Yesterday I was in a local shop buying milk and mince pies. My husband, Peter, was with me. He started chatting about the mince pies with the cashier (whether it’s too early to start scoffing them – you know the sort of thing) and she was beaming and chatting away with him. He often has these little chats with people, and do you know what? They love it. He’s just so good at making those little connections and we all need more of it.
To a greater or lesser extent human beings are herd animals. We have a real desire and need for company, especially those who find it harder to reach out – maybe because they’re housebound, ill or perhaps have fallen through the cracks in society.
Research shows that being social and connecting with others is as fundamental a human need as food, shelter, and water. For example, we feel social pain, such as the loss of a relationship, in the same part of the brain that we feel physical pain.
Having friends makes us happier and healthier. Being socially connected is essential to our mental and emotional health and research suggests that loneliness is more of a threat to our health than obesity and it doubles the risk of dementia.
Many of us are feeling lonely. There are lots of reasons. It might be because we are shy or feel awkward in social situations where we don’t know others. It might be our busy lives. It might be because we are gazing at our smart device. We might be in a situation where we can’t physically connect with others, for example, we are housebound or caring for someone who needs rounds the clock care. In some cases, we might just not be naturally chatty.
But loneliness is now such a common problem among people of all ages and backgrounds that as employers we need to take active steps to help our people (and maybe ourselves) take the steps to start building connections.
Well, Christmas seems a very good spur to start thinking about practical support for ourselves, for our teams and families, and for others outside our immediate circle.
Some people seem to instinctively know how to start a conversation with anyone, anywhere. If you’re not a natural chatter, these tips will help you start talking when you first meet someone (or you can use them to coach employees we feeling a bit isolated).
- Remark on the surroundings or occasion. If you’re at a social gathering, for example, you could comment on the venue, the catering, or the music in a positive way. “I love this song,” “The food’s great. Have you tried the penne arrabiata?”
- Ask an open-ended question, so you’ll get more than just a yes or no answer (who, where, when, what, why, or how). For example, “Who do you know here?” “Where do you normally go on a Friday?” “When did you move here?” “What keeps you busy?” “Why did you decide to become a vegetarian?” “How is the wine?” Most people enjoy talking about themselves so asking a question is a good way to get a conversation started.
- Use a compliment. For example, “I really like your coat, can I ask where you got it?” or “You look like you’ve done this before, can you tell me where I have to sign in?”
- Note anything you have in common and ask a follow up question. “I play badminton as well, what do you think is the best facility locally?” “My daughter went to that school, too, how does your son like it?”
- Keep the conversation going with small talk. Don’t say something that’s obviously provocative and avoid potentially divisive subjects such as politics or religion. One of the secrets to Peter’s chatting success is that topics are light – one might say trivial or frivolous, but if it is it doesn’t matter. It works. Stick to easy subjects like mince pies, the weather, surroundings, and anything you have in common such as school, films, or sports teams.
- Listen effectively. Listening is not the same as waiting for your turn to talk. You can’t concentrate on what someone’s saying if you’re forming what you’re going to say next. One of the keys to effective communication is to focus fully on the speaker and show interest in what’s being said. Nod occasionally, smile at the person, and make sure your posture is open and inviting. Encourage the speaker to continue with small verbal cues like “yes” or “uh huh.”
I came across the campaign to end loneliness website and thought it had some good resources. The let’s talk more video was great.
In the free resources section of my website this month I am adding some more detailed notes on how to make connections.
If you don’t want or need anything for Christmas this year can I also draw your attention to two charities who are helping some very, very lonely people and ask you to think about asking for donations to be made there in lieu of having a present.
Crisis at Christmas – does so much more than just feeding people at Christmas. The Silver Line – they get 1500 calls a day plus from desperately lonely older people who can’t get out to connect with others.
Loneliness is utterly heart-breaking, whatever your age, whoever you are. Taking small steps, making small connections, we can help to address it.
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Although every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this blog, nothing herein should be construed as giving advice and no responsibility will be taken for inaccuracies or errors.
Copyright © 2019 all rights reserved. You may copy or distribute this blog as long as this copyright notice and full information about contacting the author are attached. The author is Kate Russell of Russell HR Consulting Ltd.
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