How To Have A Conversation Where You Listen And Are Also Heard

Throughout last year I worked with a pupil with speech and language difficulties. These difficulties showed up in the classroom when they had to read a question and infer meaning that wasn’t specially written and the difficulties were, as SALT difficulties often are, the main cause of their social challenges. Friendship wasn’t easy and it was this that we spent a lot of our sessions talking through.

One week my pupil told me they wanted to have Snapchat on their phone. I asked, as you might expect, how their parents felt about this. Their mood changed and they became sullen as they told me that their mum doesn’t listen to them and that she’ll never let them have Snapchat. I asked how they had difficult conversations with their mum (and other people) and my pupil said that their mum just doesn’t listen.

This pupil finds abstract ideas quite tricky to both imagine and also talk about so, on the whiteboard, I drew 2 stick people facing each other. ‘This is you and your mum,’ I said. ‘How can we show the conversation you have with your mum?’ My pupil found this hard so I took a coloured pen and, after labelling the stick people, I drew coloured lines to represent the words coming out of each of the stick people’s mouths. I then drew a dotted line down the middle.

‘Can you tell me about the diagram if I said it represented you and your mum having a conversation?’

My pupil totally got this and told me that this was them talking and their mum talking and that neither of the words got anywhere near each others heads, ears and brains. ‘OOOooo,’ they said, ‘we don’t listen to each other.’

We chatted about how to have a proper conversation and that not only do you need to talk but you need to listen too. My pupil had shown me by them being unable to name any of their parent’s concerns about them having Snapchat that they don’t listen either.

I proposed the idea that if you listen to what someone is saying, you can then counter their argument and this can help you get your point across in a calm and measured way. Shouting back at someone really doesn’t do this. ‘How do your discussions end?’ I asked. ‘I stomp off,’ my pupil replied.

And nothing ever moves forward.

‘In fact,’ I said, ‘things can move in a backwards direction because the next time there’s a discussion both parties (I explained what I meant by this) start by being a little on edge because they can both remember how the previous conversation (and probably the one before that) went. Starting a conversation tense is not a good thing and it’s times like this when old familiar patterns repeat themselves and you find the same things happening.’

‘Why don’t we talk about how we could find a different way, something new to try?’

My pupil was quite enthusiastic.

I did make it very clear that having a more measured conversation about difficult subjects (Snapchat) does not guarantee that their mum would suddenly agree (I felt that needed saying) but that learning how to have difficult conversations where you want to change someone’s opinion is an important part of life and shouting and walking off will never be a good way to have those conversations.

We talked about asking their mum what her concerns were and then writing them down -they could do this by text because then they had something to look back over to really see what their mum is saying. They could then respond calmly, and politely, to the concerns knowing that their mum would also read them in a calm and considered way. I suggested notes or texts or even a letter because the face-to-face confrontation that our stick people are having may not, in fact be the best way. I suggested reading through any texts that they might send at least twice to make sure that all the emotion, where it could be, was left out.

I don’t know that my pupil took what I wanted them to take away from our lesson but sometimes speech and language issues (and especially social challenges related to speech and language issues) can be a drip feed process; little by little and keep that positive working relationship going so pupils can come back and ask more questions when and if they want to. I’m looking forward to catching up with my pupil when we return to school in September and finding out what the situation is with them and Snapchat. I’m also interested to see if what we discussed has helped them in other conversations that they’ve had.

Talking through how to to talk to people with someone you don’t really know can help young people; they don’t have the same relaxed relationship with you that they might have with their parents and they often listen more and for longer before dismissing what you might have to say. My pupil and I had a good productive chat where they learned quite a lot. It’s putting that learning into practice that’s the real test though.

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