Overcoming Incivility: 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
On FamilyLife Today, Dave and Ann Wilson host professor Heather Holleman. She describes researched-based techniques for rediscovering conversations that connect us in a world thrashed by incivility,.
Overcoming Incivility: Heather Holleman
Dave: I feel like I’m sitting in the studio with two of the best conversationalists in one room.
Ann: Well, it’s not me.
Dave: Oh, yes, it is! You are amazing. I marvel at how you draw out people anywhere/everywhere: walking down the sidewalk in our neighborhood, in the airport. [Laughter]
Ann: Does it bug you?
Dave: Yes. [Laughter] At times, I’m like, “Can we just…” I mean, you’re so good; and you ask so many great, great questions. People want to talk to you, and I just leave. [Laughter]
Ann: You’re so funny. [Laughter]
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: Heather Holleman is back with us. She wrote the book on how to have great conversations.
Ann: Oh, Heather,—
Heather: I did.
Ann: —you have been such a joy. I feel like we could talk to you forever.
Heather: Well, I feel the same. See, we have a loving connection already.
Ann: We do.
Heather: We have warmth; we’ve increased our happiness.
Dave: Let’s talk again about The Six Conversations: Pathways to Connecting in an Age of Isolation and Incivility. We are living in this. Of course, you know this; that’s why you wrote it.
Ann: And you have your doctorate; you’re working as a professor with students, so you see this every day.
Ann: Is our culture changing? Is this something that’s more difficult now than it has been?
Heather: I think it is more difficult now; because I use the word, “incivility,” to talk about a particular cultural moment. Students worry about cancel culture; they worry about saying the wrong thing. Some researchers call it the “outrage industry”; that we’ve addicted ourselves to controversy, and anger, and divisiveness.
It’s a real opportunity to figure out how to reconnect in loving ways. And when you do that, you actually have a greater chance for social change, I feel like. It’s just something I care about deeply: is helping students feel a sense of belonging and connection. Right now, there’s a lot of fear of connecting in conversation; because of the cultural moment.
Dave: Yes, I feel that. That’s what I wanted to ask you: the incivility is real; so sometimes, you just resist entering a conversation.
Ann: I feel like I’m always going to offend someone.
Heather: Right; right. We’re afraid of offending people; we’re afraid of them judging us.
Dave: And you’re just hoping the conversation doesn’t go anywhere near these controversial—
Heather: Yes; right.
Dave: —don’t talk about vaccines, or politics, or masks, or—and I’m not talking just strangers.
Heather: Right; yes.
Dave: I’m talking about our own family members.
Heather: —friends and family. We’ve blocked people on Facebook®; people are deleting accounts. They won’t go home for holidays, because their family voted differently or believes something different about vaccines. We’ve also seen churches torn apart.
Dave: Oh, yes.
Heather: And that is the saddest for me, I think, just the division happening.
I’ve learned, through the process of researching this book, really, never to be afraid of a conversation again because— “If you are curious,” “Believe the best,” “Express concern,” and “Share your life,”—you really are in a great mindset to just listen to people:
- Figure out why they believe what they believe;
- Try to understand them: try to understand what they want; what they’re passionate about;
- And also, to get to the personal.
A lot of times, we talk about politics; but really, maybe they have a child at home who’s sick that they’re worried about; or maybe, they’re nervous about an upcoming decision. You can move it from the realm of heavier topics to something closer to home, and that can help form a warm connection.
Ann: Why is this so important to you?
Heather: I just deeply care about helping students belong; and probably, because I grew up longing for connection and never figuring out how to make a connection with someone. I would use all sorts of tactics, like flattery; or I just wanted people to like me, and I didn’t understand what a loving connection was—it’s that—and it’s that I know the research behind wellbeing and, also, spiritual health. We need warm connections. God created us for that, and we really reflect Him when we’re in loving connection with other people.
