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It’s good to talk: how meetings can fix our lonely planet

How meetings (done properly) can help the fight against loneliness. James Lancaster reports…

The digital transformation of our lives has made ‘connecting’ with people easier than ever. Join any social media platform (Facebook or LinkedIn for example) and, if you’re doing it right, it won’t be just people you know, but people you’ve never met before – or met once at a networking event three years ago – who will suddenly want to be your friend. And it’s not just typing words into a computer screen and hoping for a response. Video-chat technologies like Skype and Zoom mean we can see the people we are talking to online – even if it’s impossible, or very difficult, to look them in the eye.

And yet, for an increasing number of people, this is the age of loneliness. In fact, according to a slew of recent reports, we are living through a loneliness epidemic. A 2018 survey from The Economist and the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), for example, found that more than two in ten adults in the United States (22%) and the United Kingdom (23%) always or often felt lonely, lacked companionship, or felt left out or isolated. Significantly this is a problem that affects everyone from Millennials to Baby Boomers, with figures suggesting the young and the old are most vulnerable.

 

Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash

 

Governments around the world are now treating the problem as a serious threat to public health. Last year, the UK appointed its first Minister for Loneliness tasked with overseeing a strategy to tackle the problem. Yet trying to figure out why more people are feeling lonely is not easy.

Dr Andrea Giraldez-Hayes, a life coach and senior lecturer in Applied Positive Psychology at University of East London, believes modern lifestyles are at least partially to blame.

“Loneliness is a very complex idea and it is not new,” she says, “but I think we have a lot of different challenges today. Our work life can be isolating, sitting alone in offices, and it is no longer unusual to live a long way away from family, in fact that is quite common.”

So can face-to-face meetings help the battle against loneliness?

“Contact is very important in human relationships, and ‘face to face’ can make that connection a more meaningful experience. Sometimes social media can makes things easier, but there is a big difference between the online experience and face to face. Face to face will never be replaced.”

Whether or not social media use can exacerbate feelings of loneliness is a moot point, although an experiment by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania published last year was the first to indicate a causal link between social media use and feelings of depression and loneliness.

The experiment showed that volunteers who limited their social media use to ten minutes a day over four weeks experienced ‘significant improvements’ in personal well-being.

According to Giraldez-Hayes social media use creates a ‘reality gap’.

“If you spend a lot of time online on social networks it can create the illusion that you know a lot of people or have a lot of friends and then at the end of the day you find that you’re on your own.”

Eric de Groot, co-founder of MindMeeting and author of Meetings by Design, has mixed feeling about how technology has changed the way we live our lives – and its impact on how people meet.

“The screens in our lives offer opportunities but they are also a threat. We should start treating smartphone use as an epidemic, for example. People are glued to them all the time and this is not good at a conference, for example, when you want people to be talking to each, exchanging ideas.

 

Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash

 

“However we have found online meetings can be very useful for people who might suffer from anxiety or depression, for example. For them it can be very useful to be virtually connected to people, because they can be anonymous, and, in those instances, the screen can act as a bridge.

“But it’s important to remember we are living in the very early stages of development in regard to this technology. People used to say you can’t have a proper conversation on the telephone because you miss all the non-verbal cues, but over time we have developed a telephone language, if you like, that let’s people know how we are feeling as well as what we are actually saying.”

If social isolation and loneliness are not the same thing (the former can be measured objectively, the latter is a subjective feeling) it is accepted that they can be linked and that either one can lead to the other. Conversely we know that simply being around other people is not a fix-all for loneliness. If a person’s loneliness is linked to social anxiety a networking function might be the stuff of nightmares.

It is crucial, then, that meeting planners do everything in their power to facilitate interaction.

Giraldez is in high demand as an international speaker and attends around 20 conferences a year. She has seen the social dynamics of meetings first hand and reckons there are simple things meeting planners can do to make it easier for people to connect in a meaningful way.

“At the last conference I attended in Melbourne they created special interests groups online ahead of the event, so before it even started I knew there were a couple of people I really wanted to meet.

“And I have always found round-table discussions, in smaller groups, and micro-presentations are good ways to involve people who might otherwise find conferences quite a lonely experience.”

 

Photo by Evangeline Shaw on Unsplash

 

De Groot believes planners hold the key to inclusive meetings.

“You have to create a playground,” he says, “and continually experiment with ways of engaging people. Our role as meetings designers can be summed up in three words: get people talking.

“As a moderator you have to guide people into conversation and be prepared to take a lead. This is not a request. This is not a proposal. You are going to do this. I see that missing a lot in the meetings I attend. The traditional conference is failing in that one respect: getting people to talk.”

He adds: “Some of the problems are physical. The rooms are often horrible. There is no central meeting point. It should feel like a village. When you are in a village square it doesn’t feel weird to talk to your neighbour, because it’s in our DNA. And that’s what organisers have think about in the room layout. The circle always opens up the minds of people. It’s not easy to talk in rows.

“Lighting too can play a very important role. We organised an event at the Olympic Palace in Barcelona for 2,500 people, which involved a huge buffet dinner. But the thing is we had hundreds of clusters of chairs, little groups for six to seven people, all with their own lamp. It was very intimate. Usually I do a walk around at these events and see these lonely guys, who just don’t want to be there, and you count about fifty, or sixty, or seventy. On this occasion I think I counted two or three people like that. We know introverts exists, we should stop pretending they don’t.”

As our social and work lives become ever more atomised, it would seem the value of meeting face-to-face can not be overstated. But it might take more than a hundred cocktail tables and a free bar.