The Art of Conversation are cue cards designed to inspire bonding and new themes of chatter at Christmastime. We talk to the creator Louise Howland about the effects they can have on your relationships during the festive period! 

Relationships on Female First

Relationships on Female First

What impact can awkward silences have at Christmas?

Christmas should be a special time for families, and friends and often enormous effort goes into planning the food, decorations and gifts. Yet sometimes the day itself can be something of anti-climax, and rather than happy conversations punctuated by laughter, amazed gasps and myriad other expressive responses, there can be awkward silences and uncomfortable gaps where the conversation simply does not flow. So much preparation goes into Christmas celebrations and expectations are high, so one of our goals was to provide games that mean it is very easy to plan a Christmas gathering where the conversation flows as freely as the food and drink.

Why do people feel the need to tell the same old stories at this time of year?

Christmas is a traditional time and it can be cozy and comforting when the conversations can be traditional too! Grandpa may enjoy telling his favourite jokes that everyone has heard for as many Christmases as they can remember. Others may feel the need to fill everyone in on every last detail of what they have done since last Christmas, causing people to excuse themselves early from the table and retire early to a comfy sofa to doze off following pudding and port. 

How important is it to try and get to know each other better, even if you think you know someone well?

Communication and relationships are the source of much of our happiness and fulfilment, and relationships are nourished and nurtured via communication. The breakdown of relationships is what has led to a lot of tragic things in our current society - homelessness and marriage breakdown, even early school dropouts, substance abuse, things come about because there is no communication, or poor communication, and people don't feel heard, they don't feel understood.

If you understand why somebody is behaving the way they do, you're more likely to be sympathetic. And that understanding really only comes from talking and perhaps even, more importantly, listening.

TAOC crosses the generations. Christmas is a great time to see that, because you get all the generations together and all the dysfunctional family members come together and they want to have a good time, but it just doesn't always happen, which is sad. It’s important I think to be aware of impermanence. So, how you spend your time, how you cherish your time, is probably the most important question you can ask yourself. How do I live my life? And that's where TAOC seems to link in. I think that's why it works when you use it for yourself too, to learn more about yourself as well, because generally in the world I feel that I, anyway, present a fairly thin veneer of who I really am to most people and it seems ridiculous, really. You have to sit back and think well who am I and what do I want and what do I want to do and how do I want to behave around the people near to me and what do I want to do to try and make a little bit of difference somewhere.

How can the games be used in therapy and education?

It is interesting that we consider it so very important to teach our children history dates, river names, fractions and decimals, and yet we rarely formally teach the one skill that will arguably help them live successful and fulfilled lives, i.e. communication skills. Sadly many children spend less time in one on one conversation with adults than ever before, and some studies seem to indicate that this is adversely affecting language development and literacy. Today people are so busy; often have so many commitments that the time to just sit around together and talk can almost be considered a waste of time. When you don't have one-on-one conversation, how do you learn a language? I read something horrific recently which was showing that students in first year of university had an average vocabulary of 800 words. If you don't have a verbal language that is strong, that leads to all sorts of problems with literacy and learning disabilities can result from that.

The Art of Conversation has many uses in education and therapy. It's also being used in some gifted children's programs because, as you know, gifted children often are fantastic at talking and they will give you a couple of hours on railway line gauges or specific doorknobs or the Kennedy assassination etcetera, but if these gifted children are going to fit into workplaces then they need social skills and communications skills and they need to know when to be quiet and turn to another person and get their perspective. It's being used with gifted children to perhaps tone down the over-the-top talking, and teach them some listening skills. That's very exciting. It's also being taught in ESL - English as a Second Language - because a lot of the English second language courses are very, very formal, whereas really you want to be able to have a conversation, not to ask what time the bus may leave and from where. So that's another exciting thing.                                                                                                                                                                     It's being used in anti-bullying and in mentoring courses as well because, as I was saying before, if you understand why somebody is doing something and if you have got a genuine relationship then you are less likely to bully. We were very careful with the children's title – it's very politically correct; so we don't make any assumptions about a child living with a mum and/or a dad, that they may not be in a stable home, all of that we took into consideration because we wanted to be sensitive about it. And we are very proud that The Art of Conversation is being incorporated into programmes to assist children on the Asperger’s Spectrum. It is proving worthwhile teaching social skills formally to these children, as even if the skills are a little stiff at first it is proving effective.                                                                                                                                                           So it is a really, really important area and not least to say that children need language to put their developing concepts into words. And it is very important for children to be able to trust and share their ideas in a non-judgmental setting, expressing their ideas, forming their concepts as well as of course allow them to communicate well within all the relationships that occur in our lives.

