“Conversation is food for the soul.” – Proverb
A couple of weeks ago I was chatting to a friend on the doorstep. It was great seeing her after so long, but after a short time our conversation drifted and slowed. “It’s tiring isn’t it,” she sighed apologetically, “…all this talking!” I noticed it too. Meeting up with friends again has been fantastic and lovely, but strangely tiring.
I thought it was just us, but since then, a couple of other people mentioned it, one of them confiding that she found the whole face to face again thing quite exhausting – at which point, she involuntarily covered her mouth with her hand and stifled a stray yawn. We laughed, but I was curious… what’s going on?
My first thought was that it’s simply because we haven’t been out much. Many of us are working from home or staying in, and people who are going out to work are in smaller groups. They see fewer colleagues, desks are too far apart for a quiet chit-chat, and there are fewer “water-cooler chat moments”.
Maybe we’ve just become a bit boring! When the opportunity for conversation does arise there seems less to say. Ordinarily we would talk about things we have noticed, things we are doing and things that matter to us at that moment. With fewer day to day activities, events and experiences we are limited in what to say.
This seemed true for my daughter. As lockdown progressed, her usual unstoppable bright chatter, became subdued and she rarely contacted her friends. “I don’t really know what to say,” she said when I encouraged her to call them. What a change when she returned to school for a few weeks – on the first day back she came skipping out of the gate. “How was it?” I asked. “Great,” she said with a big smile, “and I’ve got something to talk about now!” and the chatter began again.
I read that, on average, people have around twenty seven conversations a day. I’d be interested to know how that changed in lockdown. My feeling is that for many of us, the number dropped significantly, so I wonder if we are just out of practice. That might sound daft for something we are so used to doing, but for the last few months we’ve not only been physically distancing, but also distancing socially, and it may explain why talking face to face now feels a bit tiring.
Think about the process we go through and the speed at which our brain functions during a conversation. It is quite incredible. Within milliseconds we are able to interpret vocabulary, analyse and evaluate meaning (based on dozens of thoughts and experiences stored in our brain), formulate a response, and construct and deliver a reply.
But that’s not all – as we know, there is so much more to a conversation than words. It’s a real skill, it’s complex, and we begin at a very young age by watching, listening and practicing. We learn how to start a conversation, how to hold the other person’s interest and to take turns. We learn there’s a kind of pattern, a backwards and forwards, a series of offerings, and a space to respond appropriately (which in itself can be a minefield of nuance, diplomacy, manners, social grace, culture, and respect). We learn to carry a train of thought, to have an opinion or observation, to listen, connect, trust or challenge, continue or dismiss.
Feeling weary yet?
All the time we are also watching and processing other useful signals – body language, facial expressions and eye contact – all of which aid our interpretation of what’s being said. Noticing all this helps us build rapport, the most important skill of communication and conversation where we share mutual understanding, trust and empathy.
During a conversation we communicate rapport silently with our own body language, facial expressions and eye contact. We mirror the other person – maybe smiling or frowning involuntarily when they do. For me, if I see tears in someone’s eyes, I often find tears forming too. How many times have you noticed that you unconsciously cross your legs, or fold your arms assuming a similar position to the person speaking?
Maintaining eye contact with someone when they speak signals that we are giving them our full attention. (Just for fun, ask someone to avoid eye contact with you for a few minutes while you talk to them. It’s really the hardest thing to keep it going!).
So if you think about all that’s going on, having a face to face conversation is really quite exhausting, except that over the years we have so many that they became second nature, which is good, because they are crucial parts of our lives, particularly in tough times.
Face to face conversations are what makes us human. They are the foundations on which we build a sense of the world around us. When we hear ourselves expressing our thoughts helps us to understand our experiences. Sharing those thoughts and experiences develops empathy, gives us confidence, connects us to others, with laughter and tears. It is wholly human and draws us together to build the rapport we need for healthy and happy relationships.
So meet up and get chatting… embrace the face to face… it’s one of the most important things you can do, and as with most things, we improve with practice and lose the knack if we don’t, but I expect its just like riding a bike. If we haven’t done it for a while, we might be a bit wobbly and tire quickly, but we’ll soon be off down the road without a thought.
So apologies to anyone I’ve been conversing with recently if I’ve seemed a little weary at times! It is probably for some or all of the reasons above. Please don’t stop talking to me! I clearly need the practice, so let’s meet up soon for a physically distanced but not socially distant chat.
And there’s something else too…
I think that in the background something else is happening. We are conscious of a new way of meeting, new rules, checking our space, noticing when we drift together, moving ourselves apart. It’s another process operating alongside all the usual processes necessary for a conversation, like when a computer slows the task you are trying to do because it is running a different programme in the background. At the moment, we are all uploading a new social distancing programme alongside our usual processes and I think this can slow us down and add to tiredness.
It’s time to reboot! It will get easier and I think we can safely say that it’s worth it.
Deborah Stephenson, Ollie Coach trainee
I am an Ollie School trainee and a Director at an Independent Prep School for boys. I am a trained journalist and worked in BBC Local Radio for more than twenty years as a reporter, bulletin reader, news editor and programme maker. It was a great job, but I wanted to do something to support my own children’s wellbeing with a view to taking that on to support others and, in pursuit of a better work life balance, I resigned as the Assistant Editor of BBC Essex last year. Inspired by the Ollie School concept I was excited to be accepted for the training course and it has been a fascinating and enlightening and journey so far.
To get in contact with Deborah, email firstname.lastname@example.org
To find out more about Ollie and his Super Powers and how to become an Ollie Coach go to https://www.ollieandhissuperpowers.com/pages/about-us