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By Nadine Briggs & Donna Shea
The art of personal conversation seems to be lost among kids and teens today. With the advent of social media, texting, online gaming, it’s no wonder that children and teens often have trouble making small talk. They freeze up when asked to speak to someone on the phone. It’s just not how they communicate on a regular basis. The good news is that you can teach conversation skills and here are some of our top tips on how (tips 2-10 are excerpts from How to Make and Keep Friends: Tips for Teens on Life and Social Success).
1. Kids and teens need to understand why small talk matters. When we are initially getting to know someone, small talk is a tool we use to break the ice and lay a groundwork of ease with potential new friends. Imagine if people you have recently met spoke what was really on their mind. “Hi, I’m Jim. I need an oil change after work today.” Now that would just be weird. That’s why we say “Hi, I’m Jim. Can you believe this great weather we’re having?” Small talk also gives you a chance to assess whether this person wants to engage in a conversation with you at all. It can also give you a little insight into their likes or dislikes. If they don’t want to discuss something unimportant with you, they may not want to have a more in-depth discussion. They might not be interested in conversing in that moment at all.
2. The topics that another person wants to talk about may not be of interest you. Instead of letting them know that you are disinterested, which would be considered rude, listen politely and pretend interest in what they are saying. Pretending, in this case, doesn't mean that you are a fake person or that you are lying. You might even find that you learn something. By not considering your interests at that moment, it shows the other person that you care about them enough to hear about their interests. If someone is talking about a topic that you don’t want to talk about or find uninteresting, try to find a point where you can change the subject to something that interests both of you.
3. If the conversation becomes quiet, it is probably time to switch topics and ask the other person a different question. You don’t need to act funny or entertaining the whole time you are with someone to fill the empty spaces in conversations. It is okay to show different sides of your personality so they can see you as a multi-faceted person. Even if many topics aren’t interesting to you, it would be helpful to know a little bit about everyday teen conversation topics. It is useful to learn a little about popular TV shows and music, sports teams, and current events.
4. If you switch topics too quickly, or without letting the other person know, they might not understand and may become confused. If you wish to change topics, use a topic-switching statement. For example, “This isn’t on the subject, but I wanted to tell you,” or, “Before I forget, I wanted to mention,” could both be used to change the topic.
5. Try using a connecting statement so that the other person understands what your brain is thinking and linking in a conversation. For example, you could say, “I know that we were just talking about who has pets, and I forgot to mention that my aunt’s puppy, Sam, had to go to the vet yesterday.” If you just said, “Sam was sick,” the other person would not know who Sam was or what had happened to him.
6. People sometimes get stuck on just talking about their favorite topic, whether it be weather, history, video games, or something else. If you are in a conversation with someone who does this, it is okay to say something like, “I’m not really into _____, but it’s cool that you like it,” and then switch the topic. Be open to being polite and listening more about the other person’s interest or topic. You may learn something new.
7. Watch the other person to observe if they look bored with your topic. If the person isn't paying attention anymore, isn't looking at you, is checking their phone, or seems impatient, then it’s possible that they are no longer interested.
8. Make a mental list of other topics that you can talk about so that the conversation isn’t always the same. Pay attention to your friends’ social media so that you can follow up in person on some of the things they are doing.
9. When someone starts a conversation with you, try to remember to find a way to relate what they are saying to your experiences. You can then comment or, if you can’t relate, think of a follow-up question to ask. Asking additional questions will help you to keep the conversation going longer.
10. As you get to know someone better, it is okay to begin to have deeper conversations by sharing details of your life. Imagine an information funnel where, at the small tip of the funnel, you share a little about yourself or make small talk. As you get to know the person better, you can slowly reveal more details about your life. It is off-putting for most people if you give too much information about your life at the beginning of a relationship.
Making friendly conversation takes thought and for some of us, practice, but knowing how to talk about the small things paves the way to add more personal content to the conversation, at that is how real friendships begin.
Nadine Briggs, Director of Simply Social Kids, holds dual-graduate level certifications in Coaching Children & Teens and Coaching Children and Teens with ADHD. She has certifications in positive psychology, and the Girl Meets World curriculum and has had training through the Child Anxiety Network. Donna Shea, is the Founder of the Peter Pan Center for Social and Emotional Growth and holds a BA in Behavioral Science from Lesley University in Cambridge and is a pioneer in the concept of a non-clinical approach to social-emotional learning. Shea’s award-winning programs have been helping children achieve social success for over fourteen years. Briggs and Shea have certification in bullying prevention through the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center.
Both Briggs and Shea are parents of children with specific needs that include Down Syndrome, ADHD, Anxiety, OCD, and Sensory Processing Disorder. They are passionate about helping kids make and keep friends and together formed How to Make and Keep Friends, LLC. Each facilitates community-based social learning groups at their centers in Massachusetts and have created the Social Success in School initiative. This comprehensive group of programs for students, educators, and parents is designed to foster positive social skills and interactions at school and among students. Their focus is to pro-actively prevent bullying before it happens with a focus on strategies and tools to build confidence, promote kindness and empathy, accept differences and teach conflict resolution.