How To Develop Dinnertime Conversation Skills

Vacation time is coming…and with it more family meals.  One friend beseeched, “What do you do to keep the kids from bickering at the dinner table?  We hear that family meals are a prime time to build strong relationships, but not “chez nous!” (in our home)

The art of discussion, like many great talents, flourishes with training.  (In contrast to rambling which can come naturally…)  For some it’s a lost art.  A friend who coaches CEO’s informed me that top managers now seek to teach their teams in conversation skills! 

Parents, coach in discourse now.  It may be better late than never.  It’s best early than late.

Start at the Very Beginning

Set the tone.  I still blush at this memory:  We have a house rule, “The table is a place for pleasant conversation and good manners.”  Who was screaming this at the kids?  Yours truly.  The meal was quiet after my outburst…and I learned that some comments set the tone for discussions while others turn them off.

Conversation Stoppers:

-          “What took you so long to come to the table?”
-          “Spinach is on the menu.  Eat it or leave it.”
-          “Yuck!  Your hands are filthy!”
-          “Don’t you have anything to talk about?”

Conversation Primers:

-          “I gather you took so long to come to the table because you were thinking of what to share!”
-          “Yes, it’s spinach tonight.  Shall we talk about the menu for next week during our meal?”
-          “Please wash your hands, then come back and tell us what you did to get them so dirty!”
-          “I have something interesting to talk about.  Does anyone else want to speak first?”

Interject Conversation Starters

Why reinvent the wheel when there are so many snazzy ones out there that do the trick?  Use tools.  Here are some favorites:


My mother slides paper notes with quotes written on them under each plate.  The kids love to peak, treat the wise sayings a uncovered treasures, and vigorously participate in exposing their discovery.  We have several collections of quotes on Home Is Fun.  (Click here for our most recent selection.  For more ideas try Thanksgiving Conversation Stimulators or Feel Appreciated Tip 101.)

Interesting Things of the Day:

For several years, our boys took turns to share five interesting things from the day.  It was a negotiated deal.  The children wanted more time to play on the computer and I desired to know them better.  My eldest son proposed an exchange:  I get the scoop through five interesting things per child per day and those who play along receive fifteen more minutes of screen play time per week.  (This was six years ago when the boys' ages ranged from ten to four years old.)

Admittedly, sometimes dinner talk felt stiff—like a recitation of “interesting things”—yet I would do it again.  One key to success lay in hearing five stories.  The first three were predictable (“Fries for lunch” type of comments) while the last two revealed meaty matter (“Joey pushed Suzette… so I shoved them both!”)  Parenting tweaking required!

Alternatively, be the one to generate an interesting thing discussion by talking about your day.


Have siblings express what they appreciate about their brother or sister…and go around the table.  Laugh with this family over their initial experience.  Remember, conversational experts started as novices.

Practice Etiquette

Stick to some common rules.  Try introducing one or two at each meal, preferably at the beginning so as not to break rule n°1.

1.       Don’t interrupt
2.       Wait for your turn to speak.  Try passing “The Mike” (a wooden spoon or whisk does the trick)
3.       Talk when it is your turn
4.       Look at (or face) your conversation partner
5.       Keep your hands away from your face
6.       Speak to others the way you want them to talk to you

Express “Can We Stop?” Gracefully

Good:  “Thank you.”

Better:  “That was an enjoyable/interesting (one compliment) conversation.  Thank you.”

Best:  “That was (compliment).  Let’s do it again some other time!”

You can also prepare to stop before you start.  “Let’s put the timer on for twenty minutes.  When it rings, you kids may be excused from the discussion.”

Learn More

We have so much to learn from those who overcome challenges.  Read up on integrating visual cues to help autistic children express emotions…and help your child communicate her feelings positively too.

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