norms directed by social media has its fair (huge) share of the loneliness crisis.
Technology is not the inventor of loneliness. Loneliness has no doubt existed since mankind. But technology is fuelling a crisis that is — and pardon the drama here — literally killing people. More social robots, AI assistants like Amazons Alexa and app girlfriends is not going to solve the problem. More humanness is.
Let’s talk about intimacy
“People think that intimacy is about sex. But intimacy is about truth. When you realize that you can tell someone your truth, when you can show yourself to them, when you stand in front of them, and their response is ‘you are safe with me’ — that’s intimacy”- Taylor Jenkins Reid
On a trip to Amsterdam, I met with a dear a former client of mine now become friends. We live in different countries but meet in different parts of the world to catch up. Our digital contact is basically zero — but when we meet we show up with no pretense, connecting wholeheartedly, sharing the truth about our current life situation. When I am with her any concern or life challenge I might be in seems dissolved for a while — I feel safe, seen, purely connected.
Feeling free to share your truth, showing vulnerability, daring to talk about fears and insecurities is key to feeling connected. The iconic researcher, TED star Brene Brown has taught us all that authentic connection goes through daring to be vulnerable. Technology can help my friend and me to keep contact as a tool for connection — but without the human skills to apply IRL technology alone doesn’t serve us.
Feeling free to touch, embrace, take your arm around, have long-lasting eye contact are other fundamental keys to feeling connected. The importance of physical touch can not be overstated; without physical touch and eye-contact babies suffer severe physical and mental impairment. Throughout life physical touch (and other behaviors like dancing and eye-contact) releases the bonding hormone oxytocin, essential for humans’ ability to develop empathy and a feeling of connection. Many important issues have been raised with the #metoo movement — but the freedom to include non-sexual touch in our repertoire of communication tools has suffered severely under the movement’s harsh judgment of any type of physical approach. This effect of the movement is catastrophic.
Finally, in the digital SoMe world we are not only destroying our basic capacity to be present, touch, have long-lasting eye contact, we are also slowly becoming more and more fearful of sharing our true selves and be revealed in our imperfection.
Feeling isolated and disconnected is really easy. It is also really shameful for most people.
What could be more shameful than openly sharing the feeling of loneliness in a time where success is measured in the number of likes. So don’t expect your family members, friends or colleagues to come up to you and say “hey, I feel really lonely” — just know that it is really really normal.
The challenge is that digital reality is threatening our emotional intelligence, our social skills and our ability to create safe intimate spaces without learning how to reboot those human skills that are slowly malfunctioning.
In Denmark, the fight against loneliness has resulted in, among others, an effort to arrange public dinners where anyone can join. The effort is no doubt a step in the right direction. However, if our human skills in the moment of IRL meetings are dysfunctional, the experience of feeling love & belonging will be distant.
Text me then reject me: The 24/7 rejection potential
When I speak to students and clients about their experience of dating apps I often sit back with the feeling, that the full dating apps immersion often throws the love seekers into even more longing. No wonder; on the dating scene, we are experiencing a complete break down of respectful codes of conduct and respectful or kind communication.
It has never in history been easier to reject, ignore, shame or humiliate each other. While a not answered call 25 years ago meant that the called person just wasn’t home, a not answered text or call today means: I can see that you have contacted me, but I am actively choosing to not answer you for x,y,z reason. The phrase “I didn’t see your call/text” simply does not exist in the age of digital communication. I believe every single human with a smartphone knows the feeling of being digitally ignored or rejected by someone important to them. Not having a text answered for days or weeks can feel devastating — as if you have no value for the other person, pushing you into storms of low self-esteem, anxiety or feeling excluded.
All genders and sexual orientations alike go insane obsessing about when a next text will arrive or trying to figure out what the lack of a certain emoji or answer means.
With one text alone, reality can change from feeling euphorically happy to feeling deep frustration or the other way around. Our lives — especially on the dating scene — have become texting dominated roller coasters.
On the other hand, being constantly contacted and texted by the same person 24/7 can feel like a violation of boundaries, leading to a sense of being stalked, having no privacy, being violated in one’s space.
What we don’t realize is that digitally communication is no longer just a tool for communication — for many, it is the central axis of our relationships and can be the cause of breakups, of intense romances (that actually have no chance in the real world), create or brake working collaborations and trust.
