The ability to have a conversation with another person is a seemingly simple aspect of life and social interaction that we can take for granted. Conversations are an important skill that help build meaningful relationships, give and receive emotional support, work with other people and sometimes even buy that morning coffee. Humans are social creatures and we find a lot of meaning in social connections. Talking is the main way we tend to build these connections with others. But what if you do not know how to have a conversation? What if the nature of this back and forth completely baffles you? How can you build the connections that you crave?
Many children with social language difficulties find themselves in this exact position. These children often have difficulty learning skills from their social They tend to experience difficulties with higher level language such as to understand abstract concepts such as metaphor and drawing inferences or reading between the lines . Conversation with another person involve abstract thinking. You need to constantly be mindful of how the other person is feeling and what they are thinking, understand when it is your turn to talk and how to change and move between topics. To make it even more complicated, the appropriate way to do this can change with every conversation. This leads to the daunting question of how do you teach these skills to someone who is unable to learn it from their environment?
Many programs and resources exist to help children learn skills such as detecting emotional cues (e.g. Secret Agent Society or Talk About), ask questions (e.g. Talking in the Green Zone) and structure a conversation (e.g. Conversation Trains or Talk About) but how do you teach a child how to move between topics? This is a question I often face in my work supporting children with social communication difficulties. After a lot of thought, I have begun to develop my own framework, which I call Conversation Stations. This framework explains the flow of a conversation by comparing it to the structure of railway track.
The Basics of Conversation Stations
I introduce the idea by drawing three stations that are next to each other on the trainline, such as Engadine, Loftus and Sutherland. The child and I then discuss how a train from Sutherland cannot go straight to Engadine – it has to go through Loftus. If a child brings up the idea of express trains, I point out that whilst the train does not stop, it still has to travel through that station. I then explain that conversation topics are like train stations: if you are at one station (talking about one topic), you can’t suddenly jump to another – you can only go to a nearby station, or a related topic. I then give the child a topic, such as the weekend. We brainstorm a related topic and draw these stations as connected by a trainline. We then work out what is related to that topic and so on. Once we have a few stations on a single track, we practice having a conversation up and down the train track. If the child needs help during their turn, I ask if they want to stay at that station or move to a new station. I then ask if they want to tell me something or ask me something.
Expanding Conversation Stations
When the child becomes used to how the basic trainline works, I introduce the idea that each station can be connected to many other stations. One of the challenging parts of a conversation if that there are often many different appropriate topics that we can move to and it is confusing and just about impossible to put them all on the conversation trainline. A conversation is also fluid, so we need to teach this. To address this, I explain how as the needs of a city change and evolve, so does the structure of the trainline. As the needs of the conversation change, we need to change and develop our trainline. We might do this by adding new stations or adding a connecting station/ trainline to a station already on the map. For example, I once asked a child what they did on the weekend and the answer was that they visited a friend. The friend station was on the map, but it was not nearby. It was appropriate for the conversation to move to the “friend” station, so we decided to draw in a train track and add a connecting station, which was “people I saw on the weekend”.
If I child brings up a topic not near the current station or even on the map, I point out the station we are at and ask, “is the [insert topic] station, nearby?” I then remind them that we can only travel to nearby stations. Some children are also quite clever and try to link in their interests to the current topic in a way that does not really fit. For example, I was once at “the weekend” station with a child who loved fitness. After I asked them “what did you do on the weekend?”, they continued the conversation by saying “how many push-ups did you do on the weekend?” When something like this happens, I talk to the child about the main idea of their question or statement and how the main idea needs to be about that conversation station.
Another issue I have encountered is when I tried to build a conversation map with a child that was different from what we used in the previous session. Some of our clients have difficulty with change. This child knew what the map looked like and any changes would make the map wrong. A way around this is to explain that every conversation is like a different city and so has a new map. The trainlines in different cities often have similarities, for example there is often a town hall or central station. The same goes for conversation trainlines – two different conversations may have a “friends” station, but they might look a bit different and connect to different stations.
Conversation Stations is a concept I have found can help children to finally understand how a conversation works. There are so many possibilities about how it can grow and be used. I am very excited to introduce this tool to the world and continue to develop and expand it. If you have any questions or would like to talk to me about Conversation Stations, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.