My conversations might be making me ill. At least that was my thought after my friend Weston posted this:

The quote stuck with me as I thought about my consumption: What articles did I spend my time reading? What social media posts did I hover over? Most of all, I thought, “What conversations do I have with my colleagues at work and do they provide lift or languish?”

What if we treated our conversations like food? What if we identified the junk food from the quality food, valuing our emotional health like our physical health? Conversations can either build us up and make us feel whole or wear us down and leave us empty. If we want to reduce our burnout and increase our well-being, we have to become more healthful consumers. Here are my action steps for having more fulfilling conversation:

1. Avoid conversational junk food

The most important conversational dieting move is avoiding junk food. Think about gossip, the fast food of conversation:

a). It’s cheap.

We gossip about other people because we don’t have to divulge anything about ourselves. I don’t have to think of a meaningful conversation starter because I can always source something about someone else.

b.) It’s easy to find.

I don’t need to go far or dig deep to find sources of gossip. I can find it in the staff lounge, the hallway in-between classes, the copy room.

c.) It’s tasty in the short term.

It feels good to “be on the inside,” deflecting judgment onto someone else. We play off our gossip as bonding. We get emotional arousal over the drama. We achieve, in other words, pseudo-social connection.

I’ve been to Taco Bell enough to know that the short-term gain of fast food leads to long-term pain. After gossip sessions, I feel emotional indigestion. I’m drained. I lose trust in others, thinking, “If this is what they say about [person a] what are they saying about me?” I feel remorse about how I spent my time griping about something or someone, stewing in the discontent of drama. Moments are precious and I just wasted time doing nothing to contribute to a greater good.

The Action Step: Have plans for avoiding temptation

Willpower isn’t just having unflinching resolve; it’s having strategies to resist temptation. Here are three power moves I use to reduce junk consumption:

@chasemielke

2. Consume quality convo

In a 2018 study published in Psychological Science, researchers hooked up hundreds of volunteers with small recorders. At random times throughout the day, unbeknownst to the participant, the recorder would kick on and capture snippets of conversation.

Researchers collected thousands of data pieces. They coded the conversations based on the level of depth: Were participants talking about meaningful things or petty small talk? Then, they compared the conversations to measures of the participants’ subjective well-being. The finding?

The happiest had twice as many meaningful conversations and half as much small talk as the unhappiest.

Now I’m cautious not to confuse correlation with causation, but I can look to my own experience to recognize a truth: When I talk about meaningful things with others, I feel happier, more purposeful, and more deeply connected. Just as quality food makes us feel better physically, quality conversation makes us feel better emotionally, in the short-term and the long-term.

The Action Step: Build a meaningful convo-starter database.

Aim for questions that get at a person’s unique experiences and values, while fostering pleasant emotion.

Rather than, “What do you do for work?” → “What do you love to do?”

Rather than, “How is teaching going this year?” → “What’s one thing that’s gone well for you this year?”

Or try these:

“What’s something fulfilling you’ve done recently?”

“I’ve always been curious, what got you into teaching?”

“What’s been going well for you lately?”

3. Think globally. Eat locally

Big and bold on the wall of our living room hangs a quote my wife and I love:

“If you want to change the world, go home and love your family”

-Mother Teresa

It reminds us that the most important relationships are those around us. Sometimes, though, our focus and conversations obsess over details far from us: TV shows. Celebrity drama. Click bait that hooked us.

I support cultural and political awareness. But even talks about world events, I find, typically end without any hopeful action. We talk about recent crime outrages and end shaking our heads in despair. What if we ended by talking about how to help our students become more compassionate? What if our venting about legislative let downs concluded with, “So how do we make sure our students can still thrive despite this law change?” Think big picture, then bring it back to local ways to foster change.

The Action Step: Now What?

If we are immersed in culturally and politically relevant conversation, we can reframe the ends of these talks by asking ourselves, “Now What?”

  • What can I do to make positive influence on this issue?
  • What is within my circle of influence?
  • What actions can I take?

4. Everything in moderation

Rigid plans are hard to manage. Enter: The cheat meal. I’m not against shooting the s*** with small talk or taking some time to vent about a frustration. Sometimes we need an easy conversation. More importantly, we need opportunities to feel affirmed emotionally, especially when we are stressed or struggling.

The key is to not let our cheat meals turn into buffets.

The Action Step: Plan for process time and progress time.

In my last post, I discussed strategies for being a better listener. Over my decade of helping teenagers work through stressors, I’ve learned the value of separating process time from progress time. I often ask them, “What kind of support do you need from me right now: Help processing what’s affecting you or help making progress and moving forward?” Almost always, they tell me, “Both.” We make sure we end our talks by brainstorming solutions and coping strategies.

Conversation is a great way to process and make sense of our emotions. A listening colleague or partner can help us feel validated. But, we also need a sense that we can do something to ease or reduce our anguish. We need hope. A good meal can energize us for hours. So too can a a vent session or a casual chat, so long as we end on a positive note.


As we enter our conversations, let’s ask ourselves: Is this conversation building me up or wearing me down? Is this junk-talk or whole-some connection?

But there’s another layer to all of this: How are our choices of conversations affecting those around us? Are feeding our colleagues and our partners great food or junk food? It’s not enough to take care of our own health. Let’s feed our tribes quality engagement with quality conversation.

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