Ann: I was going to say: we’ve been talking to you on prior episodes, and you’re an evangelist.
Heather: I love talking about Jesus, yes; it’s my favorite thing, yes.
Ann: You do, and I feel like you create this pathway of the gospel that’s so easy; because you’re not threatening. The way you approach people, it opens the door to hear about Jesus and your faith. You’re bold about it, but you’re really gracious.
Heather: Well, part of it is, when you approach someone, and you have a loving connection with them already—because, again, the mindset: “You believe the best,”
You’re curious,” “You express concern,” and “You’re willing to share your life,”—the gospel presentation doesn’t come off like a sales pitch or like/it’s just natural. You’re just sharing your life, and people are asking questions.
I have a lot of friends in my life, who are atheists, or from a different religious position; and it’s never hostile. It’s always just rooted in curiosity: “Let me share what Christians believe.” It’s wonderful to see how God works in those moments and how people come to faith, because they’ve had a loving conversation.
Dave: There’s a lot I want to talk about; your book is so practical. You used the word just a minute ago that I want to hear your thoughts on: “listening.”
Heather: Yes; oh, I learned so much; I was a terrible listener.
Dave: Yes, I think we live in a culture that we don’t listen well. You can’t express concern to somebody if you haven’t listened to their concerns.
Ann: Because we’re ready with our retort of what we’re going to say next.
Dave: In marriage, it’s huge.
Heather: It’s huge.
Dave: We don’t listen, so coach us up.
Heather: I will tell you: this was my favorite chapter to write, because no one ever taught me what I’m listening for. This is going to change your life: “When someone is speaking to you, listen for what their core values are, and say back to them what you’re hearing.”
For example, I asked my neighbor, [with whom] I did not have a warm connection with yet. He was walking his dog, and I said, “What are your plans for the weekend?” He said, “Well, I’m really upset, because my son was supposed to come; but he changed the plan; and then I thought we were going to have these seats, but then this got messed up.” He was going on and on about all his plans changing.
I looked at him, and I said, “It really sounds like you value order in your schedule and having the itinerary in place.” He paused and looked at me, and said, “I do; I really do.”
Ann: You’re like a therapist! [Laughter]
Heather: And then, he said, “Walk with me”; he was ready to talk.
And then, I tried it again with a businesswoman that I really wanted to form a bond with—we were acquaintances—but I thought, “You know what? I want to connect with her more.” I asked her about her day. She was talking about projects that she had completed, where she didn’t feel like she had done her best work. I kept noticing: “She keeps talking about whether something is her best work.” I said to this woman, “You know, it really sounds like you value excellence, and you don’t know what to do if you feel like you’ve turned something in that isn’t your best work.” And she said, “I do.
Dave: She said, “Walk with me.” [Laughter]
Heather: “I really do.” No, this is what she said: “Will you come to my office next week? Talking to you is the best part of my week.”
Ann: She did not!
Heather: And now, we are dear friends; we have lunch every week.
Dave: You didn’t say, “For $150 an hour I’ll do that”?
Heather: No; it is core values. I tried it with people, who are in a hard situation—people who are grieving, people who are in trauma situations—in situations like that, I thought, “Okay, just listen; but what am I listening for?”—for what you really see people valuing; and when you put words to it, they feel so loved; they feel so seen.
Ann: I’m going, through in my head, of conversations in our home.
Ann: And to recognize the core value and empathize, like “Oh, it...” I’m thinking that would change so much.
Dave: —as a parent.
Heather: Yes, it does.
Ann: That’s what I’m saying. Let’s say, for instance,—
Dave: —as a husband, as a wife—I mean, come on.
Ann: I’m sitting here thinking of when I’m driving with Dave: he is complaining about all the drivers and how they’re driving wrong. [Laughter]
Dave: How are we going here? Go anywhere else but here.
Heather: Because he values strategy; yes.
