The Art of Conversation
One of my biggest challenges in life has been trying to start and carry on conversations with other people. My autism has greatly affected me in this area for many years, making it seem to others that I am not paying attention to them or I am not interested in our talk. With time and practice, I have gotten much better at it, but I still have to fight my inner urges in order to be successful.
The conversation issue that sticks out most in my mind is maintaining eye contact with the other person while we are talking. When I find myself in an environment filled with distractions, I find it hard to resist turning my attention toward them. My sensory system is wired in such a way that those distractions immediately stand out to me and grab at my mind for a moment and become my personal “spotlight.” If there is a colorful decoration or a flashy object in a room, I might glance at it for a few seconds and lose myself to thoughts about the decoration or object. Then, I miss what is being said or the flow of the conversation before returning my gaze to the other person. Sudden noises like a honking horn, a crying baby, or from a pet or animal are enough to take me away as well. Movement has the same effect. If I catch anything moving in my peripheral vision, it could be enough to distract me. Even the smell of perfume, cologne, or other strong scents can sway me. It is also especially difficult for me to remain focused on a conversation if the other person is taking a long time to make their point. When this happens, I cannot grasp the “idea” that they are trying to convey and it makes it hard for me to concentrate on the topic at hand and the person speaking.
In the speech classes I used to take, I worked very hard on not letting these distractions get the better of me and keeping my eyes on the person I was speaking with. I still try very hard to give the other person in a conversation my full, undivided attention. I have gotten better at this as time has gone on, but it remains natural for me to gravitate toward other sources of interest in between thoughts.
Another challenge which I still have to control is my desire to dominate the conversation with my own interests and exploits. Most of the time, I feel like I have a lot to address and clarify, so, in the past, I have been known to talk for long stretches of time without letting the other person get a word in edgewise. Even if I did let them talk, I did not listen to them and instead thought about what I wanted to say next. I think this might have caused other people to think that I only cared about myself and not others, which was totally unintentional on my part. It was not until my parents pointed out to me that I was doing this that I noticed it. From then on, I have worked very hard to let the other speakers in conversations voice their opinions and ideas. Now, I say just a little bit of what I want to say, and then I let the other person add their thoughts while I think about how what they are talking about ties in with my thoughts. Next, I build off of their ideas with my next point. I think I have more meaningful and complete conversations this way, and I learn a lot more about the world and my family, friends, and other people when I take all of what everyone says into consideration.
I had an opportunity to further my conversation skills during a recent picnic in a nearby park with my adult social group. During the picnic, I found it hard to chat with some of the people I met because I just do not know them that well. A strong feeling of uncertainty colored quite a few of my conversations because I did not know what was considered acceptable. I could feel myself becoming nervous and noticed that my eyes darted around to the other picnickers and the park’s magnificent foliage while I was speaking, and I think I might have rambled on a bit. As the afternoon wore on, though, my level of comfort improved, and I felt it got easier to carry on an engaging conversation. I learned more about my friends, and we had a great time playing some games that were there. The conversations we had while playing the games were very enjoyable, and I was glad to have them. They were my favorite part of the day. When I have a great conversation with someone, I remember it for the rest of the day and for a long time afterward. Specific details of what we talked about may fade with time, but I remember the way we connected with each other and talked about things we both liked or found interesting. The feeling of satisfaction I get after a good chat is one I find hard to describe in words, but I can say it is well worth talking about.