The Family Cook-In Part 5: How To Carry On A Meaningful Conversation

Families use good listening skills and add to the conversation

Families use good listening skills and add to the conversation

by donR    March 6th 2016

The Family Dinner Project website has “tons of conversation starters” appropriate for any age level and on a variety of topics. These prompts can be written on cards and shared during the family dinner. This is just one of their many strategies  for promoting thoughtful conversation and this is the easy part. Yes, I repeat: “Starting a conversation is easy” …compared to “Carrying On A Meaningful Conversation.” Read more about how to keep a conversation going.

Conversations start when a person makes a comment or asks a question and it can end abruptly when there is no reaction from the listener. The intended person may simply walk away, change the subject, fall asleep or just turn a deaf ear. The intended listener may have any number of reasons for not engaging.  

What to do?  The speaker can restart the conversation by first saying the listener’s name to get their attention, repeating, rephrasing, or changing the comment or question. However this may not be a problem at the family dinner table when everyone agrees to a few principles that promote positive conversations. Here are a few suggestions that might help everyone at the dinner table contribute engage in fruitful discussion..

  Brainstorm ideas with your family to compile a short list of expectations for all family members. Focus on just 2 or 3 each day so its not too restrictive. Examples might include:

  • Be an active listener by facing the speaker, making eye contact and nodding  to show you understand or agree
  • Listen to the whole story before forming an opinion
  • One speaker at a time
  • Pause once in a while to recap, summarize, paraphrase or clarify
  • Keep distractions away from the table (cell phones, MP3 players,  homework)

⇒ Keep a conversation going by:

  • Asking a related question or for clarification
  • Using the word “AND” followed by a supporting idea or new information.
  • Making comments like “This is interesting” or “I have another thought.”
Your body language can kill a conversation. Be an active listener & respect other opinions.

Your body language can kill a conversation. Be an active listener & respect other opinions.

⇒ View conflicting ideas as a positive way to keep the conversation going. Be open- minded when conversing with older children and adults. Agree to sometimes disagree. Or, have fun by appointing a Devil’s Advocate” to think of opposing viewpoints.

⇒Keep reminding  your family that every idea or comment has value and all ideas are welcome.  When a family member says something silly or off topic, turn it around and make it part of the conversation. Remind them to have fun while practicing communication skills and everyone does not have to respond to every topic.

Visit us for age-appropriate conversion starters

Visit us for age-appropriate conversion starters

But, it is easier to have continuing discussions when the topics are appropriate for the person’s age, experiences and emotional maturity. The Family Dinner Project Conversation Starters are grouped by age level.  Avoid abstract topics with youngsters. Embarrassing or volatile topics can be made off-limits with young adults at the table. However, conversations can be fruitful in that gray area when families have complete trust in each other and empathy for those struggling with personal issues. Otherwise  keep conversations light and fun.

⇒ And lastly, know that everyone’s attention span differs and we all learn more by listening than talking. So keep the conversation moving by deciding how long each member can talk before passing the soap box to the next speaker.

note: The author taught in the Public schools for 31 years and the last 11 were at Clearview Alternative High School.  Advisory classes (aka core classes) were designed to promote constructive conversation on any topic. Many students gained in confidence, exhibited tolerance for opposing ideas and learned to express themselves with truth and conviction. Meaningful conversation at the dinner table makes a difference.

For an in-depth discussion regarding “active listening” as an interpersonal skills visit: