In the chaos of contemporary life, how do we maintain connection to self and others?  

Is it enough to “unplug” once in awhile?  We are constructing a “new normal” – what are the internal and relational skills needed to thrive in these times of disconnection and connection?

Daniel Goleman and Joshua Freedman continue to discuss Dan’s new book, FOCUS: The Hidden Driver of Excellence in this ongoing dialogue.  You’re invited to participate by sharing your questions and thoughts in the comments.


In the previous segment of this conversation, Dan & Josh discussed the overload in contemporary life, and the urgent need to have skills to return to focus.  In today’s segment, they focus on the social brain and the role of nature in maintaining optimal function.  

As human societies step away from the natural world, as relationships become increasingly virtual, are we creating a recipe for excellence?


focus-goleman-3Josh:            In Social Intelligence, you describe that the social brain is not actually activated when we’re communicating electronically.  I recently came across an article I wrote back in 2007 on the emotional challenge of teens’ increasing disconnection, called “Alone in the Parade,” and the problem has escalated dramatically since then.  

Even in this conversation, my understanding is that our social brains are only partially activated. 

Dan:            The social brain, the newly discovered circuitry that lets brains tune in to each other and resonate with each other during a face-to-face interaction – that’s what we were designed for.  That’s when we have full rapport.  That’s when we really connect.  And electronic media – even a Skype call, a video call, don’t give us the same full richness that you get face to face.  You don’t get all of those signals coming in.

A phone call gives you voice alone, so there’s less data, less social brain activation.  And the worst is email, where you get zip of the nonverbal cues that give nuance and context to the interaction.  So you get only the words, which are the least part, in some sense, the least part of the human communication.


Coping in an Un-Natural World 

Josh:            So going back to nature – I remember reading The Last Child in the Woods – Richard Louv’s book from 2005.  He talked about Nature Deficit Disorder.  Did you pick up any of that? 

Dan:            Yes. The electronic and digital world we’re in today is a kind of cauterized life.  In that environment, we need nature more than ever.  We need those two months off-grid that your son had.  I think it’s wonderful.

Josh:            Louv was making the link that today there are so many young people, and adults, who just don’t get near a tree.  Perhaps we’re wired to be connected with the natural world… and as we disconnect from nature, we somehow disconnect from our own sense of balance. In turn, we’re not even connected to the people around us, and that leaves us more vulnerable.

Dan:            I totally agree.  I wouldn’t add a thing to that.


focus-goleman-3bJosh:            So again, coming back to your point earlier: Since we’re living in these electronic, inundated times, it becomes even more important to learn about focus.  We could go outside and spend time getting our hands in the dirt, but in some places in the world, that’s tough. So here we are in this environment that we’re not actually wired for – we’re alone, we’re out of the sun…

Dan:            Out of nature…

Josh:            Out of human connection.  And we’re just so overloaded, bombarded with data.  To cope effectively, we’ve got to explicitly and carefully develop skills for the environment that we’ve created.

Dan:            I think that FOCUS and thinking about focus is so timely.  Another example: it’s become insidious how our electronics impede face-to-face communication.  I saw a little toddler in her mom’s arms the other day, desperately trying to get her mom’s attention.  Mom was texting someone, ignoring the baby.  Couples out at a romantic restaurant – they’re both looking at their tablets or phones.  Families – the same.  Everyone’s looking at a screen and not at each other.  And because this has become the new normal, we need to take active steps.  We need to be sure we do experience nature regularly, that we experience each other fully, that we get away from the lure of our Facebook, our Twitter, our whatever it is, and do what we choose do which is enriching.  And it might be getting your work done.  It might be hanging out with someone you love. 

Josh:            And feeding our emotional selves is really important.  I want people to understand that that’s not just “nice to have” emotional nourishment.


Creating Moments of Connection

focus-goleman-3cDan:            I agree, it’s a necessity – particularly, for example, in couples.  I know an executive – high-powered job.  A woman in New York, she says, “When my husband and I come home, we put our phones in a drawer, and we don’t take them out till after dinner, because we want to actually spend time with each other.”  I think you have to be more intentional today.

