5 Tips to Start A Dialogue About Isolation

Several months ago, Primary Care Progress began a national study to understand the challenges facing today’s healthcare workforce. Hours of phone calls and dozens of cups of coffee later, one consistent theme emerged: isolation.

As recent studies reveal, this sense of loneliness isn’t just confined to healthcare professionals, although one in three physicians report feeling isolated — a number well above the national average. Indeed, between the U.K.’s recent appointment of a Minister of Loneliness and the former U.S. Surgeon General’s campaign to raise loneliness as a public health crisis, it’s clear we’re all touched by the fraying of our social fabric. Rupi Kaur said it best, “The irony of loneliness is that we all feel it, all the time — together.”

Given the deep pain I heard from my research subjects in story after familiar story of isolation, simply thanking them for their vulnerability seemed both cold and inadequate. Abandoning the norms of the objective world of research, I decided to respond in the only way I knew how.

I invited them to dinner.

They say, “I’m lonely.” I say, “Let’s eat.”

Now I realize dinner isn’t the silver bullet to curing what ails a broken healthcare system — fixing EHRs would go a long way. But there’s a power in the act of breaking bread together that our society has long forgotten. As Robert Putnam underscored in Bowling Alone, his seminal work on American community, modern culture has lost so many of the traditional mainstays and propagators of connection — from churches and bowling leagues, to Rotary clubs and, yes, dinner parties.

It’s been a few months since I’ve launched this kind of “Dinner with my Docs” campaign, and as I’ve eaten, laughed, cried, and connected my way across America to meet with the frontline workers in our nation’s health community, I’ve seen the profound impact of relationship-building among patients, clinicians, and communities.

I’ve also been asked — at nearly every stop — how doctors and care teams can start to do this important work themselves. Sadly, the yearning for connection is all-too-often met with apprehension, fear of rejection, and just plain ‘ole lack of know-how. After all, “friending” doesn’t just happen. Like the science of team-building or the art of marriage-making, it takes work — and some hard-won wisdom.

So how do you actually do this work? Here are five tips to bring together your teams over your favorite dish of pasta.

  1. Ask.

Seems like an obvious insight, but you’re going to have to actually invite others — in writing. Keep your guest list short — five or six at most — so that you can have the kind of meaningful dialogue that moves past the small talk and into the substance. And don’t feel discouraged or slighted if folks decline; remember that more often than not, it’s not about you.

  1. Ambiance is everything.

Think about a location that fosters conversation. While bars are a common choice for that after-work happy hour (and a cocktail can certainly grease the conversation skids), find a quieter space conducive to hearing — and seeing — each person in the party. And pro tip: suggest small plates to share rather than large meals for one. “Family style dining” is a great mood setter to get your guests engaged.

  1. Mind your manners.

Again, this seems more obvious than it actually is. Deep listening is a learned skill that takes discipline and self-awareness. When I first began hosting a healthcare podcast, I realized that in my effort to demonstrate active listening — interjecting those “mmhm’s” and “I see’s” we’re so prone to do, I failed to demonstrate deep listening — yielding the floor to allow my guests to finish their thoughts. I also realized that the most insightful remarks were often made during moments of silence. So while you maintain that important conversational equity among the folks at the table, allow people to finish speaking without interruption or personalization.

  1. Prepare questions in advance.

I swear by Table Topics, a set of cards with questions that range from the mundane to the absurd, and I often bring along a box to have at the table. You can also search online for great conversation starters beforehand. The point of this type of gathering is to break out of the normal limited range of questions we’re trained to ask — usually about work and children — and go a little deeper to find connection and common ground. Just save any especially personal questions for a second or third interaction, and make sure you close the night with something on the lighter side that doesn’t leave your company hanging on the heavy.

  1. Follow up.

In addition to losing the art of the dinner party, we’ve also lost the art of the thank you note. Whether by email, text, or card, make sure you follow up within 24 hours to express your thanks for their time and friendship.

Research shows that, on average, it takes 50 hours to go from an acquaintance to a casual friend and 90 hours to go from a casual friend to a close friend. Two hundred hours or more? You’re in best friend zone. And while you may not find your best friend over that first — or even fifth — meal together, I guarantee you’ll be a lot closer to forming some much-needed community.

Elizabeth Métraux

Senior Advisor for Thought Leadership at PCP, Elizabeth regularly speaks and writes on the art, science, and power of language, as well as performs as a storyteller in the Boston area.

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