Six Conversations in an Isolated World: Heather Holleman
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Heather HollemanDr. Heather Holleman is an associate teaching professor at Penn State and has won numerous teaching awards in the last 20 years. She designs the advanced writing curriculum for the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State and trains faculty how to teach writing. She has written eight books including the best-seller Seated with Christ: Living Freely in a Culture of Comparison and an award-winning book on evangelism (co-written with her husband Ashley Holleman) called Sent: Living a Life that Invites...more
Isolated? Wishing for connections that matter? On FamilyLife Today, Dave and Ann Wilson host author Heather Holleman, who proposes six conversations to combat loneliness and plunge relationships deeper.
Six Conversations in an Isolated World: Heather Holleman
David: Hey there, David Robbins here, President of FamilyLife; and I’m joined here with my wife, Meg.
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Heather: Generation Z: the number-one priority is they want to be spoken to without judgment. Generation Z is the loneliness generation; they want conversations, where nobody is going to judge them, and they can be free to talk about what they need to talk about.
Dave: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Dave Wilson.
Ann: And I’m Ann Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Dave: This is FamilyLife Today.
Have you ever heard of anybody ever being called “The Exclamation Point Woman”?
Dave: She’s sitting in the studio.
Ann: Pretty excited about it too. [Laughter]
Dave: I don’t know if it’s accurate or not. But I heard her once give a message; and she said, on campus, they call her “The Exclamation Point Professor.”
Heather: —“The Walking Exclamation Point”; yes.
Dave: That’s what you’re called.
Heather: —I have been called that before, yes.
Dave: Well, we’re talking to Dr. Heather Holleman, who’s a professor at Penn State.
Ann: You’re a mom of two.
Ann: You’ve been married how many years?
Heather: We’re coming up on 23 years.
Ann: You’ve been a professor at Penn State for how long?
Heather: About 15 years.
Dave: So what does “The Exclamation Point”—
Heather: Why was I called that?
Dave: Yes, why did they call you that?
Heather: Well, I bring a lot of energy, obviously; and in the morning, in particular, I’m really energetic. [Laughter] I like to keep class super lively; there’s always a lot of fun. They always joke about how much energy I have and what my secret is to all the energy; so that’s where that came from.
Dave: I’m guessing—
Ann: —like what do you do? What’s something that you do that’s fun in class?
Heather: Well, I—
Ann: I’m thinking of college classes, I’m not imagining fun or creative.
Heather: Well, if you walk in my classroom, there’s always going to be music playing. I have the class contribute to a Spotify playlist, so I can know what kind of music everyone likes. And there’s always an attendance question, which is a really fun question everyone has to answer.
Dave: You’ve got to be every student’s/they want to take one of your classes, I’m guessing.
Heather: I do get a lot of students, who like my class; because mostly, I really do believe in them; and I want the best for them; and I work really hard to help them achieve their goals. I’m pretty devoted to my students. Once you’re my student, you’re always my student—I’ll always be there, helping them—I get emails ten years later.
Dave: Wow, I have never emailed a college prof, because they didn’t make a mark on my life like you are. I mean, they are emailing you because you have/you’ve made a mark on their life. You’re modeling for us the book—
Heather: Yes, I’m invested.
Dave: —we’re going to talk about today, Six Conversations. I mean, before we met you, walking in the hallway, you are/you’d already asked me five questions—
Heather: I did. [Laughter]
Dave: —on the way to the studio.
Ann: —of both of us. Yes, she’s a great conversationalist. And the subtitle of the Six Conversations is Pathways to Connecting in an Age of Isolation and Incivility.
Heather: That’s right. I was highly motivated to research and write this book because of just the culture—not only of what I see on campus/on the college campus—but research reports coming out about how lonely and isolated people are. I was looking at this Cigna Health study of 20,000 US adults that said almost half the population reports not having meaningful conversations. And the Harvard Grant study—longest research study ever; it’s in its 85th year—they say that the single most determining factor of a happy life is warm connections/warm relationships. I was seeing the lack of that, and I thought, “I really have to do something. I have to…”
You know, teaching on the college campus, I thought, “Can I teach people how to have a loving connection?” “…how to have a really good conversation so they’re, not only less lonely?”—but as someone, who wrote the book, Sent—"I wanted people to get better in their ability to talk to each other about the things that really matter, like their faith in Jesus.”