Here is some soul searching for you: Do you one day communicate lovingly and attentively and the other with one-word replies like “yes”, “no”, “o.k.”? Do you suddenly stop writing goodnight and good morning every day as a way of showing that you are separating yourself a little, where you should actually have a talk instead? Have you ever experienced feeling an intense attraction to another person that you have not even spoken to — because the rhythm and choice of words and emojis made you feel like you had a … really special… connection? Do you ever spend time interpreting why there is a kissing emoji on one message and only a smiling face on another?
Of course, you do. And so does everybody else. We are all in this boat together.
Digital communication, perhaps especially in romantic relationships, but not only, control our mood throughout the day. The two little blue symbols in that whats app window have become rulers of our emotional reality. App developers go through an extensive process with psychologist assistance to optimize the user’s addiction — not to care for our development as sane human beings.
Solving the breakdown of human skills requires a new focus on the most profound connectivity superpowers that we have. This set of superpowers — can on a more serious note be understood as gifts that we offer the relationship in order to create connection, trust and meaningful relating.
The 5 Gifts of Intimacy Intelligence
#1 Slow Down (The Gift of Time)
The intimacy intelligent human is not in a rush. She offers time to tune-in, time to enjoy, time for aftercare, time for slow and loving goodbyes. The intimacy intelligent shows you that you matter to her by offering you the gift of time.
A colleague of mine always greets me by creating a short, but intense silent space between us, where she maintains eye contact for about 30 seconds. It is her way of tuning in, non-verbally communicating “I see you”, “I am ready to connect with you”.
This seemed a bit intimidating the first time I met her. However, today it is my favorite “Hello, nice to meet you”. Instead of wasting time getting to the point of our meeting, this tuning-in gives the conversation an instant layer of no-bullshit, sincerity, and real connection. This way of greeting does take some practice — and it is far from easy to implement or practice with everybody. But it is well worth experimenting with — you’ll be surprised at the number of people who actually appreciate a short moment of eye contact and tuning in.
The other extreme of the spectrum is my dear old friend Gorm, who always ended conversations either on the phone or IRL with the cue: “I am really busy, so I have to run”. A sentence that seemed programmed in his brain. Real-life meetings would always be scheduled back to back in between work and golf, or Joe and Mom, or his daughter and fitness, etc. You get the picture. Time was mostly scarce with him. His eye contact would usually be flickering, checking the phone, almost compulsively, every 15 minutes.
You probably know someone like this as well. Even though our talks could be quite profound I always left our conversation feeling low on energy and — truth be told — a bit rejected. Today I understand that the chronic projection of not having TIME induced a feeling in me of being unimportant to him. Even though this was completely unconscious in him, it would become a major reason for the termination of our relationship. (The picture is, of course, a bit more complex — but besides the point here). If your partner has this pattern you probably struggle with feeling appreciated and loved. If your boss has this pattern, you probably struggle with feeling acknowledged and motivated.
The intimacy intelligent is quite the opposite. He can create a pocket of time in a few seconds. He takes time to tune in and tune out. He makes you feel important by prioritizing time. His behavior always tells you: You matter.
Questions for your daily practice: How can you create a small tuning-in and tuning-out ritual in your everyday encounters? What would it give you to create a little more time for your IRL human encounters? What needs to change in order for you to give more time to those who really matter?
#2 Say Yes (The Gift of Emotional Availability)
The intimacy intelligent is emotionally available. She is ready to sincerely and respectfully express her emotions, she feels comfortable with intimacy, she is willing to include you in her inner world and to listen respectfully and openly to yours.
People who always answer “I am fine” to the question “how are you” disconcert me. I meet them at receptions, dinner parties, and business meetings.
A teacher of mine, Carolyn Cowan, once reminded our student group that FINE actually stands for F*cked up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional. This humorous yet profound interpretation has ever since inspired me to be especially aware of the “I’m fine people”, who consistently insist on talking about other people’s problems and never touch upon their own challenges or vulnerabilities.
Life is challenging. Unless you are a Buddhist monk, and meditating 4 hours daily, being human is a journey through fears, longings, shame, and insecurities every single day. When we share these truths with each other we move closer, we create trust and we pave a foundation on which connection, meaningfulness synergy, creativity, genuine fun can grow.
