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Creating Meaningful Conversation

Posted on: June 27th, 2012 by Anne Fishel, Ph.D

As a therapist, I find that the asking of questions is my ‘bread and butter.’ I try to ask a broad range of questions, as variety keeps conversation interesting, lively and meaningful.

I ask some questions to figure out what the problem is, and others to try to make new possibilities happen. For example, when I ask a man, “What’s the problem in your marriage?” I usually hear what he has been rehearsing in his head for weeks.  But when I ask instead, “What’s it like being married to you?” he has to reorient his perspective and consider himself from his partner’s point of view.

Similarly, at mealtimes, knowing how to sustain conversation and provoke thoughtful answers is important. Think of it this way: A diet of conversation starters won’t be any more satisfying than a meal composed of only an appetizer! So, how do we keep a conversation going? How do we deepen discussion and avoid shutting a conversation down by accident?

Let’s look at this conversation starter as an example: A parent asks, “What was the best thing that happened at school today?” and the child responds,  “Recess.”

Here are some sure-fire ways to stop the conversation in its tracks:

  • Negatively judging the response: “Do you think school is all fun and games? Didn’t you learn anything in class today?”
  • Persuading or cajoling your child to consider a different response: “Are you sure recess was the best thing about school today? I seem to remember that you were going to have a parent come in to read a story. Wasn’t that more fun than recess?”
  • Making the response a problem: “Why were you so relieved to get away from class and into recess? Did something bad happen in class today?”

Now, here are ways to deepen the conversation:

  • Questions that are pure curiosity: “Tell me more. What did you do? Who did you play with?”
  • Whimsical questions that introduce a new perspective:  “If I had been a bee on the swing, what would I have seen?”
  • Difference questions about your child’s experiences: “How was today’s recess different from yesterday’s? What made today’s more fun?”
  • Questions that prompt your child to talk about his or her success: “What did you do during recess that you were proud of or that you want to remember to do again?”
  • Questions that address what’s missing: If your child talks about feelings, you might ask:  “What were you thinking about?” If your child talked about today, you could ask: “What about tomorrow or yesterday?”
  • Inviting other family members into the conversation: “Recess makes me think of taking a break. What kinds of breaks do other people take during the day? What are your favorite ways to relax and recharge during the day?”

And don’t forget, children are question-asking engines, and we can surely let them do some of the question-asking, too. To give you an idea of just how much kids enjoy asking questions, consider this study from Stanford University: A researcher analyzed the recordings of four kids talking to their caregivers for over 200 hours, and found that the children asked one to three questions per minute. At that rate, they were on track to ask a total of 40,000 questions between the ages of two and five!

Sometimes, it may be helpful to think like a child and wonder, “What is it I don’t know?” By embracing the ‘not knowing,’ we can think of some of the best conversation-deepening questions.

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