Handle awkward date silences, end a conversation with a stranger – plus chat with your children, your parents, and your boss. Our panel shares their secrets.
Children often don’t have the words to say what they’re feeling, and they don’t always understand what we’re looking for when we ask them questions. So if you ask, “How was your day?” and you’re met with a grunt or a shrug, it’s not because your child is trying to hide something from you. It’s because they don’t see why you could possibly want to know, or which part of their day you’re interested in. It can help to make your questions more specific: “What was the best thing about your day? What was the hardest thing?” And, of course, it helps if you are really listening. We often don’t give children our full attention.
Try to meet your child’s emotions, rather than telling them how to feel. If your child comes home saying, “I hate everyone in my class”, your first reaction might be, “That’s not a nice thing to say”, or, “Things can’t be that bad.” Try to pay attention to the feeling rather than the content. Help them find other words to draw out their emotions – “It sounds like you had a really bad day” – so they can talk about it in a different way.
With younger children, visual cues and games can be a helpful way of piecing things together. If you’re trying to find out who they play with at school, you might get them to draw a picture of their friends, say. Repeating back to a younger child what they have said makes them feel heard. And if you’re talking about difficult topics, break them down into manageable chunks.
Teenagers often respond better if you’re doing something alongside a conversation, so they don’t have to give you a lot of eye contact, even if it’s just washing up or talking when you’re in the car. Using a bit of humour can help to defuse the tension, and watching films with older kids can be a good way to broach difficult subjects.
Use visual exercises with younger children to help them explain what’s going on.
Respect the importance of what they’re talking about; avoid saying, “It’s just a silly worry.”
Model good ways of communicating with other adults. Let children see you argue and make up.
How to Talk to… Strangers, by Susan Roane, Author of How to Work a Room
Most of us find the prospect of walking into a room full of strangers daunting. Instead of thinking, “Who will I have to talk to tonight?” say to yourself, “I wonder who I’m going to get to meet tonight.”
There’s a phrase I like to use: “The roof is an introduction”, which means that if you’re in the same place, you always have something in common. Remember that most people in any room feel uncomfortable. If we can be aware of that, and think, “What can I do to make other people feel comfortable with me?” that’s not just a great strategy for socialising – it’s a kindness.
I often borrow stories. I’m not a dog person, but if someone else wants to talk about dogs, that’s fine. I just mention something my friend Jim told me about his dogs. I don’t pretend it’s my story, but just mentioning that I have a friend who loves dogs helps us to relate.
The number one question people ask me is, “How do I exit a conversation?” And it’s a good point: you’re not there to monopolise one person all night long. If the other person is getting a little squirmy, they’re ready to move on. Interrupt yourself, not them: “It’s been so nice talking to you. I so enjoyed talking about…” and there you can let them know you’ve been listening to what they’re saying. Then don’t just turn your back on them – it’s too abrupt. Instead, walk a quarter-length of the room away to another group or, better still, to someone standing alone.
Ask people how they know the host, or how they got there, or what they think of the food (just about everyone likes talking about food).
Watch out for conversation-killers, especially one-upmanship. If someone says they just lost 10lb, don’t tell them how you lost 20.
Borrow stories. If you don’t have children but you’re talking to a new parent, can you share an anecdote that a friend has told you?
How to Talk to… Your Doctor, by Dr Ayan Panja, Gp and Resident Doctor on Bbc World News
The key thing is that you know why you’re there. Increasingly, people have more than one thing they want to mention at an appointment. Get the most important thing out at the beginning. Men are especially bad at this, as they’re scared. But it really doesn’t help if you get to the end of your 10 minutes, then say, “Oh, by the way, every time I mow the lawn, I get this pain in my chest that goes right up to my jaw – that’s nothing to worry about, is it?” Actually, it could mean you’ve got angina.
I find, increasingly, that there’s a generational difference in how people speak to doctors. Younger people are more likely to say, “I just feel shit.” Try to be descriptive. If you have a pain, is it dull or sharp? Does it burn or throb? If you have new symptoms, make sure you mention them. The timeline is really important: have you been getting pains for a few days, or weeks, or at certain times of day? Photos help, especially if symptoms have changed.
For doctors, half the game is trying to figure out, “Why is this person really here?” Do they want medication, or tests? Do they want to be signed off work? If you are secretly worried that you have a much more serious illness, then mention it (we know that everyone looks up their symptoms on the internet). Your doctor won’t mind if you say, “I know I’m being stupid, but I’m worried this is a brain tumour.” We’d rather discuss that than waste time wondering what it is you’re not saying. Just be honest. The whole consultation is really about the connection between two individuals and, in an ideal world, it should be based on mutual respect and trust.
We live in a convenience culture, but medicine doesn’t work like that. People often say, “It would be great if I could just email my GP.” But if you can’t examine someone, you don’t have an accurate picture. We can’t always refer you immediately for the complicated tests you’ve seen on TV. And we can’t always solve everything in a 10-minute appointment.
Start with the thing you’re most worried about. Don’t make your doctor guess.
