We’ve all been there: In mid-conversation with a friend or coworker, when suddenly we realize that their gaze (and thumb) has shifted down to their phone. Whether they’re doing a compulsive check of their Instagram feed or responding to emails practically before they hit their inbox, the sudden lack of attention can definitely be unsettling. 

But device addiction has become so rampant in our culture — most people can’t even detach while they sleep, tucking into bed with their phones — that you may have wondered if speaking up is even warranted, or allowed. And if you do decide to let your bleary-eyed pal or coworker know that their phone habits are having an impact on you, what should you say?

The answer: You can absolutely communicate if someone’s gravitational pull toward their phone is having an impact on you. Here, experts offer a few tips to get your point across using compassionate directness.

Use “I” statements.

The key to communicating effectively is to make sure what you’re saying is palatable to the other person. “When sentences begin with ‘you do this’ or include extreme language like ‘always’ or ‘never,’ people tend to become more defensive,” says clinical psychologist Jaclyn Friedenthal. “Try to avoid statements such as, ‘You’re always on social media’ or ‘You never give me your undivided attention.’ In order to optimize the chances that your friend hears you and recognizes your good intentions, try using ‘I’ statements,” such as I feel neglected when you respond to texts during our 1:1 time.

Focus on the positive.

When making a request, it can be helpful to highlight what you value about the person, rather than focusing only on what you’re not getting from them, says Dr. Kathy Nickerson, a licensed clinical psychologist and relationship expert. You could say, “I really love the time we get to connect, and since we don’t have that opportunity too often, can we agree to a no-tech hour?” You could even set up the expectation in advance, especially when it comes to your social life, adds Nickerson. A simple text along these lines can get the point across while still keeping things light: “I’m so excited to hang out tonight… what if we keep it phone free?” 

Get curious. 

The truth is, our relationships with our smartphones are sometimes more complicated than they seem on the surface. In other words, not everyone gets “hooked” for the same reasons. To try to understand if your friend’s addiction to her phone has something to do with an underlying anxiety, Dr. Nickerson recommends “talking to your friend about how she feels overall — has she been anxious or worried? Does she feel like she craves being online or checking her Instagram feed?” As with most things in life, a little empathy goes a long way.

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