Monthly Archives: August 2020

Building our social muscles – getting a conversation started

We in the western world have many options to build our physical muscles, but what about our social muscles? As Professor John Cacioppo and Assistant Professor Stephanie Cacioppo identify in their article on the social muscle, lonliness and social isolation can be as dangerous to our health as eating too much or smoking, so it’s in society’s good interests to ensure we have safe places to practice.

My favourite was a WEA course I saw many years ago with the title “What do say do after you say hello?” Whilst I never attended the course, it got me thinking that the awkwardness I experienced whenever our CEO came to visit was a skills (or social muscle) issue not a personal one.

He’d stick his head in the door of my office and say “Hi Sharon, how’s it going? and I would reply, “good Graeme, how about you?” and he would say “good”, or “busy”, or maybe “tired”.  Then there would be an awkward silence and after a minute he’d say something like “good to see you, don’t want to keep you from your work” and move along to the next office.

Eventually I went to a few “how to network” courses and later I even ran them myself.  The skills are relatively simple to learn and use, though there still is that tiny moment of awkward, silent anticipation at the start. My way of overcoming the fear is to think of the other person, not myself.  In a way I am doing them a favour by going first, by asking a question that is easy for them to answer and gets the conversation started.

I find these skills are invaluable in the facilitation work I do. I also need to use them, surprisingly, when participating in online courses or meetings where we are split into breakout rooms.  Often there is an awkward silence before I speak up and either ask the person about themselves, or about the task we’ve been given.

Here are a couple of suggestions of what to say, for the next time you are split into a small group or breakout room when you don’t know the other people in the group:

>What brought you to this session / meeting / course?

>What are you hoping to get from it?

>What’s something you’ve liked so far?  *

>What did you understand our task to be?

>What’s most useful for us to focus on in the time we have?

The first two questions are also useful when meeting strangers at an event (who knows when we might use those skills again?)

* I ask this instead of “how have you found it so far” so I don’t get the person focused on any negativity

And a handy hint for Zoom facilitators: you have to write the topic or question in the chat before you send people to breakout rooms, otherwise they cannot read the group chat once they are in a room with a room chat.