Listening To Informal Conversations And Participating
What is conversation? As a starter we can think of it as two or more people talking and listening. They may be doing this either face-to-face or at a distance. It can be done via the spoken word or via sign or symbol (the most obvious case here is the use of chat rooms on the internet). This may sound a bit obvious, but as soon as we begin to think about conversation we can see it is a sophisticated activity that we often take for granted. Here we will start by listing some important qualities.
Conversation is a social activity:
Apart from talking to ourselves, or to animals, we engage in it with others. To do this we need to think about their feelings, thoughts and needs. In turn, they too must think of us. We have to consider, for example, whether our words could upset or offend others; or whether they will help us in dealing with the matter in hand. Thus, if two or more people are to communicate, then they must Co-operate. Think about others' feelings and experiences. Give each other room to talk.
In other words, talking - conversation - is a reciprocal process.
Conversation involves people agreeing about the topic:
We can often spend a great deal of time trying to locate an agenda. We have to come some sort of agreement about what we are going to talk about.
Conversation involves an immediate response:
There is not much of a time lag between the action of one person and the response of the other. This means, for example, that what we say may be less thought out. Linked to this is the need for us to be tolerant of what is said to us in the heat of the moment.
Conversation entails certain commitments:
For it to work, we have to trust in the others involved. When they say they will do something, for example, then we tend to have to take it at face value. At a minimum we have to be open to the possible truth of their words. We may have doubts - but without a degree of trust or openness to the views of others, conversations (or social life) could not happen (we talk about the need for such trust and tolerance in our discussion of social capital).
Conversation involves interpretation - and in filling the gaps:
To make sense of what others are saying we often have to make leaps forward. People cannot give us all the information we need right at the start. We put their words in context, make assumptions, and add in material to give shape to what they are saying. In other words, conversations often involve people drawing on a large amount of 'background knowledge'. If we do not have it then we have to make great leaps of imagination and hope that all will become clear as the person speaks, or we ask questions.
Engaging in conversation:
Informal educators are accomplished conversationalists. They have to develop their ability to make contact and establish the basis for talk; to sustain and deepen conversation; and to deal with the tricky area of closing or ending an exchange. Here we want to highlight four crucial aspects. In significant part they are to do with the frame of mind with which we approach conversation.
To fully engage in conversation, we have to be in a certain frame of mind. We have to be with that person, rather than seeking to act upon them. If we enter into conversation with the desire to act upon the other participants then we are seeing them as objects - things rather than people. It means that we are not able to be fully open to what they are saying. We are not open to interaction.
Conversation for the informal educator is not, then, about trying to win an argument. Rather, conversation is about understanding and learning. This means looking for the truth in what others are saying - and linking it to our own understandings. One of the fundamental aspects of conversation is that we enter it ready to have our view of things changed in some way. This doesn't mean that we have to believe everything we hear. Our valuing of truth requires us to ask questions about what we hear (and say!)
Going with the flow:
Conversation tends to be unpredictable and we have to be ready to cover a lot of ground. We do not know talk might lead. We may start with one subject but that can quickly change as we ask questions or express interest. Informal educators have to 'go with the flow'. There may be moments when they can bring the conversation back to a particular focus, or introduce new material, but a lot for much of the time they will be listening and joining in, seeing where the talk will lead (and how best they can make their contribution as educators).
Moving between different forms of conversation:
Conversations change. We move from one mode of speaking to another. We may shift from a chat into serious discussion, from making a joke into argument, from talking about soap opera into disclosing something about our personal life. We, thus, have to attend to these shifts so that we make the right response. We also have to work at creating an environment in which shifts can occur. For example, we need to work giving people the 'space' to move from casual conversation into exploring some issue or problem they are facing. In many respects, this area is one of the great qualities of informal educators. They have to be able to switch gear, and be on constant lookout for signals that people want to deepen or lighten the conversation.
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