Ann: I’m wondering—I’m thinking of the listener—“When was the last time you had a really deep, meaningful conversation?” Like just that question: I think that kind of makes us sit back and think: “Oh, is that something I have on a regular basis?” or “Is that something I haven’t had it in a long time?”
Ann: You’re saying that’s really important.
Heather: It’s really important for mental health and, also, physical health. One thing about the book: I read all the research/all the available social science research and then I, also, look at what the Bible has to say about why conversations would matter and how to have them well. I love this book because it’s practical—it’s not an academic book—but it has all the research behind it that will help you have a loving connection and get to those meaningful conversations.
Dave: Yes; it’s super, super practical.
Heather: Yes, it’s easy.
Dave: But here’s my question, I’m an introvert—
Ann: —which he’s not, by any means. [Laughter]
Heather: Yes, yes; I was looking at you, like, “Okay, someone’s not telling the truth.” [Laughter]
Dave: I’m pretending I’m an introvert—and I hear this discussion—I’m like, “Yes, but I don’t even really like to talk to people. Do I have to?”
Heather: You’re so funny, because my husband is an introvert. I say he’s like the proof of concept for this book, because he is more introverted and more reserved. But what you find is—when you see the research behind the benefits of having a warm and loving connection, and some of the mindsets that you would need in order to increase your happiness, and also live a more biblical life—you know, he was really motivated to connect in these ways. He found himself reaching out on airplanes or to friends in new ways.
Once you learn the four mindsets: they’re really easy to learn, and really transformative, and can help you really grow in your art of conversation.
Dave: Well, let’s go; let’s do it.
Ann: Well, let me say this, too—just a shout-out to the introverts—"I feel like introverts can have the deepest—
Heather: They can
Heather: That’s right; that’s right.
Dave: Whoa, whoa, whoa; explain that one. [Laughter] You can’t just throw out this—and Heather goes, “Yes, yes,”—and I’m over here, like, “What do you mean?”
Ann: I mean, I’m an extrovert. I think it can be easy for some of us just to have the conversation, just on the surface level.
Dave: That’s what I do; I can easily go to a party/walk down the street, and I can talk superficial all day long.
Heather: Right. This is what I learned about what needs to happen in every conversation in order for you to have a warm connection and invite a warm connection from another person. So the—
Dave: By the way, listeners, you’d better be writing this down.
Heather: Yes, write this down.
Dave: Put this in your phone or whatever.
Ann: And think of this: you need this for your family, even.
Heather: Yes, this is perfect for how I connect with my daughters, and my husband, my neighbors, my colleagues, my students.
In every conversation, four things need to be happening:
- You have to be curious;
- Believe the best;
- Express concern;
- And share your life.
Now, if one of those is missing, you’re not going to have that warm and loving connection. And if you move through each of the mindsets, a lot of people are not doing well in one of those categories.
- You may just not be curious about other people; but it’s a skill to develop, to ask questions to really believe that the person in front of you is like a marvelous gift to figure out: who they are; what they care about.
- And believing the best: a lot of us are approaching our friends with suspicion and judgment.
- And then expressing concern means that you really are invested in what’s happening with people: “What are their major stressors?” “What’s keeping them up at night?” “What major decisions do they have to make?”
- And then it’s your turn to share your life, and a lot of people don’t do that well.
And all of those terms/they have research terms, like:
- Interpersonal curiosity;
- Positive regard;
- And mutual sharing.
You know, the social science is great; but I wanted to know if the Bible supported all of that. And you find all of those mindsets in Philippians 2, where Paul says to take an interest in other people; value them above yourselves. You’ll find it in Romans 12, Galatians 6. It’s beautiful to hold up all that social science to what Scripture has already told us about the mindsets you need, first, in order to connect well with other people.
Ann: So Heather, as you go through those four, like what was missing for you, growing up?
Heather: Well, I grew up as a military child. We moved a lot, and I just experienced profound loneliness.
- I think what was missing for me was expressing concern for other people, taking on their interests. I talked all the time as, maybe, you can tell; I have high articulation needs, as they say.
- And then, I wasn’t good at sharing my life with people. Even though I talked a lot, I wouldn’t really share things that were going on with me; I wouldn’t be vulnerable with people.