Ann: That’s what I was going to say. I’m complaining that he’s always complaining about everyone driving; and so instead of complaining, I should empathize and think, “What’s his core value?”
Dave: You should compliment me.
Heather: And you value positive communication. You don’t like environments of complaining, it sounds like.
Dave: Oh, no.
Heather: Like you don’t like it when people—
Ann: —not when it happens every day and every time you’re in the car.
Heather: Yes. [Laughter]
With children, I’ll tell you: children/they will light up; because often, they don’t even have words to explain their own personality. My daughter loves beautiful things: she loves clothes; she loves having her room so beautiful. I told her the other day, “You really love beauty. This is how God made you; you love things that look wonderful.” Like she’s probably going to be some kind of interior designer or something; so things like that.
Dave: If we’re not listening well, is it a selfish, arrogance, pride issue?
Heather: I think so.
Dave: Because if I’m talking all the time, and I’m not really taking time to listen to you, I think I’m very selfish; it’s like it’s hard work to listen.
Heather: It is. Well, it’s a supreme act of love to give someone your full attention.
I did find a wonderful definition of arrogance that’s in the book;—
Ann: Oh, wonderful! [Laughter]
Dave: Oh, boy.
Heather: —it says that: “Arrogant people really believe that they don’t need anything from other people. They don’t believe other people can teach them anything; they walk around superior.” It really is a disposition of the heart, where you put yourself above other people.
What I love about the six conversations is, when you’re curious, and have the disposition that you’re going to value others above yourself—think about the end of Philippians 2, Jesus taking on the nature of a servant—it really makes things so wonderful when you do that.
Also, when you’re listening for core values, you also have to be humble; because someone’s core value may be the opposite of what you value. In my marriage, I value efficiency; my husband values slow, deliberative thought processes. He will take two weeks to make a decision that I already made an hour ago. He knows my core value; I know his core value: we have to figure out how to meet in the middle.
But what you were saying earlier, I was thinking, “Okay, in a conflict,”—could be a marital conflict; could be with the kids; could be any conflict—“listening is so important.” Here’s what happens, I think—to your point of arrogance—is: “I don’t want to listen to what you’re feeling or saying right now, because I know better what you should be doing and thinking,”—I’m going to slam that down on you, like—“Why are you…” Isn’t that arrogance?
Dave: It’s like, man, conflicts could go so much further if we just shut up and listen, to start.
Heather: And that was me, because I was a national debater—
Dave: Oh, boy! [Laughter]
Heather: —and won debates—like I was at Harvard quarter finals/like went to camps—
Heather: —Dartmouth, Michigan.
When we got married—
Ann: Oh, you’d be terrible to be married to.
Heather: Oh, I was. [Laughter] You need Ash here; you need to bring Ash on your program, because he—
Ann: We will.
Dave: We’re bringing him back.
Heather: —the number-one thing he says, in an argument, is: “Okay, you’re going to win this debate; and it’s going to be terrible for our marriage.” I can win any argument; it’s not good for our marriage. I stopped doing that; occasionally, he’ll say, “You’re doing it again”; because I, like you: “I already see the problems in your thinking,” and “Here’s my five-point rebuttal to why everything you’re saying is wrong.” So now, just understanding his core values.
It kind of helps me, too, when I researched what the goal of conversation is.
Ann: I was going to say: “Let’s get into those three fresh goals for conversation.”
Heather: Yes, because a lot of people think: “Okay; I’m at a party. I ask these questions; but then, how do I end the conversation?” or “What leads to the warm connection?”
It’s three things that are really profoundly biblical. In every conversation, you should be thinking:
- “How can I encourage this person?”
- “How can I help them in their own personal growth goals?”—like: “How can I come alongside them?”—projects or goals.
- And the research shows that, if you can bring someone to a state of awe or marveling about something, it creates a warm connection; and that makes you feel less lonely.
If you and I went outside and saw a beautiful bird together, or like an alligator—because don’t you guys have these here?—[Laughter]—
Dave: Oh, yes.
