Updated: Nov 20, 2020
Around the dinner table
My husband should be writing this post. He is the most easy going guy you'll meet. Seriously. Except when it comes to communication in our home. From the get-go one of the most important and no-contest values in our home has been that we do our very best to communicate well with one another. And one of the things that fires Tony up is when that’s not happening (and by ‘fired up’ I mean he’ll speak more firmly than he usually speaks, which is not very often).
This is something we're always trying to get better at around here. Always having to have the last word, inaudibly mumbling a response or continuously talking over each other. It happens in every home, right? Our most sacred times have become when we're around the dinner table. With older kids who work, who are in university or high school, who have separate social lives and who can drive away from you without asking because they own their own car, dinner with the whole family happens much less frequently than when the kids were little. Back then, there wasn't a night that we didn't have dinner together. Now those dinners seem few and far between. So when all five of us do sit around the table, Tony and I have lofty dreams of an hour-ish of blissful interesting conversation where everyone is engaged, asking each other pertinent questions and no one is mindlessly interrupting. Sometimes that happens...
Communication Skills and Quality Conversation
It’s one of those subjects that should be taught in school along with How to Budget, How to Fix Things Around the House and Ways to Show Kindness. Its a wide topic and one that can't be figured out in one blog post, that's for sure. It can sound like pretty basic stuff but it's not so easy to get the hang of if you’re not working on it regularly. I’m not even talking about the problem of devices. Having our faces glued to the screen has definitely pushed society into a universal communication downfall. But what are your communication skills like when the devices are not in hand?
Think about how many adults you know who:
don’t look at you in the eyes when having a conversation
regularly interrupt when you’re speaking
actually listen to what you’re saying
show they’ve heard by giving an appropriate response
When was the last time you met someone who chatted on and on and on for 15 minutes without once asking you anything about yourself? When was the last time you were the one chatting on and on and on without asking any questions? Our kids are watching, listening and following. Of course, conversation with good friends is different. I’m talking about conversation with family that you might not see all that often, the neighbour, the crossing guard.
Why do good conversation/communication skills matter? If we can teach our kids how to actually hear what a person is saying by learning to really listen; if we can teach them to not interrupt just to get their point across before the other person even has a chance to finish their sentence; and if we can help them to learn to ask questions to clarify that they actually understood their sibling/dad/friend, we'll be helping to set them up to to do well later on in life. They'll stand out at job interviews and as interns, they'll be ready and able to stick it out and come to a resolution when tough conversations inevitability arise with their significant other, business partner or in-laws.
Ask thoughtful questions
One of the most important communication skills you can teach your kids, please do this, is how to ask questions. Thoughtful questions. Questions that show their new friend, or grandpa or the babysitter that they are interested in them - that the other person matters. We need kids to grow up caring about other people. We can only care about what other people care about if we find out what matters to them, and the only way to do that is to ask questions. If asking questions doesn’t come naturally for your child, help them to come up with a specific question before your company arrives or before you check out your items with the grocery clerk. Even a, 'How are you?' or 'How's your day going?' to the cashier and then making eye contact while waiting for a response can be a touching gesture these days. Practice this skill with your son/daughter every time you’re with others and it will become a habit. Ok, I know it can't happen every time but just try as often as possible.
Asking questions demonstrates love and respect. When my son’s friends come over (a 16 - 18 year-old pack of loud, rambunctious hooligans who I love like my own), I offer a high five or a hug and I ask them questions about what’s been going on in their lives on since the last time I saw them. I hope this makes them feel welcome in our home, that they matter to us. (They also know not to stomp through our front door without saying hello. It’s not cool to ignore people who are right in front of you - I’ll always cheekily call the boys out if they haven’t said hi, much to my son’s chagrin. But I suppose he’s come to expect that of his dear mom. And they keep coming back so…)
Obviously, thoughtful questions and meaningful conversation can't happen every hour of the day. The laundry is piled up on the couch while in the kitchen, the pot is sputtering spaghetti sauce while the littlest in the family excitedly jumps up after peeing on the portable potty, spilling its contents - on the rug - while the dog is barking at the Fed Ex driver...real life. But it's important to try to spend time engaging in intentional conversation with your kids every day.
Carve out some time to:
Ask your kids thoughtful questions. Ask your child the kind of questions that won't allow for a one word response. Teach them how to ask at least one thoughtful question when they're having their own conversations.
Look your child in the eyes when they're speaking to you. Squat down if you need to. There, and now you've exercised too ;)
Listen to them. Really hear what they're saying and let them know you've heard them by how you respond.
Don't walk away when responding, don't be on your phone when responding.
Don't interrupt. Let them finish what they're trying to say.
We all know that the way we communicate shapes the way our kids will communicate. None of us is going to get it right all the time (or even half the time some days!) and so if these are not habits that you already have, start working on them. For your kids, it's never too young to start and if they're older, it's also never too late. They say that if you practice something everyday a new habit can form in as few as 18 days. And since you're likely to be talking with people on most days, you'll definitely get that practice in. So your whole family could be on your way to better communication and conversation in just three weeks! That sounded like an infomercial...
Keep at it. Help your kids be what the world needs right now - thoughtful, caring listeners who become clear and effective communicators. It can start around your dinner table tonight. Leave the piled laundry and soiled rug for another time...