- And then, at certain seasons of my life, I struggled believing the best about people. In my marriage, we were having a really difficult season of our marriage; and it was because I was always judgmental and not believing the best about him.
Those mindsets really represent maturity for me if you can grow in all those areas as you interact with people, especially children; they want to know that you believe the best about them, that you’re not approaching them with judgment or suspicion about their lives.
Dave: I mean, if you start with “Be curious”: Are there some questions/are there some ways that you can help us? I mean, when I walked in, literally you walked right up, said, “Hello, I’m Heather”; and then you said, “Hey, tell me: you were with the Detroit Lions…blah, blah, blah…—
Heather: Yes, yes
Dave: —“I used to live in Michigan.” You were curious from the start. So obviously, as someone hearing that question, I’m like, “Wow; I like her”; you know?
Heather: Well, it does/they call that liking.
Dave: It honors; yes.
Heather: Yes; when you ask questions, it increases what’s called liking. Now, a lot of people think: “Oh, it’s rude or nosy; I don’t want to ask personal questions.”
Dave: Yes; right.
Heather: But the research shows that, when you do that—and even if it’s an inappropriate question—people like you more.
But to get to curiosity, it’s really a disposition of the heart that you really value them above yourself, that they have something to teach you. They are representing a unique facet of God; they’re going to teach you something that you would not know otherwise. Also, I like to believe that, when you’re talking to someone, every conversation has a potential to be a life-changing conversation. Have you ever had a conversation that changed your life forever?
Ann and Dave: Yes.
Heather: Yes; right?
Okay; but what I really thinking you’re asking is: “How did I come up with the questions to ask?”—is that what you were wondering?—like: “How did I know what to ask you or—
Dave: Yes. I mean, in some ways, if I’m not—again, if a listener’s not a curious person—they’re like, “Where do I start? I’m not really that curious.”
I mean, Ann does this—we would have couples over—and as they’re leaving, almost every time, as they’re leaving our house—they would, almost 100 percent, probably
100 percent—they would say something, like, “Wow! We just had the best time here tonight.” I’m sitting there, going, “I know why; all we did was talk about you all night”; you know—
Heather: Yes, yes, yes; they didn’t ask you questions back; yes.
Dave: —because Ann asked, Ann asked, Ann asked. I mean, that’s a good thing; but she is so curious, she kept asking them questions. They loved it, because it honored them.
Heather: Anytime you’re with someone, you can think of the six dimensions of what it means to be human.
- Those are pathways of how to ask really great questions in each of those categories.
- And then, you’re going to determine what your conversation partner actually wants to talk about.
The six dimensions of being human:
- Every person you see is social; they have friends.
- They’re physical, meaning their bodies and physical spaces.
- They’re emotional—and a lot of people go there first—like: “How are you feeling?” “How are you doing?”
- They’re cognitive, which means they’re thinking about things. That’s actually my favorite question to ask people is: “What have you been thinking about lately?” I often don’t say: “How are you feeling?” or “How are you today?” I’ll say, “I haven’t seen you in a while; what have you been thinking about?” I learn so much just asking that question.
The last two categories are volitional and spiritual:
- Volitional means that everyone you meet makes choices—that’s human volition—your ability to make choices and act on them. It’s really about decisions people are making; what choices they’re making; how they decided something. I like asking people that—especially, if they’re wearing something new—I’ll say, “I love your outfit; how did you decide to wear that dress?” or “How did you decide to buy that dress?” Just ask them their decision-making process: “What went into it?”
Ann: She just asked me this in the bathroom, by the way. [Laughter]
- And then spiritual is my favorite category. It’s hard to start in the spiritual category, but you can; you can ask people: “You know, I haven’t seen you in a while, I would love to know just what have you been thinking about God?” It’s more awkward because, if you don’t know the person well, it’s hard to ask a question in that category.
I love using the structure of the six conversations, because you’ll never get lost in conversation again. And whatever someone answers, you have endless permutations of where to go next. So when I asked Dave about the time with football—if you noticed, I was interested in what it—
- —the impact it had on your body; that’s physical. I wanted to know, “Did you have injuries?” And I didn’t know if you wanted to talk about it; so I was listening, like, “Is he answering in more than one word?” “Does he seem animated about it?”
You wanted to tell the story about the longest pass—you know, the interception; I won’t bring it up—[Laughter]—but I was just noticing: “What does he want to talk about?”
- But I could have asked a social question, like, “What were your favorite friendships from that time?”
- Or cognitive, you know, “What were you thinking about when that…” Well, I actually did ask you that, after the football pass: “What was that like?” “How did…”—whatever.
- Spiritually, I asked, “How did you handle that? You weren't a Christian yet. What did/how did you recover?”
And then, I could have gone on and on, based on whatever you answered. I just could have run down the list and observed the category that you liked talking about most.
Dave: That’s interesting—that as you recall that conversation—you were, literally, going through—
Ann: She’s going through the whole process.
Heather: Yes, yes; it’s easy!
Dave: On the other side of that—even reading your book, The Six Conversations—I didn’t even know you were doing it.
Heather: Right; so it’s not artificial.
Dave: It just felt like a conversation.
Heather: Yes; a lot of people are like, “Isn’t this artificial?—you’re going down a list.”
Ann: —or “…formula?”
Heather: No; it’s paying attention, and being really curious, and figuring out what people love to talk about; and you can have a really warm connection.
- So often, people love to talk about their bodies and physical spaces; but nobody asks questions about that. So asking them, for example, how they’ve been sleeping at night; people actually like to talk about sleeping: their sleep rituals, how they’re sleeping.
- Or especially with older people, they often like and need to talk about the changes, like pain they’re experiencing, and having someone listen to what it’s like to grow older.
- People also love to be able to process decision-making; things like that.
Dave: It’s interesting, as I’m looking at your four mindsets, I’m thinking about a parent with their children. And the second one: “Believe the best” is so critical.
Heather: Yes, yes, yes; huge.
Dave: Because as I’m looking at that, if I’m not believing the best about my teenage daughter or son—let’s say hypothetical—this whole conversation goes a different way;—
Heather: It falls apart.
Dave: —I get curious for a wrong reason. I’m asking you questions, because I’m trying to catch you in something.
Heather: Right; exactly.
Dave: Because I’m believing you’re doing something behind my back. I’m expressing concern—which is really not that I really care about you—I want to stop this behavior. And then, I share my own story; it could go the other way. So that “Believe the best” is critical; am I right?
Heather: It is; in fact, the whole structure falls apart if one of the mindsets is missing; and you’re absolutely right.
- I have people, who are very curious about me; they might even express concern; they might share their life; but I know that they are already judging me, or they don’t believe the best about me.
- Or the other three mindsets could be true—they believe the best; they maybe will express concern; and share their life—but they will not ask me one question about my life.
It’s a real challenge to people to think: “Be curious,” “Believe the best,” “Express concern,” “Share your life.” If you don’t share your life, it comes off as an interview.
Ann: Oh, yes.
Heather: So you need that last one.
Ann: See hon! You’re sharing your life!
Heather: Yes, you’re sharing your life.
Dave: That’s what I’m doing, honey.
Ann: That’s right!
Heather: You’re doing good, because a lot of people don’t understand why you need all four. You got right to what’s going to happen if I don’t believe the best.
And Generation Z, the number-one priority is they want to be spoken to without judgment. If you look at the studies on belonging—Generation Z is the loneliest generation—they want conversations, where nobody’s going to judge them, and they can be free to talk about what they need to talk about.
I think about that, when I’m with my students, or with people who believe totally different things than I do. I just want to believe the best; there’s a story behind why they believe what they believe—and me trying to figure out that story—and not judge them. Even if it’s a completely wild political opinion I don’t agree with, or maybe behavior that I think is wrong—instead of judging them—I want to know the story: “Tell me how you decided to do that,” or “Tell me more about how you arrived at this political position; I’m really curious.”
And they’ll know if you’re believing the best; they’ll know; they can tell. So you have to really believe it, in your heart, that people are trying to do their best. There’s always a story behind why they believe what they believe.
Here’s a great question if you feel disconnected from your spouse, or children, or anyone, you can say, “We haven’t connected in a while, what question are you hoping I’ll ask you about your life?”
Ann: That’s a good one.
