Letters from Miss Jill: Endangered Conversations

By Jill Carstens

“Conversation stimulates, excites, and enables us to rise above ourselves. When we share ideas, when we press an argument, our minds are strengthened and stimulated,” asserts a 2014 “Psychology Today” article.

jill carstens
Jill Carstens

As a child, I witnessed my parents and grandparents sitting in the living room arguing or discussing topics prevalent in the early 1970s, like the Vietnam War or Nixon’s impeachment. Additionally, when my parents would have neighbors over, often sitting on our back porch, I was enabled a window into their conversations.

These were usually lighter topics, such as planning a ski trip or the latest restaurant in town. Although we had television as a distraction, it was not 24-hour programming back then and observing the adults was a form of entertainment.

By witnessing these scenes, perhaps I was unknowingly indoctrinated into the art of conversation. While more than one discussion could be happening within a group, often separated by genders, people took turns talking and listening. The art of conversation is not new, but it is endangered.

As I have shared numerous times, much evidence points to our early experiences as children influencing our adult selves. I was affected by observing my family’s verbal engagements and, although I had been a shy and quiet child, as I grew, I craved such interactions. I wanted to be heard and I also sought to hear and learn.

My son, fortunately, experienced a similar upbringing, perhaps heightened by being an only child. He has been included in adult conversations since he could put sentences together as a toddler. The benefit being, he is a great conversationalist. Sadly, he frequently complains that he cannot consistently find that skill among his peers. I will briefly point out, because I do blame it on a lot of issues, that having cell phones in our faces has not boosted our abilities to interact with one another face to face. Thus, I encourage parents to intentionally foster the art of conversation in and out of your home with your children.

There are so many benefits we can acquire by paying attention to the nuances of a quality discussion. One important nuance is being an attentive listener, which is a form of good manners anyway, validating the speaker. If we listen well, we can form a good and relevant question or comment back to the speaker and then, hopefully, they will comment on what we say, giving life to the conversation. These techniques are especially handy if the parties might not agree on a subject.

It is one thing to be a good listener with someone you are on the same page with, it is a whole other to sustain a civil conversation about a hot topic. Handy phrases can help with navigating difficult topics: “You have an interesting point of view,” “I’ll take your thoughts under consideration,” or “I see your point.”

If you would rather end a tough interaction, you can simply change the topic to something less controversial. Learning how to handle such interactions is invaluable as children grow and learn to participate in classes, endeavor their first jobs and, when they are ready for careers, conduct themselves professionally and successfully in a job interview.

At preschool, snack time presented a natural opportunity to interact all together. I would model asking questions as simple as, “What do you have for snack today?” One child often brought roasted seaweed as a snack and another child would express aversion to this food. I taught him how to express that thought politely. Rather than saying, “That’s yucky!” I would encourage him to share, instead, that he never tried seaweed before and ask, “What does it taste like?”

As the children played during the day my ears would be focused on their verbal interactions. If I found that one or two children were dominating the play, I would point out that the other individuals might have an idea to contribute and encourage the dominant speakers to ask them questions to be more inclusive. Meeting time was a great place to foster good discussions, especially after reading a story, taking turns listening to what everyone thought about the book.

As with so many things, you can never start too early and it is best to start early. We usually are not born with these skills. They evolve with experience and practice over time. Whether you have children or not, let good conversations be part of your 2023!

Jill Carstens taught for 30 years and now enjoys writing for this publication! Email her with comments or story ideas at jill@denvernorthstar. com.


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