How do the cards suit different personalities?

Our goal was to help create more balanced conversations, so let's hear from some of the quiet people and as a talker, it can be nice to sit back and take a break. So one of my pieces of, for want of a better word, advice is to say to you if you're a talker, next time you are in a group have a practice at being a listener, and if you are a quiet person, have a go at talking.

One of my favourite part in our guidelines book is to say that listening is not just being quiet until it's your turn to speak and it's not just latching on to one point the speaker is saying and working out your argument. It's actually thinking about thinking about what that person is saying and empathising with them - which sounds pretty basic, but it's something that is occasionally hard to put into practice.

Our questions were so broadly and widely tested amongst very diverse core groups that we know they work. Even people who do not particularly like disclosing information about themselves will find that the questions are not design to make people disclose more than they comfortable doing, and they are certainly not questions that make people feel uncomfortable. It's a flexible, fluid thing. We have nine different ways of playing it, if you like: there is competitively, and some people like to play something so there is a winner; there are non-competitive versions; there is how well do you know each other; there is interview style; and, silly as it sounds, that there's even a solo mode, which can be quite useful if you are a shy, not-talking type of person, to have a think about how you might instigate communication with somebody else.

How did you come up with the idea for the game?

There are various reasons why this came about, but really Keith was the instigator, as he is for so many of our things together. Keith is a rock star, born in Norwich, emigrated to Australia at 17 to start a new band there and so in the '70s he fronted the glam rock band Hush. He wrote songs for Status Quo, and I guess he breathed fairly rarefied air for a while there. But when that slowed down, he found it a little difficult to get in touch with the rest of the world, because he was used to being interviewed or fawned over, complimented, but not really connecting in a real way.

So one day he came to me and he said 'It's a game, but it's not a quiz and it is called TAOC, the Art of Conversation, and it's going to help me connect with people again. Now, you do the rest.' So he left me with it and I thought about it and the more I thought about it, the more I thought it was a fantastic concept. The form that concept would take went through many, many incarnations. But, to cut a long story short, we found a core group of 36 people from all sorts of walks of life.

We had a pizza shop owner, we had an accountant, we had a vet, teachers, people who stayed home, people who did a lot, people who didn't do very much. And we got them together and started trialling what made a great conversation - what worked and what didn't. And we set in place some rules and some guidelines and we trialled thousands and thousands of conversation starters. We trialled a lot of rules, as well.

Gradually we developed what we believe to be was a formula to having really good communication. A guidebook was developed - and in the beginning this was a book, but it ended up as cards and a book. So TAOC evolved through a lot of incarnations and became a communication resource that we are thrilled to say is used quite widely now and has grown to various titles – the original, children’s, Travel, Literary and Food.

What is next for you both?

For Keith and I we are still exploring ways to communicate. It is a passion and privilege to be able to work in this field. We are working now with people in a huge range of situations, from people serving time in prisons to people recovering from acquired brain injuries to people who want better relationships with their children to people who wish to communicate about their lives in various forms and styles. Working with the Art of Conversation will keep us happily occupied for a long time to come I think! 

©Louise Howland The Art of Conversation

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