As a young woman in my late teens, I would always be obliged to join my mother to dinner parties with people I had no common interest with. Early on I developed the skill of pointing out the persons whom I sensed where emotionally available to have profound talks with. In my adult life, I do the same. I no longer collaborate or hang out with emotionally unavailable people because they simply give me a feeling that I am wasting life hours in their company.
The opposite of being emotionally available is being evasive, making excuses, being anxiously uncomfortable about sharing own and others’ feelings. Emotionally unavailable people easily make others feel excluded, worthless and miserable.
In the digital world, emotional unavailability shows up like “ghosting” (disappearing from digital communication from one day to another) or “icing” (keeping minimal but completely disinterested contact). These terms have become common in the dating scene — but are also alive and kicking in established relationships, friendships, business partnerships.
The intimacy intelligent knows that part of a meaningful relationship is showing up sincerely, authentically with an open heart, courageous enough to risk being rejected, judged or hurt.
She knows that if she is not emotionally available, her encounter will be detached and half lived. She knows that the other will sense it either consciously or subconsciously. The intimacy intelligent then, practices to be transparent, openly sharing emotions and experiences and ready to share her reality in the space of intimate connection.
Being emotionally available outside romantic relationships means showing up with the willingness to share your inner world with honesty and allowing others to do the same — without judgment. When engaging in a conversation the emotionally available person is willing to share something of importance, perhaps a truth about an insecurity or has the courage to reach out and express an authentic feeling about the other person.
#3 Be Present (The Gift of Presence)
I used to say about a lover of mine that he could make love to me under the Arc de Triomphe in rush hour, and I would still feel that we were the only people on earth. It is true about the most meaningful relationships that I have both professionally and privately that we can be in the busiest environments and still feel that there is only us in the room.
Whether we are creating a new product, debating an important issue or chatting about life at a bar — the art of being present has never been more crucial to practice consciously than in the era of digital communication.
The intimacy intelligent is present with all his being. No matter how short the time is, no matter how long. The intimacy intelligent is not only present with you — but he is also present with himself. He is sensory awake. He notices what is going on inside of him and in his surroundings. The intimacy intelligent lets you know that he is right here, right now. That he is listening, that he is seeing, that he is s e n s i n g. The intimacy intelligent meets you with a complete presence in time and space thereby communicating that he is interested in you and your time together.
An excellent way of practicing presence is meditating even for 1 minute at a time or simply concentrate on your breathing for a few seconds. Becoming sensory aware of what you see, hear, smell, taste — and intuitively sense about “what is going on”. This can be done by choosing to focus on one sense: Chose to go through a street only noticing your smell. Take a stop at a cafe and focus on sound. Small 1 minute practices of sensory awareness will help you become more present and will simultaneously calm your nervous system.
Practicing longer periods of eye-contact is also a powerful way of becoming present with another person. Conscious eye-contact releases essential bonding hormones that will instantly induce a feeling of deeper connection. Eye-contact is challenging for many people. It can awaken a range of emotions.
Even though eye-gazing exercises can help you connect to both yourself there are many mini-steps before the big 4-minute soul seeking. Just practice to look into another person’s eyes and imagine, that you are looking into their heart. Observe the difference in communication. This applies to any relationship or human encounter you have.
However obvious it sounds that presence is key to feeling connected to other people, actually being really present has become one of the biggest challenges of modern human encounters. We are more present with our SoMe and whats apps than with the people in our lives, partly due to the addictive nature of digital communication, that are all developed to neurologically create addictive patterns.
On a safari in Sri Lanka, a group of highly educated, cultivated, conscious, meditation & yoga type friends and I decided to go non-digital. However, we observed that even though we supposedly went all-in on elephant presence and sensory awareness, our minds were still wandering away to digital paradise taking photos for Instagram or (in my case) writing posts for SoMe. We were in fact still on-line even when we were off-line. It’s powerful stuff. Practicing being present requires a strong commitment.
We are indeed digi-f*cked and fighting an industry that aims to make us addicted to events on the screen is not making it easy for us. However, we have no other choice than to continue to make the “be present effort”.
Fun-tip: Inclusive googling
Fighting the existence of smartphones by forcing yourself or others to not look at their phones at all while you are together may not always be the solution. But if you do take out your phone to google information that your conversation invites for, then make a habit of including the person you are with. It makes all the difference in the world whether you pull out your phone for yourself or actually look at the screen together. If you feel the smartphone itch and urge to check up on texts or calls, then make it explicit and suggest a 3 minute smartphone time out, etc.
