OPINION18 February 2016

The power of relationships in an age of overload

Opinion UK

As our lives are increasingly ‘always on’ and bombarded with information, the value of relationships and genuine human interactions grows, says Paul Tredwell


By Valentine’s Day, the agency year is normally beginning to take shape. The new business conversations of late 2015 will either have bridged the gap and progressed to concrete scoping or evaporated in the festive fug. January will have witnessed a healthy level of serious enquiry or will have been unhealthily dry.

This year, however, is proving to be particularly tricky to call and boardrooms will be on alert for signs that expectations are well founded. And, in addition to the unpredictability of the standard commercial indicators, it is unnerving to note the rise of some wider social phenomena.

For example, in the developed world, we are pedalling hard to navigate what I call the overwhelmed economy.  Undoubtedly, overall living standards have never been higher and we must be careful not to bleat like over-indulged softies. But our society is becoming increasingly afflicted with mental illness, from everyday stress to crippling depression, and a reasonable statement is that all is not well with our 24/7, always on lifestyles.

To quote Ruby Wax, now sporting a Masters from Oxford in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy: “We are not equipped for this century, it’s too hard, too fast and too full of fear; we just don’t have the bandwidth.” The contributing factors to this state of mind are information overload, multiplicity of choice and our over-stimulated competitive instincts. Finding repose in such a frenetic world has for many become a flickering fantasy.

So what’s to be done? As a consultant in relationship management, I was taken with Ruby’s idea that we contribute to the goal of saner living by reminding ourselves that we are human. Refocusing on the simplicity of a universal truth always works for me.

As she asserts in one of her blogs: “To be human is not in fashion these days. Successful people like to think of themselves as an extension of their digital hardware…Nothing functions unless our fingers are clicking away, giving our Facebook or Twitter followers a snippet of our lives…We made our machines faster and faster…so that we’d have spare time. Now we spend our lives keeping up with the machines. We wouldn’t know what ‘spare’ was if it hit us in the head…And the less spare time you have, the higher your social rating. Very few people will answer the question ‘Are you busy?’ with ‘No’.”

On the other hand, being human permits us to take time out, to press the ‘off’ button and, importantly, to reveal the flaws, common to us all, which generate empathy, binding us together and creating a sense of shared purpose.

This thought is beautifully captured by the African concept of Ubuntu. Frankly, it would be perverse if the cradle of civilisation did not have something meaningful to add to a discussion on what constitutes being human.

A Nguni Bantu term, literally meaning ‘human-ness’, the core of Ubuntu philosophy is the affirmation of an individual’s humanity through the recognition of that of others. It espouses the belief in a fundamental bond that connects us all. ‘A person is a person through other people’ is another expression of Ubuntu.

And, of course, the perfect vehicles for bringing this to life are fully functioning relationships. In processing the bewildering stimuli and choices we face, they can help bring clarity, simplicity and distinctiveness. They are a short-cut to effective decision-making and are now more important than ever.

If the age of overload is here to stay, we need to tame it before it diminishes us. As Ruby Wax and the advocates of Ubuntu understand, first and foremost we are human and success – personal and professional – is based on robust, mutually beneficial, respectful relationships.