Conversational Leadership

Conversational Leadership

The adult has cards to play in those emerging opportunities for conversations with children who are a bit harder to reach.

After adding the Responding Convention on the previous page to your set of tools, I expect you could now quickly say the most perfect thing when you hear a child say, “My dog is dirty and he needs a bath.”

  1. He stinks, huh? If that gets another initiation, it worked. If not, talk about yourself.
  2. I don’t like that smell. If that gets more, it worked. If nothing yet, time for a nudge.
  3. How does that work at your house?

Exactly what you were thinking, right? Hah. It takes lots of practice, but hey, you probably have lots more opportunities every day.

Sometimes it’s helpful to see a master at work. Anne Monica is one such expert. This recorded conversation of hers is a gem. I don’t think I have ever seen anything better. As you read through you can see how she used everything we have covered so far.

  • She is careful with topic continuity.
  • She beautifully paraphrases.
  • Her parallel personal comments open the doors to authentic connection.
  • The few leading queries are spot on Katie’s topic.

You can read this by yourself, but it’s better together. It’s worth your time to discuss with someone how these skills impacted what Katie shared. Two, or better three, heads are better able to imagine what opens for Katie after she hears what Anne says. So many subtleties reward a deep examination of what happened this day.

New Doll

Anne Monica is talking to Katie, who is four years old. Anne is sitting at an activity table when Katie walks into the room and sits down next to her.

  1. Anne: So what’s new with you today?
  2. Katie: I got a new doll.
  3. Anne: Really!
  4. Katie: Yeah, when you put on warm water it goes to sleep, and, actually cold water, and warm water opens her eyes.
  5. Anne: The dolls eyes open and shut.
  6. Anne: Do you dribble the water on, or do you give it a bath?
  7. Katie: With ice.
  8. Anne: Oooo—brrrr!
  9. Anne: Where do you put the ice?
  10. Katie: Right on her eyes. Then it goes to sleep.
  11. Anne: Her eyes close.
  12. Katie: Then when I put warm water on them and she wakes up.
  13. Anne: Her eyes pop open!
  14. Katie: (nods)
  15. Anne: I’ve never heard of that kind of doll before.
  16. Katie: (silence)
  17. Anne:  What’s the name of it?
  18. Katie: Eyes Alive. I got it at Toys R Us.
  19. Katie: My grandma bought it for me.
  20. Anne: You got to go with your grandma to Toys R Us!
  21. Katie: Yeah. She stayed overnight.
  22. Anne: I used to love it when my grandma would stay with us.
  23. Katie: I didn’t get any sleep. I feeled terrible.
  24. Anne: Uh-oh. How come?
  25. Katie: He was like pushing on the bed, pushing on the bed. I was like asleep. I said, “Jordan, stop it. Go to sleep.” And then he kept on doing it, and I had to sleep with my mom and dad.
  26. Anne: Your brother was bugging you so much you couldn’t get any sleep!
  27. Katie: Then I finally got to sleep. And my dad tippy-toed me all the way back. And Jordan kept pushing and pushing and kick, kick.
  28. Anne: Was it a bunk bed and you were on top?
  29. Katie: (nods head yes)
  30. Anne: I remember when my brothers used to do that to me, too!
  31. Katie: It’s no fun up there, ever. And I went in my room and my grandma was asleep and my grandpa was snoring and snoring.
  32. Anne: (laughs) So all that noise was keeping you awake again!
  33. Katie: (rolls her eyes) Yeah.
  34. Anne: Where did you finally go to sleep?
  35. Katie: In my mom and dad’s room. Then my dad took me back when Jordan was asleep.
  36. Anne: He waited a while for Jordan to go to sleep.
  37. Katie: Yeah. He was mad at Jordan.
  38. Anne: He was in trouble, huh?
  39. Katie: Yeah. He told him he better not do it again.
  40. Anne: Your dad was probably a little crabby from not getting enough sleep.
  41. Katie: Yeah. Me too sometimes.
  42. Anne: Well, I hope that doesn’t ever happen again.
  43. Katie: That’s for sure.

Note that the conversation shifts from something rather mundane, the new doll, to a humorous tale of a night to remember. Someone could make Katie’s bunkbed story into a delightful children’s book.

Task Eleven

How did the mundane topic shift into something important?

Anne’s responsiveness at #20 and #22 must have played a part in sending this conversation into Mutually-Enriching-Conversation-Land. I believe Anne’s voice tone of the #20 paraphrase must have conveyed her excitement at hearing of that opportunity to go shopping with Grandma. I can imagine an immediate connection being made. No longer is Anne pulling details of the Eyes Alive doll, which had to have become rather uninteresting to Katie after the cold/warm effect was covered. That paraphrase hit the really important part of the New Doll: Grandma! The Golden Topic.


Find the Golden Topic

I think one of the essentials of effective conversation leadership for the adult is looking for the perfect topic, trying to find the gold in in the sand. The child can’t assume the responsibility for reading how this conversation is going, recognizing the dullness, and scooping the next bit of gravel to swish around for something that flashes for you both. I believe Anne Monica saw Katie’s dull eyes and knew that the doll topic had run its course. One role in leadership is to recognize when you’ve got sand in the pan. The best conversations you have with your friends don’t continue without mutual interest. Sometime you might note how the topic in your own deep conversations came about.

Model Disclosure

Note how the exciting story of the great bunkbed disaster followed Anne’s #22 parallel personal comment. She shared her memory of her experience with her grandmother’s visiting and the linkage between Anne and Katie was complete. I have found, not only in this conversation but also in many, many conversations I have seen, that when the adult discloses something personal that the child does not know, the conversation is more likely to become significant. Our definition of A Mutually Enriching Conversation includes risk taking; if you want a child to take risks to share deeply, you have to model depth of disclosure yourself.

