Teaching Students How to Have Meaningful Conversations
This crucial life skill improves with classroom practice—and many students may benefit from a refresher.
Take a moment and reflect on conversations you have had recently. What made your best conversations genuine? Did you feel heard/understood? How could you tell? Did you want to talk to that person (or group of people) again soon? What about conversations that were ungenuine or unsatisfying? What was different about them?
Conversations are incredibly important. They are a basic unit of all kinds of interactions—formal and informal, serious and frivolous, cursory and thorough—the list is almost unlimited. Whenever we engage with other people, especially one other person, the nature of the conversation we have influences whether it will accomplish what we want and strengthen our relationship.
Conversations also can become a lost art in a time of increasing digital interaction. It’s possible but not so easy to have conversations on Zoom, especially if there are more than two people involved. And, in an increasingly polarized time when civil discourse seems like a candidate for the endangered species list, conversations can be replaced by polemics, lectures, statements, and declarations.
Following a year or more spent distance learning, many students, especially adolescents, seem to need a strong refresher in conversational skills with both peers and adults.
Guiding Students Toward Good Conversations
Good conversations typically cover six broad areas: social etiquette, clarity of communication, reciprocation, showing interest and engagement, perspective taking and inclusion, and finding common ground. If you teach your students to keep these areas in mind before and during conversations, it’s likely that their experiences will go reasonably well.
Through this PDF from the companion website for a book I coauthored, Morning Classroom Conversations: Build Your Students’ Social-Emotional, Character, and Communication Skills Every Day, you can find a set of guideposts to help you encourage and monitor students’ progress in each area, as well as a tool for students to self-monitor their own progress.
Creating Opportunities to Improve Conversational Skills
As with most important skills, practice leads to improvement. Most social and emotional learning (SEL) programs offer opportunities for conversation, even though they tend to define what they are doing in other terms.
For example, morning meetings from the Responsive Classroom program can be thought of as an example of group conversations. So can sharing (and other kinds of) circles found in Social Decision Making/Social Problem Solving, Open Circle, restorative practices, and other related programs. What often is missing, though, is skill development in this area.
Led by school psychology colleagues Nina Murphy and Kellie McClain, a team at Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab recognized that building conversational skills can be linked to both character and civic development and improved SEL competencies. Morning Classroom Conversations (MCC) were created for students at the secondary level.
Typically, MCC takes place during homeroom or advisory periods and involves students discussing conversation prompts. They might first write down their thoughts and then engage in a pair-share or a small group discussion. The prompts are designed to sharpen students’ focus on certain SEL skills, encouraging them to think about and internalize key virtues that promote positive purpose while discussing themes that are relevant to their life in school now and looking ahead to their future.
Teachers help students develop norms designed to create a brave conversation space and, responding to students’ existing conversational skills, help them engage in active, reflective listening; appropriate conversation styles; and patient, focused attention.
MCCs are introduced by helping students reflect on the importance of conversation in their lives, and indeed how lives depend on conversations—in health care, parenting, transportation, the entire service industry, science, the arts… everywhere. Conversations are described as a skill that everyone can learn and all students will improve in over time, day by day—not all in one step—using the guideposts presented earlier.
Conversation prompts: Here is a week’s worth of conversation prompts based on a January theme of planning for the future:
- A new student just arrived at your school. What do you think it feels like to be living in a new place with all new people? Has this happened to you?
- What is one action you can take in middle school now that will help prepare you for your dream job of the future?
- What is it like to work in a group where others do not communicate effectively to solve a problem? How can you nonverbally demonstrate that you are actively listening to your peers?
- Not every moment in our lives is going to go well, but when bad things happen, we have to try to learn from those situations. Think about a bad moment in your life, and challenge your thinking around how this event helped you.
Here is a set of prompts that could be used during a following week:
- Whom do you admire most? What are some qualities that you admire about this person that you would like to see in yourself in the future?
- Small miracles happen every day. What could you do to raise your awareness of these miracles?
- What does charity mean to you? Do you need to give money, food, or clothing in order to help others? How else can you do it?
- What effects can stress have on the body? Why is it important to monitor your stress level? How do you do it?
- What are you most passionate about that might serve as a future career for you? How can you do more of what you love doing?
These sample prompts also bring out focal skills such as problem-solving and empathy and virtues including optimistic future-mindedness. To keep students engaged, prompts also reflect a developmental perspective. They begin with a focus on improving oneself and then move to helping students see themselves as assets to their school and the wider world. You can find examples of these and other MCC prompts here.
As you restore the lost art of conversation, you will help students realize that both speaking and listening to others in genuine ways has tremendous, positive implications for their future.