“Too often we have a hard time with real dialogue, because we aren’t really very interested in what the other person is saying or who they are. We’re waiting for them shut up so we can get our point in.”
With Thanksgiving just around the corner, this is perhaps a good time to review the art of making conversation at the dinner table. I talked about this last week with Greg and Lisa Popcak on their radio program More2Life. The topic of the show was “Talk to Me”: the Popcaks offered listeners some great tips on communicating effectively. If you want to listen to the whole show here it is; my bit starts about twenty minutes into the show.
I’ll focus on grown-ups making conversation with children or teenagers, but these tips apply equally to conversations with just about anybody. Here are three things you’ll need if you want to become (or if you want your child to become) a great “deipnosophist” (somebody skilled in table talk):
1. Take an interest in the other person in your table conversation (yes, even if it’s a kid!)
Listen: The most important element in great table conversation isn’t the talking; it’s the listening. Too often we have a hard time with real dialogue, because we aren’t really very interested in what the other person is saying or who they are. We’re waiting for them shut up so we can get our point in. I know this only because I am guilty of doing it all the time!
Ask questions: Be curious about what your child or young guest is saying at the table. Repeat back to them what you’re hearing them say, even if you think you disagree with them. You may discover something new and fascinating about your young conversation partner!
Let a problem simmer: When a child or teen is struggling aloud with a problem over dinner, we often have an urge to announce a solution immediately. When we do this, the conversation ends. Foster a child’s problem solving and speaking skills by guiding them through potential options or points of view, allowing them to explore and weigh solutions.
Becoming more attuned in our conversations at the dinner table not only makes the meal more pleasant, but helps us become better Christians, too. Theology of the Body affirms that we are made for communion and self-giving love, and this requires the ability to both reveal ourselves and really see the other person. The dinner table is the perfect place for families to practice this together, especially with kiddos.
2. Allow time for real conversation to unfold
You (or your child) won’t learn the art of conversation by taking a class. You learn it by doing it with real people, and kids will learn it by doing it with people they love and trust.
When I first met my husband, one of the things I loved about him was the way he could talk about just about any subject – politics, literature, religion – in depth, respectfully, and with passion. When I visited his family in New Zealand it all made sense. His family not only talks a lot while they are eating, but the sit around after dinner talking – sometimes for hours. I am grateful Barb & Ric prioritized table talk, because now I’m married to somebody who is helping our children enjoy it too.
We are all busy these days, often for good reason, but perhaps we can prioritize table talk at least one day a week. Ensure you aren’t rushed during dinner and allow time for debates and deep conversations to linger.
3. Have something to talk about: conversation starters
Some families have tons to talk about, but if you’re a quiet family and need some help getting started, plan conversation starters ahead of time. Have a basket of questions in the middle of the table. You can find conversation starter questions on-line or buy them (“Chat Packs” and “Table Topics” are bundled cards you can purchase), but you can also just make them up yourself. We featured conversations in two issues of Tender Tidings last year. You can find them here and here. The basic idea is to ask very open-ended questions: “What do you like to smell and why?”; “If you could have dinner with anybody in history, who would it be and why?”.
Another idea: If your children are older, read a newspaper column aloud at the beginning of dinner and then get their opinions about it. You can do something similar with poems. I’ve read a poem or saints story aloud to my children at lunch for many years. Sometimes they just think about it, and, to be frank, occasionally they seem distracted, but often they want to know more about what the poem or story means. A conversation begins.
Image credit: Monkey Business Images (thinkstockphoto.com)