In formal groups like classes, organizational teams, etc. be explicit with smartphone use and include the use of it in your code of conduct. Make smartphone time part of your time together instead of having it “come between” you.
#4 Ask a Question (The Gift of Curiosity)
The intimacy intelligent explores the other as if every encounter were a first. In the erotic world, he is always ready to dive into the unknown of a new body, a new mind, a new spirit, a new fantasy. And even if he has kissed the same person a thousand times, he will still kiss her as if it were the first. In the non-erotic world, the same applies only exclusively on the mental or spiritual plane.
The ability to be curious and creative have been named by many futurists and leadership gurus to be some of the sought-after skills of the future. In a complex and evermoving reality the ability to ask an explorative question, listen openly to other’s perspectives, observe, apply a beginner’s mind, is key to stay on top of technology. But curiosity is also a personal skill, that leads you to open relationship dynamics instead of closing them down.“I have no special talent. I am just passionately curious” — Albert Einstein
Opposite being curious is assuming and being judgemental.
Being curious is simply setting everything you know aside and explore with an open mind.
The worst lovers I had were the ones who thought of the lovemaking as a script to be learned, a routine of steps, that hopefully results in orgasms. On the other hand, the best lovers I have ever had are the ones that never stopped asking questions about my pleasure, my fantasies, my no-go’s.
The more evolved a lover is, the more eager he is to learn and explore. With a curious mind, lovemaking never becomes routine and boring; the curious mind is always a beginner, exploring their loved one’s mind and body as an adventurer explores unknown land for the first time.
Now translate that to the non-erotic life.
In the professional realm acting as if you were a journalist could clarify the task. I am often in awe of how much trust a good journalist is capable of creating in a very short time. Why? Because they show up as “intimacy intelligent” with presence, interest, and curiosity. In a matter of minutes, they create a space where the interviewed feels safe to open and answer the rain of questions that are asked. The world-known therapist Esther Perel uses curiosity to unravel the self-sabotaging behaviors of her clients instead of presupposing that she has all the answers beforehand.“I’m voraciously curious and a little bit of an anthropologist wherever I am.”- Esther Perel
Great minds are curious minds. But curious minds are also engaged, passionate and hungry to know more about others. Their perspectives, emotions, and experience excite them. The curious person is irresistible with his unstoppable interest — and he creates a connection with ease because he naturally shows interest in the people and settings he finds himself in.
#5 Co-create (The Gift of Creativity)
The intimacy intelligent is creative. She listens to her intuitions, desires and inherent playfulness. She allows herself to go beyond the boundaries of the known and dares to explore the unknown corners of an idea, herself and the other. The intimacy intelligent lets go of control and a good sense for a while. She listens to her flashes, intuitions, and impulses and allows them to lead the way to an unknown land.
“Creativity is ultimately sexual” — Deepak Chopra
What Chopra is referring to here is the ultimate moment of creation: The conception of life. Creativity is in the core of human existence — and the key to profound passion and meaningful relating.
When I was a newly graduated life & business coach 20 years ago, I would meticulously follow the order of the questions that I had learned would provide the necessary flow in a coaching session. I would have a list of questions by my side when I did telephone coaching, and no matter whatever direction the conversation would take, I always do my best to redirect it to fit my script. As years of experience went by I completely let go of scripts. Today I combine a wide range of tools from breathwork to meditation, to giving concise feedback and asking questions that intuitively arise.
My clients and I co-create their transformational processes to create results that give them the motivation to make radical and important changes in their lives, honor their struggles and successes, detach from toxic patterns and relationships, perform with a whole new level of impact. Creativity is at the core of my coaching practice today and the key to creating amazing results for my clients.
In it’s simplest form, creativity is just a process of creating something new. Connecting the known in new ways. It can be ideas, a theory or a piece of music. It can be a new approach to a professional or private problem, creating unpredictable erotic experiences, inventing a new robot.
Rather than having a monologue cutting off the connection, then co-creating the conversation can create a profound connection and common ground.
Developing Intimacy Intelligence requires courage and willingness to sincerity. In our workshops, we work with developing intimacy skills on physical, emotional, spiritual and technological levels for the integration of intimacy skills in all walks of life.
Let’s do this before we forget what being human is really all about.
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