Steering Conversations Toward Restorative Topics

By Alexandra Davis, January 22, 2021

It’s natural for conversations with friends to veer toward what happened at work that day, but shop talk isn’t always the most restorative. Here’s how to artfully shift your conversations to something other than your 9-5 grind.

In a typical conversation, about how long does it take you to start talking about work? 

If you’re like me, probably less than ten seconds.

Whether we are catching up with an old friend or meeting someone new, our professional occupations tend to feature prominently in conversations. “So, what do you do?” is a common question leveled at new acquaintances, and for good reason: what we do for a living says a lot about who we are as people. However, there is much more to us than what we do from 9-5. And in some cases, immediately reverting to work-talk is more a function of conversational laziness, habit, or simply not knowing what else to discuss than a genuine interest in another person’s life.

One of my husband’s friends once mentioned that he intentionally avoids asking new acquaintances what they do for a living. Instead, he focuses on unique topics, like where they are from, what they do for fun, or their families in an attempt to spark a more meaningful connection. This tactic inspired me to be more intentional in conversation by fighting the urge to immediately ask people what they do for a living. 

The same concept can apply to our relationships with our friends. Instead of immediately defaulting to asking about the workday, we can stretch ourselves by exploring other topics. In doing so, we will likely find that we can connect on new meaningful levels with our friends and learn more about who they are, rather than just rehashing our weeks at work.

That’s not to say all work talk is bad: sometimes, it can be a good thing. Perhaps a friend is dealing with a bad boss or pushy colleague and simply needs a sounding board. Or, maybe she has just started a new job and is excited to share the details of her new projects and coworkers. But developing a better awareness of how much shop talk we’re doing, and learning how to put boundaries on it, can help both our own mental health and the depth of our friendships. 

Here are a few ideas on how to artfully move into more restorative, engaging, and intellectually stimulating topics.

01. Learn the art of the segue. 

Learning how to segue gracefully into another topic is a natural way to shift a conversation to something more pleasant. Find a “hook” in the last few words of your friend’s story or statement, and use it to transition topics. For instance, “speaking of your project, how do you think you’ll celebrate finishing it?” can lead to a discussion about favorite vacation spots or local restaurants.

02. Devise topics ahead of time.

Before you spend time with a friend who you know loves to talk about her work, come up with a few topics that you can discuss instead. Think of a few questions to ask that don’t center on work—for instance, how sleep training is going for her infant, what she and her family have been doing for fun on the weekends, what books or podcasts she’s enjoyed lately, or where she hopes to travel over the summer. Preparing ahead of time, before work-related banter or long stories get started, is helpful. 

These types of conversations can also show your friend that you care about her life outside of work. After all, her identity is about much more than just what she does from 9-5. If she is a work friend, this will help you learn more about her life outside the four walls of your office.


Coming your way Spring 2023
Alexandra Davis 
Alexandra Davis is a lawyer, writer, and business owner from Raleigh, North Carolina. When she isn't working, she can be found perusing vintage furniture stores, experimenting in the kitchen, drinking copious amounts of coffee, and hanging out on her front porch with her husband, family, and friends.