Friday, September 30, 2016

Why Is Conversation So Important?

  Listening Is An Art

A few years ago, my father was visiting my daughter and me with his partner, Maureen, a certified master gardener. This was their first time in Minnesota—and it was early summer. We had been walking around a lake, and were now sitting on a park bench. Maureen started a conversation by describing the flora surrounding the water and how the vegetation was quite different from her parks in Georgia. I agreed and mentioned the invasive species, Kudzu, prevalent in the south but nonexistent in the Midwest. My father said looking at my daughter, "I'm glad you enjoyed your classes this year." Maureen began to explain that invasive species are quite different regionally. My dad interrupted, "What books are you reading, Anna?"

My father-in-law, Don, does the same thing, except one-on-one which is even worse than in a small group. When there are four people you can divert into two two person conversations if need be. But with two people? I started, "Jen and I have been working on a few children's books in our spare time." Don replies, "I see that there must be a sailing club out on the bay." Arrrgh! (Don is a good man—he and my mother-in-law have been married 52 years. See All Are Significant.)

Granted, men interrupt more and are generally worse conversationalists than women—take the presidential debate between Trump and Clinton as an embarrassing example. However, conversation is an art form, I say. Conversation is a skill. And it is not taught in school. It is not taught in college. It isn't taught anywhere. It is learned from day one as a baby—as a noticer.

How about a little more warm water, pops?

Babies are born watchers—and they develop based on the modeling within their immediate environment. That's why when my daughter was a newborn, I was holding conversations with her—that's correct! I would use her facial expressions, mainly her eyes, as her non-verbal responses to my statements and questions.

Papa Green Bean and Anna, his three month daughter, have a conversation.

"We are going to have a fun day today, Anna. First of all let's put on some music. Would you rather listen to Mozart, Neil Young, or My Fair Lady?" I show her the three record covers holding them in front of her long enough for her to see the three separate images. "Not sure? I feel like some classical, is that okay with you, Anna?" I look at her and her eyes enlarge staring back at her dad. "Great, Mozart it is." 

"Now let's go into the kitchen and take a look inside the refrigerator." I pick up Anna and carry her in my arm—open the refrigerator. "Look at all that food hiding inside, Anna. A refrigerator keeps our food cold and fresh. Hmmm, how about we share an apple? The apple is cold isn't it?" I place the apple into Anna's hand and her face shows surprise and interest. I hold the apple against my cheek and say, "The apple is cold." Then I hold it up against Anna's cheek. She smiles rubbing her cheek. 

Give me a knife, dad!

"Yes, the apple is full of energy, so let's cut it up and eat it. First, we'll wash it." I turn on the water and place the apple under the water letting Anna see the action. "Do you want to touch the water, Anna?" She looks a bit apprehensive. "That's okay, you don't have to touch the water. Let's dry the apple with a towel. I'll put you down here while I cut the apple, okay, Anna?" I lean her against the counter wall and cut the apple up into slices. 

Anna watches the motions of the knife and the way the apple falls apart. "Here is a slice for you to taste and one for me." I pop a piece into my mouth and chew it saying, "delicious and nutritious!" I press a slice against Anna's lips and her tongue licks it instinctively. I place the apple into her hand and wait for her to grip it. And so goes the conversation between Papa Green Bean and her daughter. 

What made Anna a wonderful conversationalist? 

She couldn't talk—she was a great listener.

  • Being an attentive listener, offering specific feedback on the topic, leaves the talker with a particularly positive impression of the listener. 
  • So, if you want to make closer friends: ask them open ended questions about themselves—then listen carefully, with facial expressions and short comments that show you are not just nodding but retaining the information.
A good listener

The article,  Why Are So Many Smart Kids Missing This Important Social Skill? discusses with clarity the value of consciously instilling lively conversation into the parent/child dynamic. Here are some highlights:

How To Read Nonverbal Cues

  • That’s all the stuff that we say without uttering a word. It’s most of what gets communicated! “Nonverbal behaviors—facial expressions, gestures, intonation, proximity to one another, body language—are 65 to 70 percent of overall communication comprehension."
  • From birth, our babies track our smiles, tune into whether our tone is happy or angry, follow what we’re looking at. All without words. Later, when they point at something and say, “Dat?” they count on us to name it. When they ask for something and we look puzzled, they think, “Oh, she didn’t get what I said.
  • It’s more intricate than it might seem. When one person is talking, the other has to be quiet and listen. He also has to pay close attention and show with nods or uh-huhs that he’s following along. He has to hold back from interrupting until it’s his turn—and know when that is and what’s expected of him.
  • Babies need practice holding conversations with us even before they understand our words. Toddlers need to be encouraged to take their first stabs at joining us. And preschoolers and older kids—on up through the teen years—need to be engaged in lots of face-to-face talk.
Face-to-face talk

Good Things Happen To Good Conversationalists

1) They focus better in school.

Having basic social-communication skills allows kids to follow along when teachers point to the blackboard, and stay on topic during lessons—right from the start of school.

2) They advocate for themselves.

Being able to “read” others and know how to talk to them gives kids the power to stand up for themselves. Not only can they better ask for help, but they can challenge a teacher’s mistake, navigate friend drama, and even fend off bullies. With more power, they feel less frustration and show fewer behavior problems.

3) They’re better liked.

Kids like other kids who know how to say “Hi” and talk about stuff. You have more friends when you’re able to sort out differences, share, and empathize—and not hog the conversation or blurt out random things at inappropriate times. And you can bet that teachers, coaches, and future employers prefer such kids too.

Taking turns with confidence

How To Take Turns

  • You talk, I listen. I talk, you listen. Conversation is like tennis, volleying back and forth.
  • Conversational turn-taking starts with games like peekaboo and waving bye-bye. You cue the child to join in and have a back-and-forth interaction, following the child’s lead.
  • Normal, relaxed, give-and-take conversation is all it takes. 
  • Asking questions is a good tactic because it gives turn-taking a nudge. Sprinkle “ask words” into your kid talk: what, when, where, how. Learning how to ask questions is like building a bridge.
Bridging the conversation

Hear—hear to good listening and better conversations,

Papa Green Bean

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