“Use your words!” my mother sharply quipped.
I stumbled and stammered over the same word. My brain and eyes shifted back and forth, seemingly stuck as I grasped to find the next syllable. The next word. The next word phrase. I struggled.
I could not verbally communicate what I was feeling. My mind’s processor could only transcribe in images, one after another, flashing. There were no words.
As I looked up at my mom’s towering figure, her face tilting side to side, I could see her impatience building. I felt rushed and scared.
“What is it!” she said.
“Nothing, Ma.” I walked away. Intimidated. Frightened. Hurt. Confused.
I endured so many experiences like the one above. These unpolished moments of miscommunication, along with many others, formed my opinion about conversations with adults.
I learned to largely remain mute, and walk away. I never learned to share my feelings accurately, and that stuck with me for a long time. I was silent about my inner emotions until I met my mentor, let’s call her Diane, who showed me the beauty of conversation.
What does a real conversation look like?
What must be in place to stimulate organic and deeper conversation?
And, how does one engage a naturally withdrawn child who feared conversation?
Communication isn’t a new concept but is one that we have become so accustomed to that we often don’t realize when we aren’t connecting as well as we could be. Through the years and my struggles of interaction, Diane helped me observe four basic principles of communicating better.
Illuminating the four behaviors’ power, acting together in tandem, creates the right environment over time and normalizes deeper-conversations.
We all want to know each other on a deeper level, have meaningful and worthy conversations, and strengthen our relationships.
To do this, we need to go back to the beginning: back to square one and take a look at how we are communicating with our young and old loved ones — especially those quiet, shy, and reserved.
Squirrels and Conversations
The trees swayed, and the birds chirped while a squirrel zipped about to the scraps of tiny morsels of meat near the park benches. It was a beautiful summer afternoon. Diane invited me for an afternoon lunch picnic at a nearby city park, just south of Baltimore County.
As the conversation matured, I took notice. That day, I carefully observed why I opened up to my mentor.
She seemingly mastered the art of creating the right environment for our conversation. As if on cue, we strolled verbally through initial pleasantries of catching up from the time we were apart. Then we dovetailed, breaking the water plane, and shot downward into the depths of the cool bottom great lakes. I never saw it coming, but when it came, I swam with her.
How did she do that?
By taking a closer look and observing how she communicated with me, I was able to see four present behaviors that created this warm and friendly environment that I was able to thrive in.
She paused her thoughts to be present.
She observed the minutia to gauge where I was, mentally.
She actively listened with warm interest.
She stayed engaged at every turn of the conversation; she was there with me.
POLE stands for Pause to be present, Observe, Listen, and Engage.
These were the behaviors that I needed to focus on to heighten my communication skills.
Behavior 01: Pausing to Be Present
In the placid and cool breeze, we talked until the day’s sun rounded its arc and soft glinting light specks danced in the sky.
The squirrel mindlessly feasted on the previous guest’s food crumbs. Sounds of the cool breeze zipping and zagging a time or two echoed in my ears. I hadn’t spoken a word yet. My mentor cut her sandwich bread and spread mayo onto the inner bread slices.
As always, she gave me space to come to her in conversation. I just liked to take my surroundings in. She stayed patient and ate her sandwich. Within moments, a thought popped into my head.
“I wonder if squirrels have personalities,” I uttered.
She shook her head and chimed in, “Well, I would imagine so. Like that one over there, he is definitely a hoarder. He ain’t trying to share any of his crumbs with his friends.” We both chuckled.
“So, how’s your mom doing?” We talked about my family and her family.
We talked about the weather and current news. We talked about how long it’s been since we last hung out.
It had been seven years since I had been all over the world with my military career. The distance gone gave us plenty to catch up on for the afternoon meeting. As I spoke, she listened. She was often quiet, with occasional head nods and a restful disposition. Short and long gaps of silence, she patiently held her role as receiver, never seemingly agitated to relinquish it.
She was in the moment — and present.
I learned that she willingly paused her thoughts to stay present.
Pausing, stopping one’s current train of thought or acts of physical motion seems to be a critical preliminary behavioral action that enables one to slowly shift from being the main focus and become present for the speaker.
This behavior relies on the listener to acknowledge a clear visible marker that the speaker is free to talk. We have to acknowledge the speaker through a clearly visible marker, indicating that the speaker has the right away. This behavior plainly warns the speaker that they have your full undivided attention.
Pausing also prepares the listener for the task of observation, active listening, and engaging. Deliberately pausing to prepare you physiologically and psychologically to undertake the receiver role in the conversation. It tells the brain to shift its focus to receive new information stimuli and to be present.
Here are ways to apply pausing:
- Take deep, purposeful breaths to cue yourself to slow down and shift your attention.
- Ask the initiator if they need your time.
- Learn to work slow. This may require you to sit down and allow the young speaker to open up and initiate the conversation gradually.
- Learn to temper down your own thoughts and needs while heightening those of your loved one. As if you were indiscreetly becoming more attuned to the speaker.
- Prevent the tendency to preempt or finish the speaker’s thoughts. This also includes succumbing to the habit of demanding that a speaker get to the point. Just be still.
Before we get too far into the behaviors, though, we must give reference to the environment. Environment matters. My connection with Diane didn’t happen right away.
The beauty of our relationship grew with time.
In fact, in the early years of our budding relationship, I spoke very little. To put it plainly, I was no fun to talk to. But over the years, my mentor patiently invested in acts to slowly and consistently establish a bond of trust.
She was careful in her selection of environments, always taking care to keep private, as I was not the type to showcase my personality in crowded fields. Only in secluded spaces, I felt safe to stretch in full blossom.
This type of trust required time and should start as early as possible in a relationship. She always was mindful to choose the private environment but open enough for me to roam around and not feel closed in, oftentimes, outdoor spaces.
Additionally, she respected my boundaries and never forced me to share or talk when I closed off.
She never chastised or rushed me through my thoughts — finishing my sentences or dismissing my thoughts. Instead, she just communicated that she was there whenever I was ready.
She was mindful of her higher status and often relegated herself in the conversation as an objective friend or neutral mediator. She adjusted her non-verbal behavior, tone, and disposition to friendly, accommodating, and supportive. Over time, I learned that I was safe to talk to her. I also trusted the environment she created for us to have those talks.
I learned that she created the right environment over time.
Behavior 02: Observe the minutia
Over the years, Diane learned my rawest and most natural form of communication. Her ability to observe the minutia from my attitude, voice inflections, and mannerisms became second nature.
She seemed to master the art of delicately shifting with the currents of energy based on the support level I needed.
Sometimes an ear, sometimes a pressure release, sometimes the philosopher. Her timely actions matched my needs, like a well-tailored suit, at every juncture, she delicately assisted me through the dance of conversation. Diane mastered this beautifully.
Maybe it was her 30+ years as an information analyst or that she was your typical alpha who spots detail from miles away. I don’t know. But, she captured everything and used that information to gauge her behaviors with connection as the goal.
I learned that she observed the minutia.
Observing minutia is more about the presence or absence of activity. This behavior focuses on the child’s actions concerning the environment that you are having a conversation.
This behavior helps the adult focus intently on low-audible information in the environment: what is there, what is not there, and what is incongruent in the environment, such as mismatch behavior.
For example, your child is displaying high anxiety in a rather calm and empty environment.
The listener that is observing the minutia is deliberately processing non-verbal information and cues to help understand where your friend, speaker, or child is. Involuntary non-verbal behaviors often provide tell-tale signs and cues to you, the listener, where you can help your loved one uncover their thoughts.
How you may observe the minutia:
• Do you understand your loved ones’ preferred style of communication? According to Drexel University’s Professional Studies Program, most people prefer using one of the communication types: written, non-verbal, verbal, or visual.
• Pay particular attention to tone, silence, completeness, or specificity of your loved one’s language. Have they said a new word? Are they hesitating when saying other words? If they are reticent, what is their body language communicating? Where are they looking when they speak?
• Does their behavior match the environment they are in? For example, your nephew is exhibiting withdrawn or distant behavior in a celebratory atmosphere.
• What is your shy friend’s choice of music and fashion? I was known to indulge in shock-value lyrics and dark clothing that reflected my mood — clothes, music, art, images, movies. The lyrics, words, pictures, and moving film helps convey or mirror one’s psyche or mood, which is why one gravitates to these forms of expression. I would even include video games and take note of their storylines.
• How does your loved one act around others? Does their mood change? Were they talking before and now completely silent when a new person enters the room? If they are a young child, are they anxious and irritable when you are about to drop them off to another adult figure? Does their mood change drastically, for instance, when they have to go to school?
• How does your loved one naturally express themselves? Do they prefer to write their thoughts? Do they sing songs or play instruments, with their mood reflected in the rhythms of the song? Do they draw, sketch, or doodle?
- Is your loved one displaying competing behavioral cues or idiosyncrasies that do not align with their verbal communication? For example, they express they feel great, but their body language is closed off or stiff.