Heather: —if we, together, were like, “Can you believe we saw that?” we would feel closer, less lonely. It also increases creativity when you’re in a state of awe. It’s a whole different way of communicating than what we’re used to in the culture now.
I love friends, who are wanting to know: “How do you want to grow this year?” “What projects are you working on?” And then, they express concern—it’s called “investment”—by them saying, “How can we help you achieve your goals? What do you need?” That’s wonderful friendship; that’s wonderful connection.
The research study that came to my email on diseases of despair in the state of Pennsylvania—so alcohol, suicide—they call it “diseases of despair”; they’re linking that to one of four key factors. One was just: “Lack of social connection,”—so having someone who knows what you’re working on; what you’re thinking about—that’s going to help them in whatever they’re struggling with.
Ann: I’m imagining parents, who have their teens in their bedrooms on their devices for hours and hours at a time; but their kids are struggling with depression and anxiety.
Heather: Oh, yes. The depression and anxiety; it’s never been higher, in my opinion, at the college campus.
Ann: How would you encourage those parents, knowing what you just said: “How could they pull them out of that situation?” You have girls that are 19 and 17?
Heather: Yes, so we do like our phones. I’m not a parent who makes them not have their phone, because I also enjoy TikTok® and social media. But one thing I tell my girls is—just the research behind dopamine addictions with your phone—like you have to detox from that, because you’re just getting a dopamine hit every time. Your brain is really addicted to your phone—we all know this—so having times when you detox from it.
We walk every day together, and we don’t have our—
Ann: You walk with your girls?
Heather: I walk with my girls every day; we call it “Taking Loops.” We try to do three miles a day in the afternoon or evening. I love walking because you can do the “I’ll walk with marvel.” What’s going to happen is: they’re going to enjoy the conversations so much that it, in itself, will be a pleasurable experience, which is a dopamine reward. They may find that they love the warm connection, and will come out of their room a little more/come down to talk.
Dave: You taking walks with your daughters means conversation doesn’t happen unless there’s time—
Heather: —lots of time.
Dave: —to slow down and focus, whether it’s on a walk or sitting at a dinner table. Most families don’t even have dinner together anymore. They’re just running from one sports event to one school event. You have to decide: “We have to pace our life in a way that we have time to have a conversation.”
Heather: Even if it’s 15 minutes, the benefits of a daily walk are indisputable and outstanding for your health. My daughter does it for stress; because it regulates cortisol, insulin. When you go on a walk—I think the research shows you it has to be about
20 minutes to get the effect—but you’re really helping your body.
Even if nobody’s talking right away, your child will open up. If you aren’t walking, just try it out. Go on a walk; and eventually, someone’s going to say something. It’s fun; I never pressure it, but sometimes, I’ll say, “You know, what have you been thinking about?” Or with kids who are really stressed out, I’ll say, “Is there a thought going through your mind that you just can’t get rid of?” They love that question, because so many kids are just spinning in anxiety; and they want someone to listen.
Dave: I remember one of my favorite things, when the boys were teenagers—again, they’re married now with grandkids—but we’d be walking in their room, high school years, and saying, “Hey, tell me what you’re listening to.”
Heather: Yes, yes; music.
Ann: And you would say, “Tell me why you love this so much.”
Heather: That’s great! That’s such a good question.
Dave: Some of the music I hated, but it didn’t matter; it’s like: “This isn’t about me. “Why do you like that?’ ‘What’s in there?’” That was a sweet moment.
Heather: I heard a story of a youth pastor, who came to faith because his grandma would walk into the room, and get on the floor with him, and listen to his Metallica albums with him. [Laughter] This sweet Christian grandma would listen to all the heavy metal and say that: “Why do you love it?” He felt so loved and accepted by her. I love that.
Ann: I remember asking our boys, “Tell me what you’ve been thinking about.”
