This pandemic has taken a toll on many people’s mental health. Feelings of anger, sadness, fear, and frustration are natural byproducts of stress caused by the deadly COVID-19 disease, which continues to stalk the population.
Social isolation and loneliness have drained life of a great deal of meaning. Grandparents can no longer see their grandchildren. Office colleagues only connect via Zoom or email. Even walking the dog results in less chatter in the neighbourhood as others keep their distance to avoid being infected.
Former Breakfast Television host Riaz Meghji has long been interested in countering the corrosive effects of loneliness. This was triggered while researching a TEDxSFU talk that he gave in 2012.
“I got to looking at this notion of loneliness—and over the years, recognizing that this was a huge challenge that nobody really talked about,” Meghji told the Straight by phone. “Or they didn’t talk about it enough because pre-COVID, loneliness was a major, major health issue.”
So when the pandemic arrived, Meghji decided to write a book, Every Conversation Counts: The 5 Habits of Human Connection That Build Extraordinary Relationships. And it offers a road map toward living a more fulfilling life, even in a pandemic, while countering one’s own social isolation and the loneliness of others.
The SFU grad accomplishes this by highlighting a multitude of ways to forge stronger bonds with one another, whether it’s over Zoom, in regular conversation with friends and loved ones, or in everyday encounters with people while going about our business.
“The big message of this book—and the objective and intention—is that I hope it encourages people to look at how they can intentionally connect with people in their lives versus relying on autopilot mode,” Meghji says. “This era we’re in, it feels like Groundhog Day.”
Every Conversation Counts highlights academic research linking diminished social ties with diabetes, heart disease, dementia, and premature death.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, for example—a Brigham Young University psychology and neuroscience researcher—has concluded that social isolation is comparable to the risk of smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
Meghji cites another loneliness researcher, Stephanie Cacioppo at the University of Chicago, who points out that people who are isolated perceive social threats twice as quickly. This suspiciousness leads them to further isolate themselves.
“I was really watching this [loneliness] during the pandemic,” Meghji says. “Angus Reid [Institute] said two in five young adults—men and women—were struggling with loneliness.”
Distractions must be avoided
For Meghji, one of the keys to making conversations count and enhancing connections is to listen to others without being distracted.
“Active listening to me is not just hearing the words but listening to what isn’t being said,” he says. “One of the most important points of this book—that I hope people take away from—is recognizing how distractions get in the way.”
Meghji has learned that the average person speaks at a rate of about 125 words per minute. But he adds that our brains can absorb 400 to 500 words per minute. That’s why it’s easy to multitask while engaged in a conversation, because we believe we’re hearing everything that’s said.
“Meanwhile, there could be a greater issue at hand that you’re not listening to,” Meghji says. “Maybe they’ve lost someone in their life or they’re struggling with their relationship. That act of listening is really about feeling what someone is saying and asking the questions to allow them to self-diagnose what’s going on and help them create their own breakthroughs.”
The other four habits of human connection in the book are making small talk bigger, putting aside your perfect persona, being assertively empathetic, and making people feel famous. He learned this latter habit by watching how wheelchair athlete and motivational speaker Rick Hansen interacts with others.
As the host of Breakfast Television for 11 years, Meghji also learned what questions elicited fulsome responses. In the green room before broadcasts, he would often simply ask guests what was on their mind. That enabled him to “prioritize their priorities”.
“The other thing is asking for stories and not just answers,” he adds. “Whether it’s on Breakfast Television or it’s in print, it’s emotion that’s going to connect people. Emotion is what’s going to move people.”
Empowering questions bring out the best in people
Paraphrasing psychiatrist and bestselling author Gordon Livingston, Meghji says the happiest people have something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to.
He believes that by focusing on these three areas, it can lead to more positive conversations.
“All of those have a high emotional quotient,” he says.
Meghji appreciates it when people ask him how he’s coping during the pandemic. But he thinks an even better question is to ask people how they are taking care of themselves at this unique time in history.
“It’s more empowering for people to say, ‘I’m in control of this. I’m not a victim of my circumstances. Here are some things I’m doing to take care of me.’ ”
Meghji left Breakfast Television after his wife gave birth to their son. So how is he taking care of himself in the pandemic?
“One of the things I started doing first thing in the morning was meditating,” he reveals.
Meghji used to feel guilty about doing nothing, thinking he always had to be busy. But he has since learned from U.S. podcaster Tim Ferriss that “being busy is a form of laziness, because you’re just filling in the gap”.
“It’s making a big difference to practise mindfulness to start the day,” Meghji says.
His most important conversation
Family is obviously important to him while he embarks on a new chapter in his life as an author and public speaker. When asked what impact his family had on him, he replies with word associations.
“Brother: creativity. Mother: compassion. Father: how to compete. My wife: ultimate teammate. And my son: pure inspiration,” Meghji says.
And the most important conversation of his life came as a 22-year-old man when an older family friend advised him that he had a gift for public speaking. This friend told him that it would go to waste if he became an investment banker.
At the time, Meghji joked that he was South Asian, so if he didn’t become a doctor, lawyer, dentist, or financial expert, that might be a problem.
“In that moment, he challenged me, like, ‘When are you going to stop playing safe and start living your life?’ ” Meghji recalls. “When he planted that seed, I started thinking about the potential that existed, because I knew in my heart that’s what I wanted to do.”