07/11/2016 12:12 GMT | Updated 08/11/2017 05:12 GMT

Have More Conversations That Matter

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What's true of you, but not obvious to others?

A few years ago I was asked to take part in a project called In Your Own Skin, where we had to share our own personal response to this intriguing question.

People's answers, which were often very surprising and moving, were then painted somewhere on their skin and photographed as part of a big global art project.

We are a social species and we all want to feel connected to others - and to be appreciated and accepted for who we are. But we tend to put on 'masks' to protect ourselves and to project the image we want others to see.

Although our desire to be seen as talented, successful or popular may be understandable, this actually undermines our ability to connect. Real connection happens when we lower our mask to reveal our true self and what really matters to us.

We tend to spend a lot of time talking about things like football, house prices, shopping and celebrities - but much less time talking about the really important stuff.

We need to have more conversations that matter.


One place where this is happening is the Exploring What Matters course developed by Action for Happiness. People get together for eight weeks to explore some of life's big questions in a friendly and open-minded group.

The questions include things like "What really matters in life?", "Can we find peace of mind?" or "What makes for great relationships?" - and participants find that the resulting conversations can have a huge positive impact on their lives.

So how do we get beyond the idle chatter of daily life and make talking to each other more meaningful? Here are four simple, but challenging, ways that I've found helpful...

1. Be willing to be vulnerable

As Brené Brown shares so powerfully in her TED talk on vulnerability, when we're willing to share our imperfections, life becomes richer and more meaningful. So this first step involves us being willing to open up more and to talk about how we really feel real.

So for example, "I'm fine thanks" might become "actually things have been a bit difficult recently" and lead to a very different conversation. Obviously there are certain times this works better than others - for example when we're with someone we trust and not in a rush.

2. Ask more interesting questions

The next step is to move beyond our normal trivial chat and be willing to ask different questions. This is about giving others the chance to share what's really going on for them - and showing we really care about their answers.

So instead of asking "did you see the game last night?" or "how's your new iPhone?", we might ask "how are things at home?" or "what are you really looking forward to?".


3. Embrace the difficult stuff

The most natural time to talk about the important stuff is when we or our loved ones are facing a real crisis. But often we still hold back from mentioning the cancer scare, redundancy or marriage breakdown. We worry about burdening people or feel embarrassed to share the reality of our situation.

So we need the courage to get beyond the shame or shyness - and to acknowledge the pain, bereavement, uncertainty or fear. It's not about turning every conversation into a therapy session, it's about sharing what's really on our mind rather than pretending everything's fine if it's not.

4. See the good in the world

Finally, our conversations about the wider world are often framed with negativity - whether it's about terrorist threats, disasters, corrupt politicians or school bullying. But the world is also full of inspiring stories of hope, progress and generosity - and by choosing to focus on these, we again open up the space for very different conversations.

So instead of whinging about Donald Trump, Brexit, ISIS, or how the world is falling apart, we can talk more about charities and causes we support, inspiring stories we've heard and ways in which we or others are trying to make a difference in the world.

None of these ideas are revolutionary. They take courage to put into practice, but they have the potential to transform our relationships, our outlook and our daily priorities.

So what was my answer to the original question: what's true of you, but not obvious to others? My chosen phrase was "recovering people pleaser".

This was a recognition of how I'd spent most of my life trying to please others and be the person they wanted me to be. But in recent years I'd begun to find the courage to be myself, even if that means others laughing at me (which they often do!).

As Alain de Botton said, "the secret to a good conversation is sharing our vulnerabilities and dreams". So let's have more conversations that matter.

HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around men to highlight the pressures they face around identity and to raise awareness of the epidemic of suicide. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, the difficulty in expressing emotion, the challenges of speaking out, as well as kick starting conversations around male body image, LGBT identity, male friendship and mental health.

To blog for Building Modern Men, email If you would like to read our features focused around men, click here