The Art Of Dinner Conversation

Photo: cwwycoff1/Flickr

At the heart of a great conversation is the capacity not only to listen, but also to ask great questions.

Here are some tips from Anne Fishel, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at the Harvard Medical School and Director of Family and Couples Therapy at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Anne asks questions for a living.

Anne K. Fishel, Ph.D.
The Family Dinner Project

As a therapist, I find that the asking of questions is my ‘bread and butter.’

I try to ask a broad range of questions because they surely don’t come in one flavor, and variety keeps conversation interesting, lively and meaningful. I ask some questions to figure out what the problem is, and others to try to make new possibilities happen.

For example, when I ask a man, “What’s the problem in your marriage?” I usually hear what he has been rehearsing in his head for weeks. Yet when I ask instead, “What’s it like being married to you?” he has to reorient his perspective and consider himself from his partner’s point of view.

Other times, I ask questions to change the mood, as when I ask an unhappy couple to tell me the story of how they first met. Usually, this question leads to a change in atmosphere from one of tension and conflict to a warmer feeling between them.

In the same way, at mealtimes, it can be fun to experiment with a lot of different opening questions, but it’s also important to know how to sustain and deepen the conversation. After all, a diet of conversation starters is not going to be any more satisfying than a meal composed of only an appetizer.

So, here are some ways to keep a conversation going and to deepen it, plus some sure-fire ways to shut a conversation down.

Let’s consider this conversation starter:
A parent asks: “What was the best thing that happened at school today?”
A child responds: “Recess.”

Conversation stoppers:
• Judging and evaluating the response: “Didn’t you learn anything in class today? Do you think school is all fun and games?”

• Persuading, cajoling your child to consider a different response: “Are you really sure that was the best thing about school today? I seem to remember that you were going to have a parent come in today to read a story; wasn’t that more fun than recess?”

• Making the response a problem: “Did something bad happen in class today? Why were you so relieved to get away from class and into recess?”

Conversation deepeners:
• Questions that are pure inquiry and curiosity convey that you want to understand your child’s point of view: “Tell me more. What did you do? Who did you play with?”

• Reflective questions that introduce a different perspective: “If I had been a bee on the swing, what would I have seen?”

• Difference questions, that ask your child to compare two experiences. “How was today’s experience different from recess yesterday? Was there something that made it particularly fun today?”

• Strength-oriented questions that are aimed at eliciting successes. “What did you do during recess that you were particularly proud of or that you want to remember to do again?”

• Questions that shine light where there wasn’t anything. If your child talks about feelings you might ask: “What were you thinking about?” If your child talked about today, you could ask: “What about tomorrow or yesterday?”

• Inviting others in: “Recess makes me think of taking a break during the day. What kinds of breaks did others take during the day? What are your favorite ways to relax and recharge during the day?”

In this particular example, above, it’s important to remember that children are question-asking engines. We can surely let them do some of the question-asking, too. In a 2007 study at Stanford University, a researcher analyzed the recordings of four kids interacting with their caregivers for over 200 hours. On average, the kids asked one to three questions per minute. At that rate, they were on track to ask a total of 40,000 questions between the ages of two and five!

Thinking more broadly, however, it may be helpful to try to think like a child, and wonder, “What is it I don’t know?”

It is from this embrace of not knowing that some of the best deepening questions will flow.


Read some of Anne’s recent posts on PRK
Family Dinners At The White House
Coaxing the Picky Eater
Meeting Your Child’s Sweetheart: 12 Tips For A Successful Meal
Context Is Everything: The ‘Where’ Of Family Dinners
Ethics, Civil Discourse And The Family Meal

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