Heather: And it’s an act of love to know what your spouse and children like to talk about. My children love to talk about their friends; they love to talk about music, food. They don’t want me to ask them what their deep thoughts are about a passage of Scripture they read; they don’t want that right now. [Laughter]
Heather: I just like to get the warm connection, based on what they enjoy talking about.
Dave: There have been many times I’ve asked a wife, “So what’s your husband literally do at work?” And they’re like, “I don’t know; something to do with computers.” I’m like, “Your husband really would love to talk about that. That is real important to us.” That’s what/I love it, when you [Ann] ask me: “Tell me about your job,”—like—“You’re writing a sermon; what’s it about?” “Why are you going this way instead of that way?” “ What did you feel when you’re on stage?”
Heather: Ohh, that’s volitional.
Dave: —all that kind of stuff.
Heather: You want people to ask you: “Hey, how did you decide to do that passage?”
Dave: There you go!
Ann: And I think one other great application for today would be to ask your husband/to ask your kids this question: “Do you feel like I believe the best in you?”
Heather: Yes, they know; they know.
Ann: They totally know the answer. And I would say this, too: “ Pray before you have that conversation.”
Dave: And when they say—because they may say, “I do not believe you believe the best,” —do not get in an argument.
Heather: Yes, apologize. [Laughter]
Ann: Yes, don’t get defensive.
Dave: Say, “You’re right;—
Heather: —"tell me more.”
Dave: —"tell me more: ‘Why do you feel that way?’ And listen, because I think God wants to grow you.
Heather: That is so good, Ann.
The other thing that is good with kids is to let them know you’re carrying their burdens with them—Galatians 6—to find out what their major stressors are. After you ask that, say, “Look I really want to help carry your burdens and pray for you.” Let them unburden themselves: “What are the major stressors?” “What thoughts are keeping you up at night?”
Shelby: You’re listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Heather Holleman on FamilyLife Today. Ann used to make her son feel judged when she’d say this one thing in particular, and she had no idea it came across that way. You’ll hear what it was in just a minute; but first, Heather’s book is called The Six Conversations: Pathways to Connecting in an Age of Isolation and Incivility. You can pick up a copy at FamilyLife Today.com.
You know, we hear feedback from you, all the time, about how things are going, here, at FamilyLife Today. One particular listener said this: “Dave and Ann feel close. They’re the kind of people you want to have as friends and mentors. They’re so warm and also super funny. I’ve learned a lot, and the shows are always helpful in my walk with God.” That is super encouraging to read things like that.
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Alright; here is Ann with what she used to say to her son.
Ann: My adult son just said, “I don’t like it when you do this,”—is I would say, “I’m worried about you,”—I thought I was being empathetic, like, “Oh, I care about you,” He said, “What I hear you saying is: ‘You’re failing,’ and ‘I don’t like what I’m seeing.’”
To which I said, “Oh, that’s not what I’m feeling at all, but I’m concerned you’re not…”; you know? I’m like, “Oh, I’ve never thought of it.” He said, “It feels disrespectful to me.”
Heather: Wow; I wonder if you had changed the verb, like, “I’m so curious, ‘How is this going?”
Ann: “’How’s it going?’”
Heather: Yes, or “I’m really interested in how you guys are working on this thing.”
Ann: But that word, “worried,” communicates that I’m not trusting him with what he’s dealing with.
Heather: You’re actually right-on with choosing the right word in the question. That’s why questions like, “How was your day?” never land well. People hate the verb, “was,”—it’s too existential—it doesn’t land well in the brain; it’s actually stressful for the brain, according to neuroscience.
So when you put a strong verb in there—don’t say to your children: “How was your day?”—instead, say: “Did anything surprise you about your day?”
Heather: “Did anything challenge you?” “ Did anything make you laugh?” They will open up, and it will be a really delightful conversation.
Shelby: Have you ever been in a boring conversation, when someone’s talking, and they’re like, “Yada, yada, yada,”—and then, a thought comes; and you kind of wonder what you’ll be eating later on—and then, unexpectedly you hear, “Right, Shelby?”—well, maybe not Shelby; but you hear your name—and you go, “Huh?”
Okay, I can’t be the only one, who's ever been there before. Well, let’s quit having these kinds of conversations. Tomorrow, on FamilyLife Today, Dave and Ann Wilson talk, again, with Heather Holleman about what relationships could look like if we start to listen well; that’s tomorrow.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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