3 Deadly Conversation Killers by Ron Powell


I should know better but often I kill conversations without giving them a chance to start.

I’m finding that I am not the only one who does this. Parents, teachers, and youth workers shut down students before they can get a few sentences out of their mouths.

Of all the ways to kill conversation these are the three most deadly and #3 is the worst of all.

1. Giving Advice–”You know, what you really should do is…”

Before the teen has even started to spill their guts you have got them figured out and fixed. If haven’t noticed, students hate being a problem to be fixed and quickly dispatched. Nothing communicates that we think that they are still children than when we don’t allow them to think for themselves.

Giving advice when it isn’t asked for and even sometimes when it is asked for, cuts the conversation short. Here was an opportunity to get into that secret space where fears, longings, self doubt, and aspirations lie.  And I often miss it! By sorting it all out and expecting our teen to follow through on our brilliant scheme shuts the door to that place where they could safely allow us to come in and explore together.

Giving advice also robs the moment of seeing how a student processes thoughts and feelings. Active empathetic listening allows parents and others the opportunity for students to try to put their thoughts and feelings into words. It is that trusted place where they are so vulnerable. Telling students what to do when they begin to disclose slams that door. Sadly the next time that begin to open up they expect that the conversation will follow the same pattern. I have to admit, too often I have fallen into that exact pattern. I jump to conclusions and solutions when that wasn’t what my girls were looking for.

 2. Distraction –”Are you done?”

At dinner my dad could be looking right at me (or kind of, he had one eye that would often wander off in another direction.) But he would be sitting there hearing my story and interject, yes…yes…yes…. Quickly and curt like I was boring him with the details. I could tell he just wanted me to get to the end of the story and the story had better have some kind of a point! At the end of it all, his response was …. “And…”  Like he didn’t get the story. And when he didn’t get my story I was convinced that he didn’t get me. It made me wonder, “Why did I bother?” 

A distracted listener makes a student feel unimportant. One of my students used to have to shout to get her mom or dad’s attention away from their phone, TV or the computer. These moments of openness can become less frequent as a student gets older. If their emotions are met with only partial attention the message comes across clearly that they are less important than work or a television series.

 3.Criticism  “Why do you always have to do that?” –”Are you serious?” “–That’s wrong.”

I can just hear myself spouting off criticism and hurting my daughter. “That’s terrible. Oh man, if she was my daughter you know what I would tell her?””How can you say that? That’s not how a Christian thinks!” I have judged, interests, thoughts and feelings before they were completely formed. That shut down the conversation. I made my point and lost the opportunity to learn or to get closer.

When we criticize their friends or their music, they feel that we are criticizing them. Jumping on teens because the thoughts that they are expressing go contrary to our ideals or values will also shut them down. Our opinions that we express may help our teen to determine that it is not safe to share their thoughts with us.  They expect that they are only going to get shot down. The result? They tell us what we want to hear. They tell us on a need to know basis. And mostly, they keep to themselves and text their friends instead.

Now, this doesn’t mean that we  have to affirm every thing that comes out of their mouth but we can reserve judgement to a later date. As we hear them out to the end, we may find that their values are not that far off from what we would hope.  Or at least we get a window into their world where the shades would normally be drawn.

A Final Note:

Everyone says that we have to keep lines of communication open. Ironically, one of the hardest things is getting our teens to open up. An interrogation isn’t going to help. If we can hold off on jumping in to coach, teach or give advice, likely they will be more willing to trust us. If we consistently show more interest in our phone or demonstrate only partial attention, our kids will look for someone else who is more interested in their thoughts, feeling, and dreams. And, of course, if we have to critique, everything that they say they will become very selective concerning what they choose to share with us.

These three deadly conversation killers are hard to avoid. Maybe they are carry overs from how we spoke to our kids as children.  What are some of the ways you get teens talking?

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