Heather: Yes, that is so great: “What have you been thinking about?” That’s such a good question, Ann.
I’m like, “What do I think? You know what? I do think about theology all day long. I think about how God’s going to work something for my good.”
Heather: Is that weird? Is that self-focused?
Ann: It shows me that you’ve been in the Word a lot.
Heather: Well, I’m like, “This bad thing is happening...” For example, I have to fly home tonight; and there’s an ice storm. I’m already anticipating; I’m like, “Lord, please, if I have to spend the night in Philadelphia, it is going to challenge my theology.” [Laughter] You know, I really think about what I believe about God.
Ann: —the logistics.
Dave: Yes, it’s because it’s not going to be efficient.
Heather: That’s what it is; because other people are like: “Heather, just enjoy the free hotel stay. Get the gift voucher. Go get yourself some Smashburger®.” [Laughter] I’m like, “But it is wasting…” You’re absolutely right:—
Ann: “It’s wasting time.”
Heather: —travel is not fun for me, because it is not efficient. My favorite thing is when the pilot says, “We’re going to arrive ten minutes before schedule.” [Laughter] I’m like, “Yes!”
Ann: Dave, what do you think about?
Heather: Yes, what would you say?
Dave: I don’t want to talk about me. I want to—
Ann: Oh, come on. What do you think?
Heather: What do you think about?—is it strategy?—you think about how things could be better?
Dave: Yes, I do; that’s it.
Heather: This is a great question. I’m going to ask my students this: “What do you think about most?”
Dave: In some ways, I hate that my mind critiques things, like this broadcast,—
Heather: You’ll be like, “What could we have done better?”
Dave: —like that sermon, like that guitar solo, like the worship leader, like the sound—everything I’m like analyzing. Sometimes, when I’m in worship, as a participant—not playing in the band—I have to just block it out, and go, “Enjoy this moment. Don’t critique how the acoustic guy is playing his thing—don’t listen—just worship God.” So maybe that’s it; I don’t know.
Heather: Yes; well, if someone said to you: “Dave, what did you think of that worship set? How would you have done it better?”—would that feel like a loving question to you; because then, you could share?
Dave: Oh, yes.
Ann: He would love that, because he always knows the answer.
Heather: You would love that. I’m going to remember this; afterwards, I’m going to be like, “Dave, what did you think of that interview? What could we have done better?” And you’ll be like, “Oh, walk with me.” [Laughter]
Dave: And I actually like it when people come up to me, and say, “Here’s a thought on how this interview/this thing could have been better.” I’m not defensive; I’m like,—
Ann: We both like that.
Heather: Oh, that’s great.
Dave: “Help me,”—if you saw something in that sermon, whatever—
Heather: You like feedback.
Dave: —“I have to preach this three times today. Make the next two better than the first one.”
Ann: Yes; people will laugh—because our church was doing three services in one [building]—so I would listen to the first one from home. I would send him a text, like, “Hey, if you said it like this…” or “…you added this…” Dave loved that.
Dave: Oh, it was so helpful.
Ann: It would come up on his iPad® as he’s speaking.
Heather: I love that; that’s so good.
Dave: Hey, I want to end with this—because one of the things that I drew out of your book, when you said fresh goals of conversation: “Mutually encourage,” “Aid personal growth,” and “To marvel,”—my first thought, when you said, “To marvel,” was: “As we have conversations with people, and we ask questions, and we listen well, we’re going to marvel at them,”—
Heather: Ohh; yes!
Ann: That’s what I thought too.
Dave: —which is both, because you get into: “Marvel together.”
But there’s a point, where you’re like—when you were just talking about the way your brain works—I was like, “Wow! That is—
Ann: —“Look what God has done.”
Dave: I went, “Ahhh!” [Laughter] I thought, “When you have a great conversation with somebody, and it’s not about you; it’s really about: ‘I want to consider their interests more important than my own.’”
