Conversations for Connecting

Cover of The Six Conversations by Heather HollemanI just finished listening to a fantastic interview on the Token Podcast. The interviewer was my friend Lee C. Camp, and the guest was author and educator Heather Holleman. Holleman has a new book coming out in October called The Six Conversations: Pathways to Connecting in an Age of Isolation and IncivilityIn the interview, she shared some research indicating that warm relationships are a key to human flourishing and some other research indicating that many Americans lack such warm relationships. Her book is an effort to help readers develop those relationships through better conversations, and she shared a variety of strategies and questions to help readers engage in deeper conversations with friends and strangers.

Heather Holleman teaches college writing at Penn State, and many times during the interview she speaks to the relationship needs of college students. These students are increasingly feeling isolated and lonely. The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t help that trend, nor does our current contentious political discourse in the United State. If you’re the parent or a teacher of such a student, you might find Holleman’s advice helpful to pass on to your student. I thought I might share a few highlights from the podcast interview here, in advance of The Six Conversations dropping on October 4th.

Looking up at the suspension cables on a bridge in St. LouisAccording to Holleman, social science research points to four useful mindsets for having meaningful conversations: (1) be curious, (2) believe the best, (3) express concern, and (4) share your life. These mindsets sound simple, but many of us have room to grow in all four areas. I suspect that some of us tend to lean into one of these more than the others. Maybe we spend our conversations sharing our own life, without investing in those we’re talking to. Maybe we’re curious about other people’s lives, but don’t know how to respond to what we learn about them. All four mindsets are important to building quality relationships.

First, you have to get out of your own head and put aside your own interests long enough to believe that other people are interesting and that finding out what makes them tick can be worth your time. Second, if your conversational partner disagrees with your or expresses some opinion you’re not crazy about, assume good intentions on their part–don’t just cancel them because they’re different. Third, invest in other people and in what they care about and listen to them as a way to support, encourage, and inspire them. Fourth, reciprocate! If your conversational partner is sharing their story, share some of yours, as well, as a way to build trust and invite them into investing in you.

When you’re faced with someone with whom you’d like to build a relationship, but you’re not sure how to get them talking, that’s where Holleman’s “six conversations” come in. She says that pretty much everyone is willing to talk about one of these six aspects of their life: the social, the emotional, the physical, the cognitive, the volitional, and the spiritual. When she’s in a small talk situation but wants to connect more deeply, she’ll start asking questions in these areas. “So you like to travel, do you? Who do you like to travel with?” That’s asking about someone’s social life. “How are you feeling about your day, on a scale of 1 to 10?” That’s a question about emotions, framed as a numeric answer to make it easier for people to respond. “How’s your sleep? What do you do for exercise?” She finds that lots of people want to talk about their bodies but aren’t invited to do so.

I find that a lot of college students, as young adults in a pretty complex social environment, tend to play it safe by keeping their conversations on the surface level. What I like about Heather Holleman’s work is that she isn’t just saying, Be more social! She’s providing concrete strategies for doing so. And apparently her book is packed with specific questions you ask to help your conversations go in useful directions. She mentions in the podcast interview that people like talking about their routines, so try asking about that. Some of these questions may sound a little odd, but that’s probably because we’re not used to really getting to know other people. Given how important relationships are to our health and happiness, however, we need to make the effort.

Here again is the Tokens Podcast interview with Heather Holleman. You can also read the first chapter of her upcoming book, The Six Conversations, on her publisher’s website. (That’s the chapter about the four mindsets.) I’m looking forward to reading the book when it comes out.

What other advice would you give to college students about using conversations to make relationships?


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