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Welcome to part two of our conversations theme! This part will cover initiating conversations, ending conversations, interruptions, monitoring length of turn, and picking up on social cues.
1) Initiating a conversation
This is a really difficult task, even for people without social learning challenges. The first step is to ‘read the room’ to determine if it’s an appropriate time and/or place to start a conversation. Lunch at school is a great time and place, but in the middle of Algebra is not. A place where people are waiting is usually acceptable (waiting room, public transportation, in line at a store), but not if the intended conversation partner is on the phone or talking to someone else.
*Note: If you are initiating a conversation with someone you know, you can typically do so with a basic conversation starter. Examples include:
Hey, what’s up?
How are you?
How was your weekend?
What are you up to?
How have you been?
Initiating a conversation with a stranger or acquaintance takes a little more work as these openers would typically make a stranger or acquaintance feel a bit uncomfortable. The remainder of this section applies to initiating a conversation with a stranger or acquaintance.
Once it’s been determined that the conditions are appropriate, think of something you notice about that person as a starter. We typically recommend things that are outside the torso area so our intentions aren’t misinterpreted. Maybe you notice their jewelry, or their awesome boots, or that they are holding a book you have read. Maybe they have the new iPhone you have been waiting for. Or they are wearing a hat from your favorite sports team.
Mention what you notice, and include WHY you notice it. For example, “I like your earrings. Dolphins are my favorite animal”, is more open than “I like your earrings.” And, “Hey, I’m a Spurs fan, too!” is more likely to get a response than, “Cool hat.”
The next step is to continue this conversation using the reciprocal steps outlined in the previous blog. Take turns asking and answering questions about the topic. Only change topics if you can find a way to connect them. Remember that others can’t see your thoughts, so just because you see the connection doesn’t mean your conversational partner will.
During the conversation, assess for signs that this person is interested in the conversation. The most obvious signs are giving eye contact, asking questions, and expanding on answers. Most of the time someone who doesn’t look at you, doesn’t ask questions, and responds to questions with brief answers is not interested in having the conversation. While it may seem personal, it most likely isn’t. Sometimes people are distracted, in a hurry, having a difficult day, not overly social, or just not in the mood to chat. Don’t assume it has anything to do with you. My husband will chat with anyone and everyone, while I am much more introverted and prefer to keep to myself.
If your goal is just to be friendly/social with strangers, you will most likely never introduce yourself during these chats. But if your goal is to develop relationships with people you already know, like work or school acquaintances, the introduction comes toward the end of the conversation. It usually sounds something like this: “Oh, by the way, I’m Stephanie.”
2) Ending a conversation
Ending a conversation can be awkward. It is often recommended to use an excuse, sometimes referred to as a ‘cover story’. This can be true or made up, but must be realistic. Examples include:
I’ve gotta go now
I don’t want to be late to class
I’ve got to get back to work
My ride is here
After giving a cover story, we use what I refer to as a ‘social nicety’. Social niceties are things we do just because they give other people good thoughts about us. Examples include saying excuse me, saying hello to people we know, covering our mouths when we yawn or sneeze, moving over to let someone pass, saying please and thank you, etc. A great social nicety for ending a conversation with someone you know is, "It was good to see you." For people we don't know or just met, a great social nicety to use is, "It was nice talking to you."
Then, we say goodbye. This is context-dependent, meaning we may use different words depending on who we are talking to. If it is someone our age or younger, we can say, “See ya!” or “Catch ya later.” However, those would not be appropriate to say to someone older than us. For someone older, the typically accepted salutation is simply “Bye!”
*Side note: We are also expected to greet people differently based on age. For people our age or younger, we may say, “Hey!” or “What’s up?” For someone older than us, it’s more socially acceptable to say “Hello” or “Hi”. If we are really familiar and comfortable with someone older, “Hey!” may be appropriate, but not “What’s Up?”
When you have followed these steps, walk away. If you use a cover story, you have to at least pretend like it’s true! If you say you have to go somewhere but you stick around after saying bye, it may cause the other person to think you didn’t want to talk to them anymore. Even if your cover story was made up, walk away after you end the conversation.
Most social conversations involve some level of interrupting, especially if we know someone well. With interruptions, it’s the frequency that matters. Interruptions also cause people to think they aren’t being listened to, which is a quick way to make them want to end the conversation. If our goal is to learn more about this person, we can’t do that by constantly talking over them. Interruptions also cause people to think that you believe what you have to say is more important than what they have to say. While that may be true, our social filter should kick in and prevent us from doing things that make other people feel that way.
