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Can We Talk?


By Jeff Tierney, Director Evaluation & Certification - Site Certification

on 4/23/2014


Let’s think, for a moment, about people we know who are easy to talk to; people who always seem comfortable conversing with others. These are the people who others describe as “never knowing a stranger” or bestowed with ample portions of the “gift of gab.”


But for a lot of our kids and even some of the parents we work with, comfortably chatting it up with other people (especially unfamiliar ones) can be a real challenge. They may not be used to anyone taking a sincere interest in what they have to say or they could even be painfully shy. Extreme shyness in the form of “social anxiety disorder” is the most common anxiety disorder in America and the third most prevalent mental disorder behind depression and alcohol dependence. And we’re not just talking about the fear of public speaking (or “glossophobia”) but the extreme discomfort some kids and adults experience at the thought of meeting new people and conversing with them.


It’s easy to see how this sort of conversational discomfort can severely limit the opportunities a person would have for employment and career advancement, academic success, and even meeting a potential life partner. We’ve all had the experience of a conversation grinding to a halt and the chirping of crickets ushering in a lengthy uncomfortable silence. This is the stuff that awkward first dates are made of.


Fortunately for those reluctant social butterflies among us, we can help. There are specific skills and strategies that can be taught to a child, adult, or an entire group to decrease their discomfort in social situations and help develop the ability to engage others in meaningful conversation.  In Teaching Social Skills to Youth, there are three different skills mentioned that specifically cover initiating a conversation with others, maintaining a conversation, and then comfortably concluding a conversation topic and moving on to something else. All of these take practice and a lot of reinforcement for kids and adults to become proficient with them.


Other people also have their own ideas about how the art of socializing can be taught. Robbie Vorhaus is a communications consultant and media specialist. In his blog Vorhaus writes about the need for being an effective conversationalist as one of the keys to making professional contacts and successfully launching a business. And he has developed a set of rules for keeping the conversation flowing:


Rule #1---Stick to the last 24 hours. Immediately find a common interest based on current events, food, geography, work, or family based on something you experienced or observed over the last 24 hours. Recent events are usually more meaningful to the other person and generate more of a response from them.


Rule #2---Ask open-ended questions. Instead of “Did you like the play you saw?” try “What did you like most about the play you saw?” Close-ended questions are more likely to solicit a simple “yes” or “no.”


Rule #3---Learn the basics of storytelling. Interesting stories begin when something out of the ordinary happens. They have a beginning, middle, and end which should each be interesting enough to maintain the listener’s attention and interest.


Rule #4---Stay positive.  Resist the urge to talk negatively about others or gossip. As Vorhaus aptly puts it “It’s easy starting a conversation about war, dying, crisis, sickness, or spreading dirt about someone else, but in the end, you won’t be remembered for the content of your conversation, only that you leave people feeling negative and slimed.”


Rule #5---Listen more than you speak. Take the role of leader, and give people the opportunity to speak about themselves and what’s important to them.  Encourage the person you are talking with to tell you more, and show a sincere interest in what they are saying.


Rule #6---Bring others into the conversation.  Growing an ongoing conversation by adding other people on the fly requires practice, timing, and some background knowledge. Yet when done well, it broadens the scope of the conversation and increases the interest of everyone present.


While it’s certainly quicker and easier today to communicate by text, tweet, Pinterest, and Instagram than it is to talk face-to-face, it’s still crucial for our kids and our families to be able to navigate sometimes tricky social situations and express themselves to others in person. I’m especially interested in what our readers have done to successfully teach kids or adults to carry on a great conversation with others and know exactly what to do when someone says to them “Can we talk?”


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