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Debra Fine Headshot

8 Steps to Teaching Teens How to Make Conversation

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My recent book, Beyond Texting: The Fine Art of Face-to-Face Communication for Teenagers is the result of several things: I was once a teenager, I had children who later became teenagers and I married a man who had children who later became teenagers.

In a nutshell: The world is full of teenagers.

Teaching the younger generation the finer points of interpersonal skills is key to their long-term success. No matter how advanced technology becomes, landing a scholarship, job interview or fiancé will still require some form of verbal communication.

In a recent post, there were tips on how to help your teenager start a conversation -- now the trick is to keep it going. Conversations for teens and adults can take a turn and what was an engaging exchange becomes an excruciating effort. Why? Because we get excited or nervous. It's normal. It's also avoidable. Here are some simple steps to share with your teen:

Avoid Interrogation

Questions are a great way to get to know the other party, but don't get carried away:

Jack:How was the party?
Jill: Fun!
Jack: Who was there?
Jill: Josh and Tricia.
Jack: Who else?
Jill: Um, some guys from the track team.
Jack: Was Kyle there?
Jill: I didn't see him.
Jack: Who'd you go with?

Wow. At this point, Jill is looking for an escape route because she's feeling cornered and peppered with questions. When questions continually receive short answers, switch from interrogation to sharing:

Jack: Wish I could have made it. I was at the movies last night. Have you seen...?

Now there is another topic on the table, allowing Jack and Jill to move in new directions.

Don't Get Too Personal

Asking someone about their family, their job, their friends -- it all sounds innocent enough. But getting too personal can backfire. Always give the other party an exit strategy when delving into personal information:

Jack: How's work?
Jill: Great -- I love it there.
Jack: I've been thinking about applying but I am concerned about the pay scale. I don't know if you feel open to sharing, but I'm wondering if they pay more than minimum wage?

Now Jill can either answer with Yes, they pay more than minimum wage or Yes, I make $20 an hour or I don't like to talk about money. Jill's been given an escape hatch.

Don't Compete

One-upping is such a downer. Resist the temptation to be "Mr. Been There Done That." If someone is sharing a story with you, be a good listener instead of anxiously awaiting your chance to tell your bigger, better story.

Don't Interrupt

This happens so often, it's frightening. I actually think adults do this more often than teens. Let your conversation partner finish his or her thought. You will get your chance to speak; if you don't, there's always next time.

Don't Hog The Spotlight

Long stories are just long. Your friends will either start glazing over or start slowly backing away. Pass the conversational ball often and remember that a play-by-play of something interesting to you is not interesting to all.

Jill: Yeah -- the latest episode was SO funny. The ending was the best. I won't ruin it for you though, in case you get a chance to watch. What did you do last night?

Don't Give Unsolicited Advice

I had a friend like this growing up -- she was always suggesting ways I could improve myself, whether it was changing my clothes, my hair or my boyfriend. It didn't feel helpful, though -- it felt like a magnifying glass on her perception of my faults. The friendship didn't last, but the lesson did: if someone wants your advice, they will ask for it. If not, your job is to be a friend, not a parent.

Don't Gossip

Gossip is an easy trap to fall into, so beware. What starts as a friendly conversation can lead to trash talk. If you are in a group of gossipers, say, "Oh -- yikes! I don't gossip about anyone -- I'm too afraid it will come back to get me!" This often stops people in their tracks, mostly because they didn't realize they were gossiping in the first place. If that doesn't do it, move away. Gossiping has a way of haunting you forever.

Be Careful of Foot-In-Mouth Disease

We've all done it; we've all unintentionally said something that we shouldn't have said. The best way to get out of this situation is to avoid it entirely. Do not ask personal questions unless you already know the answer: "How come your dad isn't ever home?" or "Why does your little brother scream like that?" or "How come you only have one car?" can lead to really awkward results. If you do, in fact, stick your foot in your mouth, sincerely apologize, change the topic, and learn from your mistake.

Learning from mistakes is what being a teenager is all about. Trust me -- been there, done that, got the t-shirt.