A Mutually Enriching Conversation
Having done this with close to a thousand people, I’ve kept track of what they said happens in these favorite kinds conversations. I wonder if it fits your experiences. I have condensed their co-constructions into seventeen indicators.
Both parties are indicating they are listening by nodding their head, open facial expressions, and eye contact.
Both convey in their body language that they are interested, by leaning forward perhaps, tilting the head, facial messages, and hand movements, or, if over the phone, by voice tone and response time.
Both reply to the content of what the other person is sharing. In other words, the content of the reply matches the content of what was just said, which one can only do if one is listening carefully.
Both ask questions that help fill in the missing pieces in the listener’s imagined vision of the speaker’s story. The questions lead to a fuller explanation or exploration of dimensions not yet conveyed by the speaker.
No interruptions. Except for the brief-missing-piece questions described above, e.g., “Where was this?”, the speaker freely continues talking until the end of the thought.
Both make a true investment in the other person as if to say you are the most important person in the world to me right now in this time we have together.
Both indicate in their expression and posture a tangible expression of eagerness to know.
Both are taking the time, stopping being busy with other things.
Both can trust the other that whatever is discussed or disclosed remains privileged.
Both respect the other’s ideas and viewpoints, especially when there is disagreement.
Both know they will not be judged negatively or dismissed.
Both feel the joy of being free to share of their life, get difficult ideas vented, let it all hang out.
Both take a risk to share deeply and speak out fully.
Both are being straightforward and honest.
Both are willing to share their opinions and views in ways that are intended to be for the good of the other person.
In the end, each feels supported by the other.
Acceptance, love, and cherishing is communicated directly.
Let’s give a name to this special kind of conversation to honor its importance and declare its essentiality. We will call it A Mutually Enriching Conversation. Both parties are enriched by the exchange. Both enter as they are in that moment and leave altered in some way.
A Mutually Enriching Conversation
I wonder if you would also agree that the above characteristics of mutually enriching conversations, which we see in our best adult conversations, are the ideal we also seek in our conversations with young children. Would you agree this would be a desirable possibility? People I know would answer yes, agreeing that the best conversations they have with their children at home or in school have all of the same characteristics.
The study that follows, Cultivating Conversations with Children, can enable you to have mutually enriching conversations with every child. People who have done this work create them with almost every child they encounter. Of course, you can’t always make a mutually enriching conversation happen, but you can have a pleasant one that may evolve down the road. You are only half of the participants; the child has his or her part to play, too. We can optimize our half in a way that is most likely to succeed. It may take weeks or months to build the openness and trust necessary for a mutually enriching conversation, just as it happened in the past with your close friends.
To give you some idea what will happen, I have organized it as the first four steps of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
- Remembering (you receive and retain information).
- Understanding (you show comprehension by altering its form in a way that is sensible to you).
- Applying (you use what you understand in a practical way in either controlled or novel situations).
- Analyzing (you use tools take apart a complex experience to examine the pieces for the presence or absence of certain indicators).
In reverse order it’s easier to see:
- you have a conversation with a child and see if the indicators for a mutually enriching conversation are present: analyzing;
- before that, you apply concept of these indicators to real life problems: applying;
- before that, you put these indicators in your own words: understanding;
- and finally the beginning, you are exposed to the ideas of what these indicators are: remembering.
The first concept is A Mutually Enriching Conversation. In what we have done, I assume you have achieved #2 understanding. Now, let’s try #3 applying.
Does this Teresa conversation meet all of the seventeen criteria listed above? Does something need changing in the list?
Mother is in the process of feeding a solid food lunch to her seven-month-old daughter, Teresa, who is in a high chair with a tray alongside a table in the kitchen. The tray holds the bowl of food and a small, plastic teddy bear.
- Teresa: (bangs the bear on the tray surface while looking directly at her mother’s eyes) Aaaaahhhhh!
- Mother: (smiles at Teresa and spoons a bite into her mouth)
- Teresa: Mmmmm… (sounds made while eating the mouthful)
- Teresa: (puts the bear in her mouth)
- Mother: Are you finished eating?
- Teresa: (looks at her mother and continues to mouth the bear)
- Mother: (removes bear from Teresa’s mouth and says in a silly voice) Don’t eat the bear!
- Teresa: (looks down at the bowl of food)
- Mother: (glances down at the bowl, too)
- Mother: Here’s more food.
- Teresa: (looks at her mother)
- Mother: (puts food in Teresa’s mouth)
- Teresa: (in a high shrill voice) Whuh whuh (bangs the bear)
- Mother: Oh, you like that. (smiles) You’re having a good time.
After a bit of discussion all the people I have done this with have agreed that the dimensions of A Mutually Enriching Conversation are present (or reasonably assumably present) in this example. If an adult can have a mutually enriching conversation with a non-verbal seven-month-old, it also seems reasonable to expect that the concept of A Mutually Enriching Conversation is applicable to adult-child conversations with children of other ages. Oral fluency on the part of the child is not essential.
With A Mutually Enriching Conversation as a goal, how do we get there? What makes a conversation enriching? If we had an example of a conversation, we could analyze what is going on with four tools.
Conversation Analysis Tools
Like train cars on a train, are the topics attached? Is one thought coupled to the next thought or did the train come apart? When the train uncouples, we have a topic change.
Many systems exist for coding the function or purpose of statements people make. I have tried several of coding systems over the years and finally developed my own five part code. I like it because it gets the job done quickly, and the numbers it provides are quite indicative of performance. Each statement a person makes in a conversation can be coded with one of five letters: I S Q T D.
I noticed that people who children seemed to love to talk to were very responsive in their demeanor. I wanted to figure out what responsiveness was exactly and came up with seven types of responsiveness and a Responding Convention, an ordered sequence that seems to work best.
Adults and children come with expectations of power: adults have more power than children. They are bigger, know more things, have had more experience, and if they have greater language fluency, they have more power. If the child has the greater language fluency, the child has more power. Along with the recognition of the power differential comes the responsibility to use that power in a beneficial way to open, to model, and to conclude a conversation.
The most important understanding that emerged for me is the specific details of the kind of talk the children need in order to feel comfortable and eager to share of themselves. — Wikanda Lemongkol
Now that I have learned how to have a successful conversation with children, my conversations go on longer, and I learn more about the person I am talking to. I can now see what is actually happening and work on doing what I need to do now that I have the right tools. — Jessica Komenda
Children need to feel like they can talk openly, share their feelings, and be listened to on a regular basis from the youngest ages. Without that opportunity we are doing them a great disservice. — Jane Pendras-Verdon
This has made such a huge difference in my life. My children are having more powerful, rich and fulfilling relationships, and my life has become less stressful and more rewarding. I have reached a whole new level in my relationships with children. — Yolanda Edwards
So many distractions occur during the day that keep us from taking the time to listen to children, and other adults, too. When we are able to sit and be present, we form relationships and cultivate new understandings. Allowing time to listen allows time for mutually enriching conversations. If we spend all our time running around and getting things done, we have little time to form authentic, close relationships with those around us. — Carrie Smart