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The impact of quality conversations on relationships: Exploring the connection

Did you read Emma Barnett’s piece this weekend in iPaper ‘Enough with the emotional labour - I’m going on strike’?

Well I can’t stop thinking about it. Emma so beautifully (and timely) articulated what I’ve been feeling for a good length of time but without having the words or the terms to describe it.

Emotional labour - perfect!   

Emma described this as the exhaustion that comes from going to endless efforts to make conversation with someone who doesn’t reciprocate. She says ‘I’m talking about those who are expecting me to do all of the work and giving deliberately short or vague answers. They might not be doing it with mal-intent, but who exactly are they expecting to pick-up the slack and make the moment OK? Or less awkward?’ And I totally relate. 

Think of those times you’ve spent with friends or acquaintances, only to come away feeling a bit, well… hollow. Like your insides have been sucked out of you. You’ve spent the time being interested, paying attention, asking the important questions, listening intently. You could likely write a detailed essay on the stories they’ve shared, places they’ve been, conversations they’ve had, with full on plot twists and detailed character profiles. They, on the other hand, would struggle to write a single sentence on the goings on in your world.

I can even recall occasions where I’ve spent a good few hours in the company of others, only for them to say as we depart ‘Gosh, I realise I’ve not even asked you about what’s going on for you.’ Perhaps that’s slightly more reassuring than those that don’t notice at all….perhaps… 

Being a coach, my ability to ask questions, build rapport, listen intently and provide a safe space to others to share, is directly related to my profession and is how I spend my working days.

These honed skills were ones I didn’t recognise or appreciate when I was younger, but are now ones I’m so proud of - it means I get to do a job I love. Is this draining in the same way? No, not at all. It is totally different.

The difference here is that with each client I work with our roles are very defined. We’ve clearly contracted around what my role will be - one to listen, to challenge, to ask questions, to remind them if they’re going off on a tangent. We’ve agreed that up front as part of our commitment to each other - it’s all very open. I love this clarity and often think it would be great to have this kind of agreement within our personal relationships too. 

Yet we don’t tend to do that in relationships with friends, colleagues or family. We just…start talking (or wait for someone else to).  

Back to Emma’s article. She (and I love this) is experimenting with withdrawing her conversational heavy lifting approach and opting for more (awkward) silences instead which means, if someone isn’t bothered about making conversation, she isn’t either. This is very appealing. Not filling the gaps or trying to make someone feel at ease. 

I’ve started trying it myself, and it’s easier said than done. The conversational etiquette that has been long ingrained in me is quick to kick in. Naturally I find myself filling those silences, asking the questions about their weekend plans / son’s teacher who was off with stress / problem with their manager / dog's illness. It will take a little practice and a lot of intention to side step the conversational rituals that I’ve been carrying my whole life. 

It has got me thinking a lot about conversations and relationships and the direct correlation between the two.

If you stop with the heavy lifting in those relationships that you find draining, what will be left of those relationships? Will the other party notice and step up? Will you remain comfortably silent companions? Or will that relationship / conversation simply fade away? It’s an interesting one to ponder. 

Are the quality of your conversations directly related to the quality of your relationships? And if you stop having the conversation, what does that leave? Withholding your conversational prowess could expose the relationship for what it truly is and, whilst I’m of the opinion that is a good idea to reveal that sooner than later, I imagine that’s also why those of us doing the heavy lifting in the conversation, keep on asking those questions. 

And if your conversations do directly relate to the quality of your relationships, which do we want to keep on having and which would we rather just, well…go on strike for?

I think it’s a big and complex subject and one worth exploring for yourself. Here are some journaling prompts I’d like to offer you if this piece has got you thinking about your emotional labour, the conversations that lift or drain you, and your conversations and your relationships:

  • Growing up, who did you learn how to have conversations from?

  • What, for you, makes a great conversation?

  • What themes do you notice between great conversations and great relationships?

  • Who would you like to have better conversations with and why?

  • What worries you about filling (or not) those silences?

  • Who do you notice you have spent time with and are left feeling hollow and drained?

  • Who do you notice you have spent time with and feel uplifted, empowered and positive?

  • What role do you predominantly take on in conversations? What other role would you like to intentionally develop further?

Do let me know what comes up for you or if any of this resonates.

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