I’ve just finished reading Sheryl Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversations — Power of Talk in a Digital Age. Turkle is a Professor of the Social Study of Science and Technology at MIT. She’s spent 30 years studying people’s relationships with technology and her book is a great read. But if you haven’t got time here’s a summary: put down your phone and talk to your family and friends.
Reclaiming Conversations got me thinking. Even when we stop using our tech, our conversations can be half-hearted. We’re good at ‘glancing talking’, bouncing superficially from topic to topic. We’re not really listening; we’re waiting to respond.
In her book Time to Think, Nancy Kline says everything we do depends on the quality of our thinking. And the quality of our thinking depends on how well others pay attention to us in our conversations. If we can focus more on our friends, family and colleagues, then our lives will be better. If we can interact more deeply, then we will all be happier.
Here are five ways we often talk to each other. Spoiler alert: most are not good for our wellbeing.
1) Shut Up
Generally, we don’t say those exact words. We rarely ask someone to just stop talking. But we find ways to make it happen. What Shut Up really means is “I don’t want to hear it.” Or at a deeper level, “I don’t know how to respond to it, so I don’t want to hear it.” It’s a way of moving the conversation on. Just think of crafty politicians when they say, “what I’d really like to talk about is…” and then they steer the hapless interviewer down another track.
Here are 35 mechanisms politicians use to avoid a topic in hand. It makes awkward viewing as you can feel their discomfort. It means they want to control the conversation so they can shift it somewhere else. It’s not the best way to connect with another person.
2) Cheer Up
I used to have a colleague who spent 80% of his time in this space. It can be useful on occasions when we’re sitting on an emotional fence. Perhaps we’re feeling a bit blue? A nudge might move us towards sunnier climes, or stop us ruminating for too long. But it’s not helpful when we really need to emote. When we need to be seen or be heard. Holding it in makes us bloated and it’s bad for our health. As psychoanalyst Carl Jung said, “what you resist persists.” Avoidance isn’t cool.
Philosopher Alain de Botton agrees. “It’s a mistaken prejudice of our times to think that the only way to cheer someone up is to tell them something cheerful.” A Cheer Up conversation can actually make us feel worse. Perhaps the Cheerer-Upper doesn’t think we have the whit to step out of our mood. Or they think we’re lazy or stubborn. They want us to say: “If only I’d thought about it that way. Just telling me not to feel sad really does work. In fact, it’s remarkable — I’m somehow no longer feeling sad at all.”
3) You Think YOU’VE Got It Bad?
In this interaction we share something challenging with a trusted other. They give us a few minutes to let rip about how we feel. But they quickly turn the conversation back to themselves. They share with us in great detail how their life is so much worse than ours. It’s like Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen sketch:
First Yorkshireman: “In them days we was glad to have the price of a cup o’ tea.”
Second Yorkshireman: “A cup o’ cold tea.”
Fourth Yorkshireman: “Without milk or sugar.”
Third Yorkshireman: “Or tea.”
First Yorkshireman: “In a cracked cup, an’ all.”
Fourth Yorkshireman: “Oh, we never had a cup. We used to have to drink out of a rolled-up newspaper!”
And how does the You Think YOU’VE Got it Bad exchange make us feel? At best we decide to stop talking about ourselves right away. At worst we believe we have no place to feel negative emotions at all. Our lives are blessed in comparison. How selfish and ungrateful we are. We beat ourselves up for feeling anything less than delight with our lot.
4) Let Them Eat Salad
There are times when we don’t want something to be fixed, we just want to be heard. I once had a colleague who understood solutions weren’t always needed. He would say “would you like a male or female response to that?” What he was asking was would I prefer him to listen or to give me a solution? Please disregard reductionist sexism of course. It tars one sex with the ‘problem-solving’ brush. Believe me, this ‘software glitch’ is found in both men and women.
Here is an example of Let Them Eat Salad — a recent interaction I had by text. At the last minute my husband had to drive to Ireland to be with his widowed mother. I was unexpectedly on my own for sixteen days over the Christmas holidays. The first few days were bliss. Ten days in I was feeling a bit bored. By Christmas and Boxing Day I was really quite low. This was an exchange with a female family member:
Them: “How are you?”
Me: “Just eating too much as it’s my only distraction!”
Me: “That’s not very distracting.”
Them: “Depends on what you put in it.”
Me: “Can you read my last blog post please.”
Them: “Are you referring to my desire to fix things?”
We talked about it afterwards and it was meant to be funny. I see it now, but at the time I wasn’t in the mood. I just wanted to share how lonely I was feeling. Of course, it takes two to tango and I could have just said what I needed. But instead, I stomped off in a cyber huff.
5) Just sit with it
Recently I’ve been on a Coaches Rising training programme. One of the recorded coaching sessions was run by Thomas Hübl and I watched him working with a client who was feeling strong emotions. He helped her to just sit with them for a while. He didn’t advocate pushing them away. Together they avoided creative storytelling and figuring out ‘why.’ Instead they just sat with the emotions, acknowledging them, letting them breathe. It was remarkable how much the client seemed to develop and grow in an hour.
Vernice Gibson Jones was another coach on the course. She said this: “There’s this concept in coaching, where people want to do the nice thing. Encourage the client to do the most constructive thing in the moment and not make space for mess.” In her coaching session she also helped her client sit with a challenge and not push it away. Developing ourselves isn’t getting rid of the difficult bits. It’s learning to embrace them.
“Terror is part of yourself in this moment. Let’s make space for the terror. They get a seat at the table. Come on, let’s not be afraid, it’s there anyway… That’s the shadow. The shadow is part of the work.”
Here’s to reclaiming our conversations in 2021. Putting down our phones, closing our laptops and really talking to one other. And when our friends or family ask us to really listen, let’s not try to tidy the messy bits away.
This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change do get in touch.
Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan