Building Confident Conversationalists – Specifically Speaking

29 Sep 2015

Conversation is a collaborative process between at least two people exchanging their knowledge, thoughts, ideas and beliefs with one another. The ultimate goal of a conversation is to establish and maintain a state of mutual, ongoing understanding between participants. Last edition we look at pauses and silences as markers of when a conversation has broken down.

We used the email of Jackie asking Johnny a question and Johnny not hearing and therefore not responding, leaving Jackie doing what most people do when a general repair initiator occurs in a conversation, which is to repeat herself verbatim. While repetition can really help children with hearing loss to hear and understand in conversations, we proposed that Jackie might end up feeling quite frustrated with Johnny if this happened again and again.

With the weight of repairing the conversation so squarely on her shoulders, Jackie might ultimately give up on having the conversations with Johnny entirely, which wouldn’t be a great outcome. We noted the importance of helping children to learn strategies to ask for repetition, revision or clarification in ways that make them come across as competent and assertive communication partners rather than as communicators who rely on others to do the ‘fixing up’ when something goes wrong.

While a general repair request is a great place to start with younger children, research into the conversation skills of adults who have a hearing loss has shown that those who use specific repair requests are able to repair conversation breakdowns more quickly and effectively than those who use general repair requests. The net benefit of this is that the person is perceived as a better conversationalist and as more likeable as a result of speaking specifically! Specific repair requests show that something hasn’t been heard, understood, or believed and gives the conversation partner an idea of which part of the message has not been heard, understood or believed.

Take the example below:

Jackie: Do you like the movie Minions?

Johnny: Did you say, ‘Do you like the movie Mean Irons?’

Jackie: No, I said Minions.

Johnny: Oh yes, I loved Minions, did you?

By asking a specific question, Johnny directed Jackie’s attention to the last word in her question that he wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly. Jackie responded with a partial repetition of the last word in her question only, and added some emphasis to the word to make it a little easier for Johnny to hear. Johnny immediately understands the part he missed the first time around and can move the conversation forward quickly.

Specific repair requests develop in, occur more frequently in, and become more mature in the conversations of children as they get older and begin to develop their social and pragmatic conversation skills. Mastery of conversation therefore relies heavily on how well a child learns to:

  • Recognize when a conversation breakdown has occurred, which is helped along by development of Theory of Mind, which enables children to understand and respond to the needs of their conversation partner.
  • Persist in their attempts to repair a conversation breakdown until the breakdown has been resolved to the satisfaction of all involved in the interaction.
  • Select and employ a range of communication repair strategies to best meet their needs and the needs of their communication partner in the conversation.
  • Here are some more examples of specific repair requests that you can model for your child when you experience a communication breakdown due to mishearing or misunderstanding. This will help them begin to move from speaking generally to speaking specifically.
  1. I heard the first part of what you said, but could you say the last part again?
  2. I missed the last part of what you said, could you say it again please?
  3. Could you say the last word again?
  4. Could you say that an easier way for me please?
  5. Could you tell me more?
  6. You lost me, can you simplify that?
  7. Who went to the movies? (use a wh- question)
  8. Johnny went to the movies? (use a question to confirm the message)
  9. Did you say _____?
  10. Did you say _____ or _____?
  11. Could you say that another way please?
  12. Could you explain that to me again please?
  13. Could you write that word down to help me understand what you mean?
  14. Could you try using different words to explain that please?
  15. Could you tell me what ­­­­­­_____ means, I didn’t quite understand?
  16. Did you mean _____?

When you have heard some but not all of what was said, asking for clarification of the message or asking for addition information could be helpful, while when you have not understood what your conversation partner has said, asking for a revision of the message could be helpful.

Remember, there is nothing wrong with using a general repair request like ‘pardon?’ ‘huh?’ or ‘say that again please?’ particularly with younger children. Sometimes a repetition of the message using exactly the same words is just what’s needed. The challenge is making sure that as your child moves into primary school they are empowered to recognize breakdowns, select and employ the most appropriate repair request and persist in repairing the breakdown until it is fixed.