For people who struggle with regulating their urge to interrupt, I recommend they practice conversations with only one other person. Each time you add a person to a conversation, it gets exponentially more difficult. If you are playing singles tennis, you only have to think about one other person. Change that to keep away, and now there are two people to think about. Back to tennis, but this time doubles, and it’s a lot to keep up with. Now switch to a basketball team where you are one of five. When your brain is wired to think mainly about yourself, that gets overwhelming pretty quickly. Just like in sports, we all want to be around ‘team players’. From a conversational perspective, that means recognizing you are a part of the conversation, but the conversation doesn’t revolve around you.
4) Monitoring length of turn
This can really be a challenge for people who struggle with social awareness. Sometimes it relates to language difficulties, like having a hard time expressing your thoughts verbally, and sometimes it relates to an inability to monitor social cues. When people talk too long, it is sometimes referred to as ‘monologuing’ or ‘downloading’. It was recently pointed out to me by one of my students who is majoring in computer science that ‘downloading’ wouldn’t be the correct term, but I didn’t make it up! I just use it!
Downloading can really be a challenge for students who know a lot about specific things. It can be difficult for their brains to understand that most other people don’t want to hear a lecture about their topic of interest. It’s also a challenge for students who are at the earlier stages of conversational skills since they often don’t have information about a range of topics to engage in. The third, and sometimes overlapping, group are students who want to be seen as smart. They miss the invisible line between ‘smart’ and ‘smart aleck’ and often the point of their communication is to demonstrate how much they know (and sometimes how much you don’t!).
When I teach kids about interrupting, I concurrently teach about length of turn. Most lessons on interrupting just teach that it’s bad and you shouldn’t do it. But the flip side is helping students understand that they may actually be causing it! If you keep getting interrupted, there’s a good chance you are talking too long! This came up in a middle school group recently where two students with very similar skillsets kept getting frustrated with each other for interrupting. When I explained to each separately that they were getting interrupted because the other had been waiting a while to speak, it was an ‘aha’ moment for both.
5) Picking up on social cues
This isn’t just about conversations, this is about everything, all the time! But I’ll be more concise for the purpose of this blog. It can be difficult to work on conversational skills with a group of kids with social learning challenges because they don’t tend to give off social cues for us to learn from! Mike always has his head on the table, so it doesn’t mean he’s bored. Shelley doesn’t make eye contact, so it doesn’t mean she isn’t interested. And Byron struggles with regulation, so when he interrupts it doesn’t mean you were talking too long.
On the flip side, it can be difficult to work on any social skill with neurotypical peers. Neurotypical peers often either don’t give feedback because they are trying to be polite, or they give negative feedback. Neither of those is helpful! At Starfish Social Club, we teach all our students to give each other feedback appropriately. Just this week I had fourth graders prompting each other with, “Please don’t interrupt.” I had middle schoolers say, “I’m kind of losing interest. What else can we talk about?” I even had an adult student ask, “Am I asking too many questions?” to which a peer replied, “Yes!” While the concept of a group of socially challenged peers working on skills they all lack sometimes gets a bad rap, they actually give each other feedback if they are taught to do so correctly. Without feedback, there is no growth!
So back to the point about social cues. We’ve talked about watching for things like eye contact and asking questions. Other cues include smiling, nodding, and body language. Body language includes things like turning your body toward your partner/group, body open (as opposed to arms crossed), leaning in, and staying in one place. While the absence of these things doesn’t necessarily mean that person isn’t interested, the presence of them almost certainly means they are.
Other cues that typically indicate disinterest include looking at a watch or phone (either constantly or intermittently), turning towards other people and saying something specifically to them, or just blankly staring without any response.
The end of the conversation is a good time to look for cues as well. If you use a social nicety, notice whether it was or wasn’t returned. If you introduce yourself, do they do the same? Do they give a cover story before the conversation is over? These are all cues that can help us figure out whether this person is/was interested in the conversation. Not all of them are 100% accurate, but they are definitely worth watching for and analyzing. This also means it’s important that WE give off cues of interest as well. We should be using socially appropriate body language, responding to and asking questions, and using social niceties.
While we can’t make other people want to talk to us, we can definitely increase the chances by engaging in socially expected behavior. Wishing you social success as you try these skills!