This piece was originally featured during National Conversation Week (6-12 March).

In my old job – a 22-year career in PR – I used to do a lot of talking. Talking to clients, talking to colleagues, talking to journalists. Chat, chat, chat. Yes, a lot of it was functional and work-related… but much of it was pure human connection. I met two of my dearest friends the first day I started agency life at the age of 22. They were both senior to me and taught me more than I can say. But we shared so much more than advice on how to write a press release. Over the years, we shared problems, heartaches…and a whole lot of laughs. We still do.

For me, the worst thing about work wasn’t being barked at by my boss. It was when I would walk in, set down my bag and switch on my computer amidst total silence, save for the tap-tapping of computer keyboards around me. It was simply not the custom in that particular office for anyone to make eye contact, say a cheery ‘Hi’ in the morning and have a quick chat about nothing in particular before opening up your email folder. I found it horribly impersonal, cold and totally at odds both with my natural inclination and with getting the working day off to a positive, upbeat start.

Now that I’m a health coach, I listen far, far more than I talk. It’s remarkable how, when people are given a safe, non-judgmental space in which they are really listened to, they naturally just open up and share what is going on for them. And that process of sharing brings with it a world of comfort, insight and relief.

You don’t have to switch career like I did to be the person that other people open up to. All you need is an interest in what the other person is saying and your wholehearted attention.

We all have an innate need to connect with other humans and to be listened to. But, in our 24/7 world, where one hand is constantly stretching towards our iPhone, real listening is a vanishingly scarce resource. And that is to our great detriment. Because a mountain of research points to the negative effects on our physical health when we feel isolated or unacknowledged or ignored. And that’s without even touching on the damage it does to our emotional wellbeing.
There’s so much focus these days on the role of diet and exercise in our health – and rightly so. But, amidst all that advice to eat kale and do interval training, the vital role of human relationships often gets overlooked. The truth is that the quality of our relationships dictates our level of happiness and has a massive impact on our mental, emotional and physical health.

I’d much rather see someone enjoying the odd biscuit, while chatting with colleagues, than someone else religiously eating their macrobiotic lunch in total isolation and with barely a non-work-related word to their colleagues all day.

An authentic, warm human connection is nothing less than a medicine. And it doesn’t just have to be with your partner, family or friends. Just as I have, many of us have found our closest, most mutually supportive relationships sitting at our desks.

So, how well do you know your colleagues? Do you know their family story, their hopes, their fears, their niggles? If your workplace relationships are more on the perfunctory side, then why not take your cue from National Conversation Week and just…talk.

You might well be pleasantly surprised how much you get out of it.

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