Josh:            I was noticing that I would be so caught up in the computer, I wouldn’t pay attention when my wife would come into the office.  You know Anabel Jensen, the President of Six Seconds.  One time Anabel and I were talking about this, and she suggested, “As an experiment, when Patty comes in, why don’t you just try getting up from your desk for a minute?” 

Dan:            That’s a very good idea.  It reminds me of an article that was in the Harvard Business Review a while back called “The Human Moment.”  It says, “If you want to have a moment where you really connect, which are the moments that are the most effective for leaders, you have to turn away from your screen, ignore your digital devices, stop your daydream or wherever your mind was, and pay full attention to the person you’re with.”  That’s the first step in rapport.

What Anabel suggested is very wise advice.  And there’s another thing.  My wife and I now have an implicit agreement that when one of us is emailing or looking at Facebook, and the other is not, we’ll tell the other what we’re doing.  That is, we’ll have joint mutual attention, which is a step better than just being ignored.

Josh:            Right.  So while you’re not fully engaged with one another, you’re making a commitment to connect at least a little. 

I find this challenging because I’m a pretty task-oriented person, and I’m somebody who has a huge, long to-do list.  While I can notice when one of my employees or one my family members wants attention – it takes an active will.  It takes effort to stop focusing on tasks and switch to connecting with people.

Dan:            That’s right.

Josh:            Unfortunately, I’ve experienced that it’s all too easy to forget the importance of that human interaction.

Dan:            Which is why we have to make an effort to remind ourselves that it matters.  If we tell ourselves, “Oh, an interruption,” people become a bother rather than the point of it all. 

Josh:            And a leader’s job is really about people, not about task.  And we forget that.

Dan:            Leadership is connecting to people, absolutely.


Developing Skills to Connect

focus-goleman-3dJosh:            One more topic related to your new book, and the work that we’re all doing:  If we can get better at these skills, it becomes easier. 

I’ve seen that when people have more emotional intelligence skills, it’s easier for them to make more careful choices. You mentioned we have to prioritize the people side of our lives.  But we also need to have skills for that.  If we’re not good at it, it’s harder to actually do it.  It’s harder to shift attention, it’s harder to listen, its harder to connect, it’s harder to notice your own thoughts and your own feelings.  But if you get better at the basic skills, all those things take less effort. 

Dan:            This has to do with the science of habit change, particularly emotional habit change — and then a personal habit change.  My wife just wrote a really good book about this called Mind Whispering.

Josh:            Great title.

Dan:            I recommend it.  What she points out is that when we get into the habit, for example, of being glued to our devices or to our work and ignoring people, that has become a default option in the brain. 

Josh:            Right.  We make a “new normal.”

Dan:            Exactly.  And in order to change a habit like that, at first it takes huge effort, and it actually feels unnatural.  It actually doesn’t feel like the right thing to do.  So you need to make a deal with yourself, a contract, that I’m going to do it anyway.  The more you repeat it – the easier it gets. 

The example you gave earlier is a great contract to have with yourself: “When someone comes into the room, I’m going to turn away from my computer and pay attention to them.”  If you make that deal with yourself, and you do it at every naturally occurring opportunity, at first it’s going to feel, “Oh my gosh, why are they bothering me?”  And then it’s going to start to feel easier.  And then it will become the natural thing that you do.  That’s a neural landmark.  It means that you have rehearsed the new habit enough that the connections in the brain for the new habit are stronger than for the old habit.  And that’s what you’ll do naturally now.  So it takes practice, but it’s certainly worth it. 

Josh:            We should talk more about this process, but maybe we should save that for our next conversation!  I’m going to go check out Tara’s book now — I found her previous book on Emotional Alchemy incredibly valuable — in fact, I was just talking about this last week in a course.  So — more reading!  

Dan:            Excellent.  I’m looking forward to the next installment. 


Please join the conversation below!

For more on the book, see:

Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence on

Cultivating Focus: Techniques for Excellence by Daniel Goleman – CD of guided exercises from MoreThanSound

Book description and author extras from the publisher, HarperCollins

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Joshua Freedman

Joshua is one of the world’s preeminent experts on developing emotional intelligence to create positive change. With warmth and authenticity, he translates leading-edge science into practical, applicable terms that improve the quality of relationships to unlock enduring success. Joshua leads the world’s largest network of emotional intelligence practitioners and researchers.
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