You might take a visit to the Children’s Conversation page at this point to read the extremely deep conversations young children have with each other. The Clay House is worth re-reading, for it demonstrates how natural these vital conversations are. Disclosure was right there with the children, without hesitation. Brianna can be a model for us all. I wish she could have been given immediate college credit.

Strike Up

You can push a conversation a bit to get one started. A little directness can be just the thing. One can’t just wait around for the children to start talking to you. If you do, you’ll only be talking to those skilled, conversationalist, delightful children and miss most of the introverts.

I have asked people to suggest ideas for the best leads. We would list them on the board and choose the best ones. “What’s new with you?”  (exactly what Anne Monica did above) “What have you been doing?” “I missed you. What’s been going on?” All of these present warm assertiveness without cuing a pat answer, like “How are you today?” Fine.

Ensure a Warm Closing

#42: “Well, I hope that doesn’t ever happen again.” brings closure. The story is over. This reminds me of how I was taught to tell oral stories to children: start with an opening, such as, “You want to hear a story?” and end with, “And that’s the story of…” Conversations need an ending, too. “I sure enjoyed talking to you.” “It’s always a joy to get to talk with you.” “That was fun.”

In marking closure the leader is setting up the disposition of eagerness for the next conversation. If this one works, and mark it as enjoyable, the child is likely to remember that talking to me was enjoyable. Then when she hears, “So, what’s up?” she might start right in. A conversation doesn’t have to be long in order to be enjoyable. Short exchange by short exchange, a warm closure increases the probability of another conversation occurring and eventually something you both look forward to. Gradually one can build a trusting relationship where Mutually Enriching Conversations — deep, satisfying ones — are possible any time you make the time to listen.

Make the Time

Organizing time is the responsibility of the educator. Mealtimes are often natural times to talk. Early arrivals and late departures offer opportunities, too. Like the Indicator Checklists, I found it most helpful to be proactive in finding those children whom I haven’t talked to. I post a conversation record, a new blank sheet every month or so, to help me find the empty boxes where I need to make the time.

convrecordA quick check of the chart, and I’m on alert for Malama, Deshawn, Shanda, Darden, Thomas, and Edmundo.

What to Do When You Don’t Understand

Awkward. If you pretend to understand when you don’t fully understand, you’re not being truthful. Children usually know that kind of thing immediately. You probably know it, too, when you try to fake it.

What to do? The most usual thing I see is the adult screwing up their face some way and saying, “What?”

Not the most lovely reaction and not usually effective either. Some children who are more difficult to reach might read this as their own failure. I’ve watched faces droop when I have done it (many times). “What did you say?” Laying the responsibility upon the child has a low probability of engendering enthusiasm. Because I experienced this so many times in my work with communication-delayed children, I took on the study of what to say.

“What?” doesn’t work because it is a demand. In harmony with everything else at this site, saying something that did not have a demand would be a better place to start. Non-demanding works much better, and you can prove it by your own investigation, if you want.

I explored this by watching people like Anne Monica and by asking my classes to work on solving this problem of what to do when they didn’t understand. That collection over the years naturally divided itself into three levels, which, when sequenced from light to heavy… (trumpets, please)…


Convention for Responding

Level 1 (non-demanding)

  • get close, lean down, stop, pause, major eye contact, sit down, tilt head — non-verbal physical actions
  • “I’m listening.” “I want to know what you’re telling me.” “Sorry, I didn’t hear.”subjective talk

Level 2 (demanding)

  • “Tell me again.” “Show me.” “Try different words.” “Let’s work at this.”direction
  • “Are you talking about ____?”  — question

Level 3 (disarming the tension)

  • hug, teasing touch, pat on shoulder, — non-verbal physical actions
  • “I like it when you tell me things.” “Next time we’ll get it.”disarming information

I go through these steps really fast. I pick one from each level, and if the first doesn’t immediately work, I move quickly to the second. If one of the Level 2 alternatives doesn’t immediately work, I disarm the tension and drop it. One failed communication attempt is a raindrop in the sea. No big deal. Worse is having anxiety linger (usually my anxiety is the most worse) and possibly carry over into the future.

  1. “I’m listening.” (pause, but no response coming)
  2. “Tell me again.” (pause, but still not understood)
  3. “No problem, we’ll get the next one.” The ordeal is over in under ten seconds.

Leadership Summary

  • Make the time, especially for those you might miss.
  • Strike up the conversation with a clever opening.
  • Search for a topic interesting to you both.
  • Share something rather personal on the child’s topic.
  • Bring closure by noting the pleasure you both are having.
  • Address miscommunication immediately.

In the Conversation Analysis that awaits next, you can look for each of these six touch-points of conversational leadership.


Focusing on my responsiveness when talking with children was eye-opening. It has really helped me improve my conversations. I loved the idea of charting how often I’m taking time to have a real conversation with each child. It has been very helpful to the overall quality of my teaching. — Sarah Gese

Now I really think about how to respond to children. It makes a huge difference when I take a moment to put something of myself into a conversation or to paraphrase to the child knows I am really hearing them. Adding personal stories has created far more great conversations. — Patrick Russell

The most valuable lesson for me is to be more open with children. They will be far more open with you if you give of yourself in a conversation. — Jillian Zillig

The conversation analysis will be challenging to do, but when you put your whole effort to it the rewards will be amazing! Your day at work will be so much better, and your relationships with the children in your class will grow so much stronger, since they feel you listen to them. — Mailyn Michelson

I can’t believe how learning this has cleared my head of junk. I think more clearly. The children are talking more. They appreciated it when I told them I was working on talking to them better. It’s also interesting to now be able to see immediately the children who have this in their homes. — Melinda Joki

Next Conversation Analysis