Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Types of Conversations

I spend a lot of time thinking about conversations. Frequently, when I’m coaching individuals with Asperger’s and autism we’re working on conversations and how to manage them. This can be tricky because conversations vary depending on the situation. Do you stick to the topic you started with or let it wander? What do you do with interruptions? How do you manage questions? All these concerns come down to one basic issue: What type of conversation is this? It can be helpful to think about this before starting to talk, and keep it in mind during the conversation.
The most formal conversation is a presentation. If you’re giving a presentation you know what material you want to cover. Visually, this is like a train track. Start at point A, get to points B, C, D, and E. Sometimes members of the audience will ask questions. You can visualize this as a train track, but people may get off and wander around at the various stations. It’s important to get back on topic after the question, much like you’d get back on the train.
Less formal conversations are things like job interviews. Everyone is probably seated, there is no written structure to the discussion, and the direction of the conversation is in the control of all the speakers. Don’t let this fool you into thinking that the conversation should go in any direction. In something like an interview or a discussion with your boss you should have some idea of what points you want to cover before you start speaking. The conversation may wander between those points, but you’ve got to be sure to bring the focus back so you cover your material. I picture this type of conversation as a loose string, pinned at certain points, and wandering between those points.
The least formal conversations are things like small talk, dating conversations, social chatting and hanging out. Although neurotypicals may find this type of conversation fun and effortless, some individuals on the autism spectrum and those with Asperger’s may find the unstructured nature difficult to manage. I picture this conversation with the scientific term "random walk" or "drunkard’s walk". The starting point is fixed, but after every statement the conversation can go in any direction and there’s no end point in mind. The key here is to let go of the control, pay attention to your partner’s inputs and move together. It’s almost like a verbal dance.
I’ll be going into more detail on managing these types of conversation in future posts, so please check back.