Building Confident Conversationalists – Turning Silence into Gold!

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 and ongoing understanding between participants.

But it is not just the words we say and how we say them that carries meaning in a conversation, the pauses between words or between our conversational turns can be just as meaningful.

Pauses or silences are one way that we show our conversation partners when what they’ve said hasn’t been heard, understood or believed. We call this a ‘conversation breakdown’ and just like a car, a broken conversation needs repairing – and as quickly as possible!

Conversation breakdowns are a normal part of everyday conversations for people with and without hearing loss. However, research into the conversations between adults who acquire a hearing loss later in life and their significant others gives us some interesting insights into the way that a hearing loss can impact on conversation.

Consider the following interaction where Johnny has a hearing loss and Jackie does not:

Jackie: Did you enjoy the movie over the weekend?

Johnny: silence

This is one example of a ‘conversation breakdown’ due to not hearing. Johnny’s lack of response probably indicates that he didn’t hear Jackie or didn’t hear her well enough to be able to confidently respond.

In this sort of situation the most likely response from Jackie is something like this:

Jackie: Johnny, did you like the movie we saw over the weekend?

Jackie infers that Johnny hasn’t heard her and so repeats what she said without many, if any of the words. This gives Johnny a chance to hear the message (for the first time if he missed it completely or for a second time if he didn’t hear it well enough to confidently respond). In this example, Jackie recognises that the conversation has broken down and sees she can repair it by saying Johnny’s name to get his attention and then repeat her question.

If we take this interaction further and assume that is happens again and again, it’s reasonable to expect that Jackie might become somewhat frustrated by the constant repetitions she has to give to Johnny in order for their conversation to continue. It is reasonable that Jackie starts to avoid talking to Johnny because it’s difficult or because she doesn’t feel listened to and so on.

Repetition is a very useful thing for children with hearing loss learning to communicate with those around them, particularly when they are younger. However, as children grow older, it is important they learn other methods of asking for repetition or clarification that position them as competent and assertive communication partners, rather than as communicators who rely on other people to do the ‘fixing up’ when something goes wrong.

Repair strategies can be classified as either ‘general’ or ‘specific’ and it is important that children have opportunities to practice both types of strategies in conversations. We’re going to take a really brief look at ‘general’ repair requests today and we’ll explore ‘specific’ repair requests in the next newsletter.

General repair requests:

  • Are usually a pause, a word like ‘huh?’ ‘what?’ or ‘pardon?’
  • Show that something hasn’t been heard, understood, or believed but don’t directly identify which part of the message is the problem.
  • Usually result in the person repeating what they have said almost word for word (as above).
  • Are a great way to get a ‘second chance’ to hear the message again if you’ve missed or misheard and just need to have a bit more time to process.

The examples given above are broadly taken from research into the conversational abilities of adults with hearing loss conversing with their significant other without a hearing loss, however the same principles can be easily extrapolated to children with hearing loss communicating with their parents or peers.

So what can we do differently?

Modelling a range of different ways to ‘fix up’ a conversation with children as they learn to communicate is a really effective way to help them develop their skills as competent communication partners.

It’s important to consider the difference between a pause due to not hearing, or mishearing and a pause because you need time to think about your response.

When a child has not heard you at all, giving them a repetition in response to a pause or silence is completely appropriate. However if your child seems to have heard something, teaching them to use a general repair request like ‘pardon?’ or ‘could you say that again please?’ is a great first step at building their skills as an assertive communication partner.

If your child seems to have heard some of what you said, but not all of what you said you can try asking them ‘what did you hear?’ so that you can start to identify which part of the message was tricky for them. This can give you good insights on how to teach more specific repair strategies which we will go into more detail in the next newsletter.

Where you see that your child has heard and understood your message, but that they need some extra time to think, you could teach them to say ‘just a minute, I’m thinking’ or ‘I’m still thinking’ so that their communication partners know their message has been received, or partially received and that an ‘on topic’ response is on the way.

Stay tuned for the next newsletter for more on building confident conversationalists with an article on specific repair requests!