Behavior 03: Listen actively for cues to engage deeper
One of the biggest telltale signs that I knew Diane was listening to me was how she recalled minute details I offered early in the conversation. Or she recalled a behavioral tick from me around certain parts of the conversation.
She was actively listening with her eyes and ears, with the intent to hear what was said and not said. She was looking for my verbal markers.
These points rang true as I reflected on conversations with Diane. I never felt that the talks with my mentor were forced or that she was controlling them. If I were seemingly rattled, she would immediately back away to diffuse the encounter.
I learned that she actively listened.
Active listening seems to naturally flow from the previous two behaviors. In short, active listening means listening with the intent to understand and empathize with the speaker, not with the intent to assert your thoughts or formulate your reply.
Active listening requires the listener to purposely identify the speaker’s language markers to engage later when an opportunity presents itself. As a child, I often did not want to flat out say what was on my mind. So, I left slight markers in hopes that my parents would pick up on it.
For example, I would say, “Mom, what would you do if you heard I did XYZ?” or “Dad, I don’t feel so good when I go to Uncle Johnny’s house. Can I stay at home instead?”
Here are ways to apply actively listening:
• You are repeating or paraphrasing the speaker’s points and allowing a chance for the speaker to clarify.
• You are not bored, disinterested, or on the defense with what is being said.
• You are not dismissively or repeatedly interrupting the speaker to elevate your points.
• You are allowing the speaker to have the floor to speak freely. No matter how long it takes them to find their words.
Behavior 04: Engaging where they are
Diane was attuned to everything — every word, every move, every gap of silence. Not in a way that I felt she was clocking me like a parent or a prosecutor, but more in a way that said, “I’m here to hear what you have to say.”
If I were seemingly stuck mentally but troubled in voicing the thought, she would only engage deeper if I gave the non-verbal clues that I needed her to step in.
Finally, she allowed me to talk about what I wanted to talk about.
When I spoke, I felt free enough to speak unencumbered and unjudged. If I stumbled on a thought or lost trace of ending a phrase, her gestures never changed. She would smile or slightly tap my leg, or look away to break the pressure — patiently waited until I was ready again. The silence never felt antsy.
I learned that she stayed actively engaged with where I was in the conversation.
Engaging, like a handshake, is a critical behavior that explicitly demonstrates a positive environment to open into a conversation. It verbally shows you are interested in the speaker’s words.
Be careful. The approach must be genuine, non-judgmental, freeing, and comforting, even neutral.
Mel B. Cook, a communication expert, validates this viewpoint in the documentary short, Changing the Blueprint. She states: “I never shut it down. So, whatever level of conversation that my kids bring to me since they were young, I engaged in that conversation…as they got older, the context changed, and the conversations changed. I was led into their world because they trusted me.”
Here are some observables to better engage:
• Engaging means coming into your child’s world and allowing them to guide you through the conversation.
• Never shutting down the conversation and showing genuine interest.
• Be ready to talk about what they want to talk about.
- Be aware that an authoritarian communication style can inhibit open, free conversation from taking place.
The POLE method helps to improve your communication with your special person. Over time, adults can build that foundation of trust and enjoy a deeper connection in conversations with their loved ones.
Eventually, my mother’s communication style grew more effective. Her growing consciousness and receptivity for wanting a better connection with her children encouraged her to make a shift.
This was most evident on a day we took a long road trip from Maryland to Georgia. My mother unwittingly demonstrated the POLE method. Our conversations would begin with her allowing me space to engage and expand upon my truest feelings, without judgment.
As I took the bait, I noticed the air was less tense, and I felt her patience. She was quiet but present. As if to say, “Whenever you are ready, Shay, I’m here just to listen.”
I knew she was observing every minutia: my body language, tone, and inflection. She was reading my body language and my interaction with my environment. She was becoming attuned to where I was, mentally.
My mother actively listened, seeking clarity where needed, and guiding the conversation and creating a deeper connection. She was engaged and demonstrated a deep interest in what I was saying, how I was feeling, and in turn, learning more about her child.
That was one of our best road trips.
Diane and my mother’s display of POLE empowered me in my thoughts, in my voice, and made me less frightened to speak openly. I learned to enjoy conversational exchanges with them.
I do not doubt that the same will manifest with you and your loved one.
Thank you for reading!
Shay D. Potter currently serves in the U.S. Army by day and devotes the evenings and weekends to writing, videography, and podcasting. Follow Shay on Instagram, Twitter, or YouTube. Shay is an up-and-coming podcaster of the new story podcast, Crack This ShXt Open! This podcast challenges the status quo about parent-child conversations and gives the listener a private viewing of the raw, unfiltered hard stuff. Listen today!