Conversation habits have a huge impact on how we relate to our families. When done well, conversations can be powerful tools for weaving a family together. But when handled poorly, they can unravel the threads of connection.
For instance, have you ever had something important on your mind, but kept it to yourself because you knew your family would respond negatively? On the flip side, have you ever had an idea or a problem, and couldn’t wait to tell your family to get their feedback?
Meaningful conversations are more likely to happen in an encouraging environment, where people feel safe and secure. This guide is meant to help you create that atmosphere with positive conversation habits. By listening and asking constructive questions, you can “make it matter” at the dinner table, and help your family members open up about their feelings, experiences, challenges and hopes.
First, it’s important to recognize the habits you want to change. Does your family sometimes fall into old patterns, like arguing, teasing, or blaming? These “conversation stoppers” can shut down discussions, leading people to feel unsafe or unwelcome, and causing them to react with defensiveness, aggression, or silence.
Examples of Conversation Stoppers:
- Accusing the speaker of negative intent (even if they haven’t finished speaking)
- Taking over the conversation
- Changing the subject
- Refusing to let someone speak
- Going off on tangents
- Teasing and sarcasm
- Lack of curiosity (disinterest can bring a quick halt to any conversation)
- Questions that make people feel judged, shamed or instructed
- Questions that aren’t questions, but directives (“Don’t you think you should look for a different job?”)
Alternatively, conversation deepeners can open the discussion up. They can allow people to see things from a fresh perspective, and leave them feeling heard, accepted and cared for. But like all skills, conversation-deepening skills require some practice.
Examples of Conversation Deepeners:
- Let the speaker know you’re listening by nodding, making eye contact, and asking questions to make sure you understand him.
- Draw people out by asking open-ended questions that invite expansive answers. (“What else?”)
- Explore the language people use and the thinking behind their statements.
- Ask questions that are constructive, resource-seeking and forward-moving. For example, ask about hopes and positive achievements, rather than mistakes or regrets.
- Ask someone to say more about the things she finds meaningful.
- Ask questions that invite the speaker to go beyond “black and white” thinking by exploring complexity.
Jerry and Adina always got home in the afternoon, and prepared supper together. As they worked, Jerry would ask “How was work?”, and Adina would say, “Fine,” “Not so great,” or another small phrase.
When she said, “Fine,” Jerry would nod and say, “Good,” and then move into silence. When she said something negative, especially about her demanding job at a health clinic, he would try to encourage her by saying, “Well, shouldn’t you just be grateful you still have a job?” Both responses left Adina feeling like Jerry didn’t really want to know what was going on with her, and thought he was just asking questions because he was “supposed to.” Jerry, for his part, could not understand why Adina seemed so sullen and removed when he tried to talk to her.
When the opportunity to attend a workshop on “family communication” was offered by their synagogue, they decided to go and learned about better ways to connect. The day after the workshop, Jerry tried asking Adina more thoughtful and specific questions about her day, such as “Who did you help today?” When he heard the answer, he went even further, and asked, “How did you help?”
Adina returned the favor by initiating conversation about Jerry’s work as a reporter: “What was the most interesting story you covered today?” She followed this with a request to read the article he’d written that day. Over time, the changes they made to their conversations led to changes in their relationship: more closeness, curiosity and involvement in each other’s lives.