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Learning Conversation

Today I had the chance to sit down with my 16 year old son, Link, and talk about how conversations work. For a long time he’s felt like talking to people is something he is not good at, but he’s feeling an increased desire to connect with others through talking. This came to a crisis this week and resulted in us sitting down today to discuss how conversations work. Being good at talking to people is a set of skills that anyone can learn. We broke out some discrete skills that can be practiced, because practice in small chunks is the best way to learn skills. As a potentially useful reminder to Link and I, also because someone else may find this useful, I’m going to list the skills here. We have no intention of Link learning all of these things at once. Instead he’ll pick one and work on it for awhile before working on a different one.

Learn Names: When you know someone’s name, it indicates to them that you think they are important enough to remember. It is a small kindness you can offer to everyone from classmates to the grocery store clerk. You don’t have to remember names forever, but retaining it for an evening is doable. Link has a particular challenge here because he’s surrounded by classmates that he’s known for years, but whose names he’s never learned. I recommended that he ask someone else “hey, what’s that guy’s name?” This gives him a question to ask someone and it helps him start learning the names of people he’s going to see over and over again.

Ask Questions: Questions are the secret weapon of conversations. If you ask about someone else, you have to talk less. Also people like to hang around with people who are willing to listen to them and who are interested in what they have to say.

Your next question is hidden in their answer: When people answer your question, they usually provide you information that you can use for a follow up question. If they answer the question “How are you today?” with “Really stressed I’m going to fail my math test” you could ask: why does math stress you? How soon is the test? Do you need help studying? Which math teacher do you have? When is your test? Etc. Questions about unusual items of clothing are also good, because these items often have stories attached. You can also find questions in your shared context. A school friend can always be asked questions about classes, teachers, or homework.

Give compliments: It doesn’t take much to say “I like your shoes.” It doesn’t necessarily give you a long conversation, but it is a brief positive interaction you can have with another person. Also it is a kind gift to give other people.

Look people in the face and smile: You don’t have to look them in the face during the whole conversation. That gets uncomfortable. It is common for people to look away while they’re talking and then look directly at someone while they’re listening. But looking at someone’s face indicates interest in what they have to say. Smiling makes everyone feel happier.

When you’re invited to join a group at lunch or for group work, start by saying yes instead of looking for excuses to say no. The fact that they tendered the invitation means that you are welcome. Once you’re in the group, it is fine to only speak occasionally as you participate in the work. You’re still part of the group.

The more people there are in a group, the less you should talk. It is perfectly acceptable to be part of a group conversation by actively listening and only speaking very occasionally with a question or observation.

Some people dominate group conversations. This can be wonderful if the dominating person is entertaining and gracious. It can be seriously annoying if the dominating person is not attentive to the other people. If you’re in a big group and talking more than anyone else, particularly if you’re talking about yourself, try to turn the conversation over to someone else for awhile. Ask questions and then listen.(This is not going to be Link’s challenge, but it is good to know anyway.)

Group conversations tend to fracture and drift, this is normal and expected. Let them do it, even if you are sad that the conversation abandons a topic that interests you. If you try to control the conversation, you’ll likely end up with a dead conversation. Often group conversations will turn into three or four smaller conversations and back again. This is also normal. Let that happen.

When you reach a high level of conversational skill it is possible to lead and steer group conversations, but while learning these skills it is best to observe and learn how conversations go.

If there is a particular person you want to get to know better, try having many small conversations at different times rather than attempting to learn everything in one sitting. This is more pleasant for everyone.

Answering someone’s statement with “I know” is a conversation ender. If someone tells you a thing and you answer “I know,” there really isn’t anything else for them to say. Instead you need to indicate your prior knowledge while giving the conversation a path to continue “I’d heard that, but did you know…” or “I know, however…”

Ending a conversation is as important as beginning it. It is okay to keep conversations short, because they can be exhausting while you’re learning the skills. The key is to depart the conversation in a way that lets the other person know that you’d like to talk again sometime. The format is usually an excuse for ending the conversation followed by an indication that conversation was fun or that you’d like to talk again. “I’ve got to go study for my math quiz now, it was nice talking to you.” or “I’ve got to go now, see you tomorrow?”

Prayer can help you find the words. It never hurts to send a two second prayer heavenward that you’ll be able to find the words to mean what you want to say. We are promised in scripture that God can give us the exact right words in the moment that we need them.

I can testify to the truth of that last one, because my entire conversation with Link was full of moments where I had exactly the right words. It was wonderful to see my son listening and absorbing these concepts about conversation. I hope that this next week will be better for him than the last months have been. I think it will, because he has some clear small steps to take instead of feeling like all conversation is this huge, complex, insoluble problem.

2 comments to Learning Conversation

  • LS

    All that stuff pretty much describes me when I was 16. One thing I found that really helped me was getting involved in online communities, just because I found it so much less stressful.

    There’s no worries about forgetting somebody’s name, because it’s right there next to the comment. There’s no worries about blushing or stuttering or any other such physical difficulties. You can take more time to answer and think over what you want to say, since a pause of 30 seconds or so is fairly normal because most people don’t expect you to be putting 100% of your attention into it.

    While you do need in-person conversational skills too, I found that online interactions were enough of a confidence booster to make that a lot easier. I already knew that people liked talking to me and liked what I had to say. I knew that there were people who would laugh at my jokes and understand my sense of humor, and that people would start conversations with me just because they liked talking with me.

    Just knowing that those people existed made it easier to talk to people because failures/awkwardness/etc were meant that I told myself “Okay, so that one person doesn’t want to talk to me, but plenty of other people do” more and “Oh my god I’m horrible this is hopeless” less.

  • caelonna

    Thanks for this, I have a really hard time with conversations possibly in part because I can’t read facial expressions and have a hard time hearing tones. One thing that I’ve been working on for years is making eye contact. I admit I still usually look at people’s mouths, but at least I’m not looking at their feet!

    You’ve said Link has APD, can he hear people’s tones? I can only hear them for people I know well, that makes conversations with non-family a whole lot harder. Supposedly, watching facial expressions can help you tell the difference between “joke” and “serious” among other things.