Heather: Yes; that’s beautiful.
Dave: At some point, you go—like you look at your wife—and you go, “She’s amazing.
Heather: Yes; “God made her so awesome.”
Dave: “And I’d forgotten that—but I saw it again—because I asked, and I listened.” That could really enhance a marriage.
Ann: And I feel like, too, with our kids—I feel like that piece for me—there was a point, when our kids were younger, that I wanted to mold them into who I wanted them to be. I would have never said that; but really, I had dreams and expectations of who they would become.
When I stopped that, and I started seeing and marveling of who God already created them to be, and what He had put in them, it was like a worship—not of them—but of: “God, look what You’ve done.” I think we started believing, and seeing, and pointing out, and marveling at these magnificent beings that God let us parent.
Heather: Yes; that’s good.
Dave: Well, here’s a concept that we learned, early in our marriage, way back from a guy named Gary Smalley.
Heather: Love Gary Smalley.
Dave: Now his son, Greg, is doing marriage stuff; but Gary taught on honor—and the Hebrew word, “Honor your mother and father,”—the word literally means “to bend the knee.” His point was: “When do you bend knees?”
In some cultures, you bend the knee when you’re in the presence of somebody extremely valuable. He goes, “That’s what honor is—when you’re with your wife, when you’re with your kids, when you’re with a total stranger—when you honor them, you’re saying, ‘I’m in the presence of someone extremely valuable.’”
Dave: We call a judge “the honorable judge,” because they have a position.
Heather: That’s right.
Dave: You don’t have to like somebody or even love them; you honor who they are, created in the image of God.
Ann: —the image-bearers.
Heather: That’s huge.
Dave: That’s what our conversation could say to somebody: “I’m in the presence of somebody extremely valuable.” If they felt that every time they were around us, whew!
Heather: Yes; I know.
Ann: Heather, you have been such a treat and joy.
Heather: It’s just been so fun.
Ann: So fun; thank you for being with us.
Heather: Well, you’re welcome. Thank you for having me.
Shelby: You’re listening to Dave and Ann Wilson, with my long-time friend, Heather Holleman, on FamilyLife Today. Heather has written a book called The Six Conversations: Pathways to Connecting in an Age of Isolation and Incivility. It’s a fantastic book, and you can pick up a copy at FamilyLifeToday.com.
Heather, you’re such an enthusiastic supporter of this ministry. I can say—because I’ve know you for so long—that you don’t use words that you don’t actually mean; you’re an authentic person when it comes to your feelings about this ministry. I believe you love what FamilyLife is doing, day in and day out.
Heather: I’ve loved my time connecting with FamilyLife. If you’re listening today, I just wanted to encourage you to continue to support the great ministry of FamilyLife. They offer a safe space to talk about things that really matter: our marriages, how we’re connecting with our children. This is a wonderful ministry for you to support or, maybe, continue supporting more. Thank you so much.
Shelby: Yes; and thanks to some generous Ministry Partners, our matching-gift fund is even bigger now. Every gift given, through the end of this year—including your gift right now—will be matched, dollar for dollar, until we hit $2.3 million. And when you give, we’re going to send you, as our thanks, four copies of The Four Emotions of Christmas by Bob Lepine. That’s one copy to keep for yourself and three to give away to family members, or neighbors, or friends. We’re also going to send you six greeting cards that have been hand-selected by David and Meg Robbins. These make a great tool to share with your loved ones or the special people in your life, whomever they may be. Again, you can give today at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can give us a call at 800-358-6329; that’s 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
We’re coming close to the end of the year and have had so many amazing conversations with people like Dane Ortlund, John Yates, and many more, who have been guests on FamilyLife Today. Well, next week, Dave and Ann Wilson will sit with the president of FamilyLife, David Robbins, along with his wife, Meg, where they will showcase highlights over the last year and talk about what God has done through this ministry. Make sure you join us.
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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