Man to Man: Why men need to master the art of conversation to combat loneliness

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How easy would it be for you to tell another man that you miss him? How comfortable would it be for you to expose a chink in your emotional armor by reaching out to a buddy in a time of need? 

Perhaps it would be even more difficult to simply say that you wanted to catch up for no reason other than the joy of having a proper chat. Maybe you mistakenly feel that everybody in your contacts book will be too busy to connect. 

The language that we men choose to employ when talking about how we feel needs changing. It needs purifying from the damaging aspects of a very narrow and self-destructive idea of what it means to be a man.

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It’s worth noting how you and your friends speak to one another

There are still too many men in the world who hold their emotions inside for fear of being told to “man up”. This would be a good point to be honest with yourself and assess whether your interactions with other men are largely transactional and perhaps less meaningful than you might like them to be. 

I am not, of course, suggesting that every conversation that you have with a mate has to explore the deepest darkest recesses of the human experience. But it is worth considering how you and your friends speak to one another. Are they quality conversations? Or is it more about quantity and quick-fire quips over WhatsApp about the latest sports results? 

Research published in 1991 by the American Psychological Association suggested that male friendships bond over shared interests and skills (side-by-side sports, games, activities) whereas women seek out intimacy and closeness in creating and building relationships (face-to-face conversions and quality time).

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How can we approach male friendships differently?

Sure, finding a common interest can be a fast-track method to discovering a connection. But is it enough to sustain a meaningful bond that lasts for decades? 

Beyond the small talk of that weekend’s soccer results, or anecdotal stories of dating disasters, how can we approach male friendships differently in order to avoid the loneliness and social isolation that men are more likely to experience as we get older.

We have to begin to work on solutions now in order to give men like you and me a chance to understand the power of human interaction. Not to mention the health benefits that come from being connected to each other in ways beyond WhatsApp and social media.

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I wanted to reassert the idea that conversation is an art form

When I wrote my book Let’s Talk – How To Have Better Conversations I wanted to reassert the idea that conversation was an art form that we should all aspire to master. 

I spoke to documentary filmmaker, Deeyah Khan, who’d spent time with Neo-Nazis and had managed to convince some of them to renounce the hateful ideology that had infected them. She did that not by hectoring them or denouncing them, but by calmly entering into a dialogue. 

I also spoke to former police crisis negotiator, John Sutherland, about the art of speaking to someone in crisis, and to the former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, about building bridges between Republicans and Unionists during the peace process. 

The former Global Chairman of Mastercard, Rick Haythornthwaite, also gave me a crash course in how to have effective and transformative conversations in business.

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It’s so important to put down our cell phones and focus on each other

They all illustrated what is possible through conversation and how we have to embrace, acknowledge and celebrate the power of genuine verbal interactions. 

Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveals that just over 20% of adults admit to feeling lonely. Worryingly, there are many more studies that link loneliness to poor physical and mental health. So, it’s vitally important that we address the issue head on. 

One of the many revelatory aspects of spending two years researching and writing my book about the art of conversation, was how important it was for us all, me included, to put down our cell phones, hide them from view and focus on each other. 

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We’re less likely to share moments if a phone is present

When a phone is even within eyeshot, what you’re essentially saying to the person in front of you is that nothing they have to say is more important than whatever push notification will ping up on your phone. Evidence suggests that they are less likely to share open emotional moments with you if the phone is even present. 

Imagine this scenario: as your friend is about to open up about an ongoing issue in their lives that is troubling them, you are distracted by the buzz of a Facebook update or an Instagram like. 

After an interference such as this, research shows that it takes an average of 23 minutes to get back to the level of focus you had before you were interrupted.

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Conversation is a tool to dilute what’s dragging you down

This is more than an annoying aspect of human behaviour – it’s an active barrier to forging those all-important human connections that will support our friendships as we age. 

So, before you realize your social circle has shrunk to the point of social oblivion, please: don’t put off that call, be willing to travel to see a friend, do not assume that you are bothering them, or that your problems are not worth burdening a friend with. Use the power of conversation to dilute that which is dragging you down. Speaking to someone who cares may have the effect of giving you greater clarity and a feeling of being unburdened. 

But it isn’t just about sharing the heavier aspects of the human condition. I have found people, strangers, in far-flung corners of the Earth who I have bonded with almost immediately.

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Be mindful that humans are designed to be social creatures

The ability to be open to the experiences of others is not some magical, illusive power. It is within your grasp to engage, listen and respond to people around you – whether friends or new people in new-found lands. 

In doing so, be mindful that humans are designed to be social creatures – and the engine of that sociability is a good conversation.

Man to Man is a new SOLO series exploring male friendship and modern masculinity, delivered by different voices, including Nihal Arthanayake, BBC journalist and author of Let’s Talk – How To Have Better Conversations.

Flash Pack is on a mission to make 1 million friendships through shared group travel. Few groups need those connections more than men in their 30s and 40s. Find your pack today.

Images: courtesy of Nihal Arthanayake and Flash Pack

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