Posted by: Bill von Achen | August 6, 2010

Don’t Forget ‘the Human Moment’

While technology has transformed our business lives in many positive ways, it also has the power to transform relationships in ways we can’t even imagine.

In a prescient article entitled “The Human Moment at Work,” published in the Harvard Business Review back in 1999, psychiatrist Edward Hallowell identifies the potential dangers that our increasing reliance on technology present, and offers some simple suggestions on how to mitigate the misunderstandings that often follow from communications devoid of a personal context.

For Hallowell, modern communication technologies like e-mail and voice mail have made us all more efficient and more productive. But he also notes that the increasing absence of what he calls the “human moment” in relationships between people can have unintended consequences.

By now, we’ve all probably experienced the disconnect that Hallowell talks about. We receive an e-mail or voice mail message that, in the sender’s effort to be efficient, appears instead to be cold or abrupt or offensive. We emotionally respond to the perceived attack, inadvertently escalating the tension. Before we know it, a previously harmonious relationship is clouded by anger simply because our impersonal communications lack sufficient emotional cues to create a reassuring human context for our message.

“As the number of human moments decreases,” Hallowell writes, “the number of little misunderstandings is likely to increase. They compound one another until there is nothing little about them anymore…When human moments are few and far between, oversensitivity, self-doubt, and even boorishness and abrasive curtness can be observed in the best of people.”

The solution, according to Hallowell, is not to ban all forms of electronic communication, but instead to ensure that human interaction takes place regularly enough to provide an emotional context for the less personal kinds of communication. That usually means simply taking the time to set aside whatever you’re doing to focus your attention exclusively on the person that you’re with.

Such human moments don’t need to be emotionally draining or personally revealing, says Hallowell. “In fact, a human moment can be brisk, businesslike and brief,” he writes. “A five minute conversation can be a perfectly meaningful human moment.” And “people begin to think in new and creative ways,” as a result of such interaction.

A summary of Hallowell’s article is available at the Harvard Business Press web site at Or, contact us at for a complementary copy of the complete text.

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