A t some point, Allen Gannett, CEO of a social analytics company based in Washington, D.C., began to notice that many of the most successful and productive people he knows are what he calls “phone-prone.” That is to say, they respond to texts and e-mails with a phone call instead.

After deciding to try it out for himself, Gannett e-mailed two individuals who are prone to phone in order to gain some understanding of what’s behind their behavior. Sure enough, within minutes he got return e-mails from each of them saying, “Call me.”

Both of them said the same thing: A phone conversation helps create empathy and promotes open communication since, as one of them put it, it’s a “much more real and civilized conversation on the phone, because you’re able to express emotion and hear the person’s voice and understand what’s happening.” What’s more, they concurred that it was also a more efficient way of doing things.

Gannett devised a two-step plan for his weeklong experiment: First, whenever he received an e-mail or text message, he’d suggest to the other person that they ought to speak by phone instead. Second, he kept a list of all the people he’d need to get in touch with over the course of his workweek, and any time he had a few free moments, he’d call one of those on the list.

Over the course of that week, he was surprised to see how effective this new approach made him. One benefit was the ability to have “fulfilling conversations that wouldn’t have been possible through typing alone.” In one case, for example, being able to hear the stress in the voice of a customer at the other end of the line enabled Gannett to help him solve a difficult issue and to give him some much-needed reassurance about his career worries.

And, as he had been advised at the outset, using the phone saved time, too, because hearing the other party’s tone enabled him to understand where that person stood and to respond accordingly. This obviated the need for verbose e-mails or texts to provide context. “Quicker access to empathy,” Gannett learned, “really did lead to more efficiency.”

The phone-only approach certainly meant Gannett had to give up on some things — at least that’s how it seemed at the outset. For one, he had to communicate with actual emotions instead of using emoji such as smileys. But he realized, of course, that this enabled him to be more authentic, which in turn leads to better, more productive relationships.

He also had to play his share of “phone tag” with people. But on the other hand, he found that he would often get return calls sooner than he received replies to his e-mails. He speculates that since most people nowadays are awash in e-mails, a phone call stands out and makes people more likely to respond.

The weeklong experience left Mr. Gannett committed to maintaining his to-call list, which has not only turned his walks to work and cab rides to meetings into productive time, but has also had a salutary effect that, he says, “my future self will be grateful for: I was no longer looking down at my phone, straining my neck.”

But most importantly, the phone conversations he had not only saved him time but also gave him

a better sense of purpose and humanity. That doesn’t sound like a productivity booster, but in retrospect it was: I was able to help people — more often and more quickly — in a way I couldn’t through sterile e-mails. And in the cases of talking to customers, calling helped me build better relationships for my business.

There are several takeaways from Gannett’s experience that are worth pondering. First, a characteristic of human emotion like empathy might not at first blush seem to have much connection to topics like technology and business communication techniques, but apparently it does.

Gannett’s experience confirms the observation of MIT professor Sherry Turkle, who has written extensively about the malign effects of digital technology on our humanity, that “you need to suppress your empathy ‘gene’ in order to participate fully in the mobile revolution.” She explains that

only through face-to-face conversation are we forced to engage with another’s full human reality, which fosters within us a sense of empathy, meaning “capacity to put yourself in the place of another person and imagine what they are going through”….We suppress this capacity by putting ourselves in environments where we’re not looking at each other in the eye, not sticking with the other person long enough or hard enough to follow what they’re feeling.

What Allen Gannett found is that even a phone conversation, where the two parties don’t see each other, but at least hear a human voice, fosters greater feeling for and understanding of the other than does the sterile digital medium. I believe that however long it’s been since we’ve stopped using phone or in-person conversation as our means of first resort, many of us still have a visceral sense of what Turkle and Gannett are talking about.

When I opt for digital communication, I know deep down that I’m short-changing the other person by denying him the benefit of my fully engaged human interaction, and short-changing myself, too, by denying myself his. But we quickly squelch that fleeting feeling and move on, because... well, there’s no time to chat, I’m feeling shy, maybe the person doesn’t even want to talk to me, and it’s just easier and cleaner that way. As Professor Turkle observes: “Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology.”

An equally important aspect of Gannett’s narrative is the challenge it presents to the unquestioned assumption that things always go faster, easier, more efficiently when allowing technology to completely take over that which not so long ago required human involvement. So long as there’s a thinking, feeling person with whom you’re trying to communicate, whether in the context of a relationship or a transaction, the investment of your own humanity might be far more likely to ensure its success than the ostensibly more efficient technological route.

Even for someone whose overriding concern is his financial bottom line, Gannett’s experience indicates that opting for man over machine may make good business sense. But even more important is its confirmation of Sherry Turkle’s essential insight that “technology doesn’t just do things for us. It does things to us, changing not just what we do but who we are.”

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 697. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com