I spent a chunk of my weekend transcribing some interviews I’d conducted with people about church-based ESL ministries. Let me just say that producing transcripts is not a career I ever want to pursue! Even so, it’s really been worthwhile for picking up details that hadn’t stuck in my mind.
One thing that impressed me was an observation one veteran ESL teacher made: most Australians aren’t good at sustaining a conversation (beyond the meet-and-greet stage), especially with people whose English isn’t great.
This rings true for me. I really need to work on my ‘BBQ skills’ — you know, those conversational strategies you use at a BBQ, where you’re interacting with people you barely know.
Not just asking questions all the time (being bombarded by questions with little chance to reciprocate can feel like an interrogation). But exchanging stories. Taking a genuine interest in the other person. And showing it.
I recently read these 5 non-question based strategies for sustaining a conversation:
- Make observations about physical facts — saying ‘You’re smiling a lot’ or ‘I can see tears in your eyes’ is less interrogative than ‘What’s got you so happy?’ or ‘Why are you crying?’
- Comment on how things seem to be to you — saying ‘You seem kind of agitated’ can be less direct and demanding than asking ‘What’s bothering you?’
- Use “I” statements — explicitly and verbally taking responsibility for your reaction to something or your need for clarification, can (bizarrely) often take the heat or awkwardness off one of those potential conversation killer moments.
- Say “Tell me (more) about…” something that’s popped up in conversation — it might seem pretty direct and demanding with no relational context, but the interest it communicates (e.g., showing you’re listening well enough to pick up a specific detail) can really move things forward.
- Employ sounds and grunts as well as body language — used judiciously these kind of prompts can really draw someone out.
Basically, it’s about showing interest and concern while letting your conversation partner set the ‘agenda’ (in terms of how mucht o share and at what pace).
What BBQ skills have you picked up?