Be as detailed and descriptive as you can when explaining your symptoms.
Have an awareness that you’re talking to a human. We try to leave the emotions of the last appointment behind us, but it’s not always easy.
How to Talk to… Your Date, by Dan Williams and Madeleine Mason, Founders of Passionsmiths, a Dating and Relationship Coaching Service
Everyone gets nervous about dates, and everybody is worried that the other person won’t like them. There’s an assumption that you are on the back foot, and the other person holds all the power. One of the best ways of dealing with that is to focus on what you want. Ask yourself, “Is this person a good fit for me?” rather than the other way round. It helps to lessen the fear of rejection.
Pay attention to what people talk about. If your date is sharing a lot of negative information – talking about their acrimonious divorce, say – it might be their way of expressing fear of the present dating situation. The same goes for what you disclose. It’s nice to show a certain openness, or vulnerability, but not to be needy. So talking about a work conundrum could be good, but discussing therapy on a first date is probably a bad idea.
A lot of people are anxious about silences: there’s a fear about what’s going on in the other person’s head. But silences can offer an opportunity. See how the other person reacts. For example, you might say, “I’m feeling a bit nervous.” Does your date help you out and respond positively, or not? It’s another way of judging, “Am I having a good time?” And that’s really what it’s all about.
Pay attention to the negative information your date shares with you. It could be a sign that they’re not ready for a relationship.
Try not to focus on “Does this person like me?”; instead, ask yourself, “Do I like them?”
Think of your date as a team-building exercise: you’re both gathering information to work out whether you’ll fit well together.
How to Talk to… Your Parents, by Clinical Psychologist Linda Blair
When you hit adolescence, the drive to belong to your peer group rather than your family kicks in. So by the time you’re a young adult, you may have spent a lot of time trying to get emotional distance from your parents. Mother-and-daughter relationships, in particular, suffer a lot, with the mother pushing for information and feeling marginalised. Whether you’re a grownup daughter or son, remember you will probably need to initiate the conversation. Your parents have become cautious; they don’t want to interfere with your independence. The best way to re-establish a relationship is to give them regular updates on everyday details of your life.
Your relationship with your parents is not a friendship – or, rather, it’s not just a friendship. It’s also a nurturing relationship. It’s becoming more common for children to feel in competition with their parents. Parents are more likely now to be as active at work and in life, and many adults today can expect to be poorer than their parents. All you can do is try to be tactful on both sides, and don’t ask too many questions that are going to make you feel resentful: “So when’s your next holiday, Mum?”
As parents get older, one of the most commonly expressed emotions from their children is irritation – irritation that their conversations seem more rambling, or even confused. That irritation is a cover-up for fear. No child wants to lose the relationship they had with their parents. And for the parents, who are getting towards the end of their lives, there’s an overwhelming need to feel as if they have lived for a reason, to make sense of the story of their life. It can be very therapeutic to make time for those stories, to share them with each other. Good conversations are really about good listening.
Conversations with parents tend to be one-sided. It’s easier to share details from your life than hear about a lot of intimate details from theirs.
Envy of parents is increasingly common, but remember it’s not their fault, and try not to let it cloud your relationship.
Your position in your family (whether you’re the eldest or youngest child) can affect the kind of conversations you have with your parents, so don’t assume your siblings will have the same experiences as you.
How to Talk to… Your Boss, by David Cairncross, a Director at Hays Recruitment
Most people, whether they’re the boss or the employee, want more contact. Employees often feel out of the loop, particularly in times of change, but they can be passive about giving feedback to their managers.
There’s a lot more interest now in how to “manage up”, and a lot of confusion about what that really means. It comes down to being able to put yourself in your boss’s shoes. What’s the best time to speak to your boss about important issues? How do they like to receive information? Does your manager have his or her own manager to think about? It’s about empathy.
If you want to negotiate for a pay rise or promotion, don’t spring it on your boss. If it comes as a shock, you’ve already set up a combative situation. The adversarial method is rarely effective; I know a lot of bosses who say that when someone threatens to leave if they don’t get what they want, they call them out on it. Keep it civil, and remember your boss might need to refer that decision to their boss, so make your business case as strong as possible. Be clear what both your arguments and the counterarguments are.
There’s an overreliance on email in most workplaces; I’d always question whether it’s the best way to put your point across, particularly if you need to deal with something problematic. It’s so easy to misconstrue what someone says and turn a straightforward issue into a conflict. And avoid copying people in halfway through an email discussion, even if you want to bolster your argument. It can be a very passive-aggressive way of communicating.
How much should you share with your boss about your life outside work? It depends on your workplace culture, but don’t presume that just because your boss has a relaxed management style, they’ll be less professional. As a good rule of thumb, avoid being too candid. Your boss may be friendly, but that doesn’t mean they’re your friend.
Always question whether you should send an email, or say it in person. And avoid passive-aggressive copying in.
Try to think from your manager’s perspective: how does what you need to say affect them?
Remember that your boss may not be the one making the final decision, so you might need to convince them to convince others.
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