(4-minute read) It’s no secret that I’m a talker. This trait largely stems from my curiosity and desire to learn. I’ve found that engaging in conversation with people other than friends and family fulfills these needs. Whether I speak with the familiar woman fulfilling my order at the bagel store or a complete stranger awaiting the same train, or the regulars at my house like the mailperson, sanitation workers and landscapers, I almost always walk away happier than I was prior to the conversation (and more enlightened). This practice has not only proven advantageous for me personally, but it has also led to professional growth (I’ll save that for a future blog).
I recognize that starting casual conversations comes naturally to some and not for others. Just the thought of engaging in a dialogue with a stranger makes some people want to crawl into a hole and never come out. Obviously though, going through life without communicating in this way is simply not an option. Regardless of age or profession, being introverted or extraverted, everyone needs to engage in back-and-forth, face-to-face dialogue every day of their lives.
Given the rise of smartphones and other portable technology, the primary source of communicating among children is through text and social media. So children do not get as much practice interacting and verbally conversing with others. Even worse is the fact that technology is a distraction. The world around our children goes by so fast that when they do talk to people face-to-face, they are often unable to focus on the person or the topic for more than a few seconds.
What does all this mean? For starters, we can’t just assume that our children will somehow pick up this critical life skill unintentionally, without direct exposure. In other words, it’s our responsibility as parents to teach our children the art of conversation.
The 5 steps to becoming a conversationalist
1) Start conversations and respond appropriately to people when they speak.
A good rule of thumb is to respond/answer what someone says and then follow it with a comment or question. To explain this concept to a child in an easy way, compare it to a game of catch. One person throws the ball (makes a comment or asks a question) and then the other person catches it (responds / answers). To continue playing catch, that same person who just responded, will throw the ball back (by asking a question) in order to continue this game of catch (or conversation).
So, for example, if you are asked “How’s school?” you could respond by simply “catching” the question and responding with “Great!”. But, to throw the ball back, you could add, “I really love history, especially learning about the Native Americans.” Now to continue the other person has the ball because you have given them content to follow up on and the cue to keep the conversation flowing. They might answer, “History was my favorite subject.” From here, what happens if nothing more is said?
It would be like your partner catching the ball but not throwing it back. Or like they walked away, both of which can be awkward. If you don’t respond (or respond appropriately) during a conversation, it can feel abrupt and strange. And the last thing you want is to make things awkward.
2) Strengthen your listening skills.
We all know that hearing isn’t the same as listening, especially when it comes to engaging in conversations. There is nothing more important than making sure the person you are speaking with knows that you are actually paying attention and digesting what they are saying. One of the ways we help our GAALSters with this skill is by speaking about what body parts we use and don’t use to listen. We use our eyes to look at the person speaking so they know you are listening (which also shows respect). But we don’t use our mouth. I like to share with the children that we have two ears and one mouth because we should do more listening than talking.
We should have quiet bodies. That means we shouldn’t be doing anything else at the same time. This enables us to give the person speaking our undivided attention. I know, we all like to think we can multitask, but it is actually super hard to focus on more than one thing at the same time. We are the role models so we need to lead by example. While it may be difficult, that means no texting or working on the computer while listening!
For me, practicing true listening is not easy. I used to find that during conversations I was thinking about how I could relate to what was being said and what I could say in response. Although I had nothing but good intentions, doing so meant that I wasn’t truly listening to the person across from me. This is especially challenging since our minds think around 800 words per minute, yet we speak only about 125-150 words per minute.
By letting our minds wander we can miss the essence of the conversation. So what can you do to stay focused? Rather than trying to think ahead to your own response, stick to what the person is saying in that moment. Although it may take some time to build up confidence to respond without thinking too hard, you’d be surprised at how natural a response can be when you don’t overthink it. Further, you are able to be more authentic in your responses. When you aren’t in your own head, you are allowing yourself to fully process what the other person is saying in its entirety. In turn, you are better suited to respond more appropriately.
3) Be an active participant in the conversation, but without interrupting.
One way to show that you are listening and in tune with what the person is saying is by using non-verbal communication, like nodding and facial expressions. Additionally, you can respond with short words (called minimal encouragers) like yes, mmm, got it, right. While it might seem insignificant to do this, it demonstrates that you are interested in what the other person is saying and understand what is being said.
On the flip side, sometimes during a conversation you might need clarification or an explanation. But it can be hard to find the right time to “interrupt” Use natural pauses, like the end of a sentence to jump in. Or, you can use to gestures to indicate that you have something to say (perhaps leaning in a little or slightly raising your hands). Or, use your facial expressions to convey slight confusion. All of these strategies take practice. While I still don’t find true listening comes naturally to me, with practice I am able to do it more comfortably and successfully.
4) Don’t be a conversation hog.
When I first started GAALS, I was so passionate and excited to share my own thoughts that I often monopolized the conversation (I held the ball for quite a few minutes before tossing it back). It was only after my husband gently pointed it out that I realized it. I was then able to take a step back and pay attention to giving others the space to talk. A good way to start recognizing whether or not this is you in conversations as well: When you walk away, ask yourself what you learned from or about the person. And then, ask yourself how the other person can answer that same question. Not that it always has to be even (that you each learned 5 things), but if you find that every time you walk away you know very little about them while they know your life story, it might be time to rethink how you converse.
5) Know when to end the conversation.
This is a tricky one. I still struggle with knowing when to stop talking. Mostly because I am usually thoroughly enjoying it so much and am so engaged that I forget to pay attention to body language, social cues, and what is going on around us. The environment, and how many people are around, shape what is considered an appropriate length for a conversation. So it’s important to factor that into whether or not you should continue to talk. I find that taking natural breaks between topics is helpful, because the other person can use the pause to escape…I mean end the dialogue. And if it’s a subject that you can go on and on about (like most for me), then you can always just give the other person an out by saying something like, “we can catch up about this another time.” Or a softer out, “I could go on and on about this.” Remember, the other person may want to hear more, but at another time.
Okay, so now you have some info on how to engage in conversation, but how do you teach your child to become more comfortable with it? Here are 3 simple methods.
- Prepare beforehand for common questions (school, work, summer, fave activities / things to do in your free time), etc Have answers to common questions. Ie: how was your summer.
- Practice Role play helps children become more comfortable.
- Take baby steps. Don’t put too much pressure on your child. Start with familiar people and short conversations. Once they have that down, encourage your child to ask questions, make comments, give compliments ((in safe settings, of course). Have them ask directions, order food. The more they practice the more likely they are to begin to enjoy the art of conversation.