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Family Starts with Two

Initiating Deeper Conversations

“Avoiding One-Word Answers” is a popular Family Dinner Project blog by Anne Fishel, Ph.D., Director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. In the piece, Dr. Fishel offers tips to help parents have more and better conversations with kids who are reluctant to talk at the end of a long day.

As we all know, the problem of one-word answers and feeling less than enthusiastic about conversation after a hard day isn’t exclusive to kids; many adults are prone to giving one-word answers as well. As Dr. Fishel points out:

“I don’t know about you, but when I come home from a long day at work, I like to change my clothes, grab a handful of almonds (or cookies if it’s been a particularly challenging day), and curl up with the newspaper. I’d rather not answer a whole lot of questions until I’ve had a chance to decompress.”

Sound familiar?

The truth is, most of us go through social peaks and valleys during the course of a day. That’s normal, but it can lead to frustration and hurt feelings when all you want to do is catch up with your partner after hours apart…and all he or she wants to do is be left alone. These tips can help you both understand each other’s needs during the transition between work and home life, and help you initiate deeper, more rewarding conversations.

Stave off starvation.

Many people shut down socially when they’re hungry. Make sure you pay attention to your own needs and grab a healthy snack if you need one; respect your partner’s need to have a bite to eat upon arriving home as well. If it’s possible, a nice gesture for both of you would be to set out a plate of sliced fruit and cheese, nuts and olives, or vegetables with dip for snacking. You might even find that conversation opens up naturally over a shared snack.

Hold off on the housekeeping.

It can be tempting to check items off your mental to-do list as soon as you have your loved one’s attention, but try not to start the evening with mundane items like questions about household maintenance, bill-paying, coordinating schedules, or other day-to-day tasks. Take some time to reconnect before you turn the topic to your to-dos.

Have a follow-up question in mind.

Before you and your partner arrive home at the end of the day, try to think of one or two questions you want to ask to follow up on conversations you’ve had recently. Asking about how that project at work got resolved, or whether they ever heard back about that interesting opportunity, shows that you’ve been listening and you care about what they have to say.

Respect their routine.

Some people really just can’t engage in meaningful conversation until they’ve fully transitioned into the next phase of the day. If this sounds like your partner (or you), don’t fight it. Pay attention to the cues and look for signs that the transitional ritual is ending—he’s back in the kitchen after changing clothes, she’s poured herself a beverage and opened the mail— and be available to talk then.

Be direct.

Sometimes you may need to say, “I really want to talk to you, but I’m just so exhausted right now and I’m focused on trying to get the groceries put away and dinner cooked. Can we catch up in a few minutes?” Or you might need to acknowledge your partner’s feelings: “I feel like you’re too tired to talk about the day right now. Do you want to take a little time to yourself and then we’ll talk later? Is there anything I can do to help you de-stress?”

Chances are, if the two of you each have a chance to set aside the stressors of the day, you’ll both be more eager to initiate meaningful conversations. You’ll also be more likely to listen more intently and respond more thoughtfully. And don’t forget to put down your phones, turn off the TV, and close the laptop so you can focus on each other.