The Learning Zone / One Habit that Improves Conversation Skills

When Vivek Murthy was chosen to be the nation’s 19th surgeon general in 2014, he anticipated, as he explains in his book Together (2020), that he would direct his attention to concerns like obesity, tobacco-related diseases, and mental illness, or other frequently discussed health issues. To ensure he was addressing the top health concerns, Murthy conducted a listening tour across the country. When he asked people to talk about their health, he repeatedly heard about one topic he hadn’t expected. “Loneliness,” Murthy writes, “ran like a dark thread through many of the more obvious issues that people brought to my attention, like addiction, violence, anxiety, and depression”.

The Loneliness Crisis

In Together, Murthy reveals the scale of the loneliness problem by sharing some statistics. In a 2018 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 22 percent of U.S. adults said they “often or always feel lonely.” An AARP study (Frank, 2018) using UCLA’s loneliness scale reported that one out of three American adults over the age of 45 is lonely.

Studies from several other countries show that pervasive loneliness isn’t confined to the United States. All these studies were done before the pandemic, but I think we can safely assume that loneliness hasn’t gone down since COVID-19 arrived. What these statistics imply is that the next time you sit in a meeting with a small group of fellow educators, at least three and maybe more of the people gathered feel chronically alone.

One antidote to loneliness is a connection through conversation. It’s as true for K–12 educators as anyone that a single conversation can help you feel heard and seen, breathe life into your existence, and show you that you aren’t alone. That’s why I’ve spent much of my professional life studying and writing about communication, particularly in my book Better Conversations (Corwin, 2015).

The conversation is especially important in schools—even more so during the pandemic, which has brought with it so much uncertainty and forced isolation. The quality of the conversations that occur in schools can profoundly affect children and adults. Indeed, the best way to improve what happens in schools might be to improve the way we talk with both children and adults.

Conversation, Interrupted

But there’s a problem: Many of us want to be better communicators, but again and again we fall back into old habits that thwart real communication. We know what we should do, we just don’t do it. I often fall into this trap myself.

To better understand how people might persist in changes toward having deeper exchanges, I established the Life-Giving Conversations Project at the Instructional Coaching Group. We study what happens when people try to adopt simple, life-giving communication habits. The project is just starting, but I’m confident we have identified one habit that can radically improve anyone’s conversations. What is that habit? Put away your phone.

To realize why this is central, consider what Sherry Turkle, an expert on how technology affects personal relationships and interactions, says in Reclaiming Conversation (2015). Turkle acknowledges that technology has many advantages, but also describes the negative impact addictive use of a smartphone can have:

We are somehow more lonely than before … our children are less empathetic than they should be for their age, and … it seems nearly impossible to have an uninterrupted conversation at a family dinner. We catch ourselves not looking into the eyes of our children or taking the time to talk with them just to have a few more hits of our email. (p. 12)

What Happens When We’re Phone-Free … and Why It’s Hard

I’ve been studying conversations with a small group of dedicated adults who’ve been putting their phones away on a regular basis just to see what difference it makes. Every day, my research partners and I identify when we will put our phones away. At the end of the day, we write a few notes in a journal to record what went well and what we’ll do differently the next day.

Everyone involved is finding that putting away our phones seems to be making a big difference. We’re having deeper, better, more joyful, and more important conversations. At home or at work, in casual friendships, or in committed relationships, stepping away from your phone can transform surface interactions into conversations that build authentic connections.

We’ve identified one habit that can radically improve anyone’s conversations: Put away your phone.

Jim Knight

But while putting the phone away is an easy physical task, for many people, it’s still not easy to do. Many of us struggle to go five minutes without glancing at our phones. If the phone rings or buzzes, trying to ignore it can feel like sitting beside warm, chocolate chip cookies when we’re dieting; it’s hard to resist just one look. One look becomes a short check for texts, and then email, and, well, just a few minutes on Instagram—and suddenly our conversation is over.

Fortunately, there are a few simple things you can do to make it easier to adopt this new conversation-enhancing habit:

  • Identify specific times when you want to put away your phone (for me that’s anytime I have an opportunity for a meaningful conversation).

  • Put your phone out of reach or in a different room when you’re about to have a conversation.

  • Take time in the evening to reflect on the rewards you experienced from putting the phone down that day—or any costs of not doing so.

  • Ask those closest to you whether they feel a difference in your conversations when you’re phone-free. Positive comments from your partner, child, or friend may be all you need to persist.

No Trivial Step

We’ll never completely get rid of our smartphones—and we shouldn’t. Having a video communication system; the world’s largest library of books, music, and videos; and access to millions of apps and games on a pocket-sized device is a wonder. We’d be silly not to use such devices. However, if administrators, coaches, and teachers just put their phones away during important conversations, they could experience the kind of connection that can help others—and themselves—feel less alone. Given the scale of the loneliness crisis, this habit might seem trivial, but I believe it can transform your relationships. I’m hoping it will transform mine.