Conversational Leadership

Conversational Leadership

The adult has cards to play in order to optimize the opportunities for conversations with children who are more reticent.

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

  1. He stinks, huh? If that gets another initiation, it worked. If not, go to #2.
  2. I hate that. If that gets more, it worked. If not, time for a nudge #3.
  3. How does that work at your house?

Exactly what you thought, right? Hah. Like everything, practice, practice. To offer a bit of encouragement, here’s a recorded conversation by a master, Anne Monica. As you read through you can see how she was using everything we have covered so far. She is careful with topic continuity, paraphrases, parallel personal comments, and leading queries 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.

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 an amazing tale of a terrible night to remember. Someone could make this into a children’s book!

Why did the topic shift into something more 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! Golden topic achieved.

Find the Golden Topic

I think one of the essentials of effective conversation leadership for the adult is looking for the perfect topic like a prospector panning for gold. The child can’t assume the responsibility for reading the flow, finding the dullness, and taking on the search for something that flashes the gravel. I believe Anne Monica was searching for something better when she saw the doll topic dull Katie’s eyes. She knew that a Mutually Enriching Conversation was not going to happen on the doll topic. I also believe when your own eyes dull, you’ve got just gravel in the pan. The best conversations you have with your friends are not about anything either of you think is going nowhere. Next time you have a great conversation with a friend, I invite you to note how your golden topic arose.

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.

Get Closure

#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

what2Awkward. If you pretend to understand when you don’t full understand is not being authentic. Children figure that out immediately. You do, too, when that happens to you. A general habit I see is the adult screws up his face some way and says, “What?” Not the friendliest reaction, especially for a lower-skilled child who might take this as a lesson that he can’t talk well. I’ve watched it happen and done it myself many times. “What did you say?” has a very low probability of getting a further communicative attempt from a child.

Because I felt so anxious myself so often in my work with communication-delayed children, I studied what to say. “What?” wasn’t working, and the reason is that it’s a demand. In harmony with everything else at this site that works, non-demanding would be more effective. It’s true. Non-demanding works much better, and you can prove it by your own research, if you want. I compiled a list of the ways people responded when they didn’t understand. The list naturally broke into three levels, which, when ordered, (trumpets, please) a convention of 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