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The Middle Ages

The Baltimore Sun

The holidays are upon us and, if we are lucky, our grown-up kids will make it home from college or careers and spend some time with us, the parents who still think if them as children.

Debra Fine, author of a new book on small talk, is certain that when hers come home to Colorado, the best conversations will be the ones in the car, on the way from the airport.

"It's just like when they were little," said the author of The Fine Art of Small Talk. "Captive audience, but no eye contact."

Fine created a funny list of holiday conversational land mines, such as "Are you two ever going to get married?" or "When are you two going to make me a grandmother."

But the truth is, we parents are nervous about what is safe to say to our grown children. We want more information than they will ever give us, and we don't want to shut off the spigot by saying something stupid. And goodness knows we usually do.

"What happens is, we don't take time to prepare, and we don't invest in good conversation," said Fine. "We throw something out, like 'How's work?' or 'How's school?' We get one-word answers and the conversation is over. We are lazy, especially with family."

The questions we ask can be unintentionally hurtful, too: "Did you get into a college yet?", "Are you still dating Jennifer?", "Did you find a job yet?"

The answers to such questions can be painful. Instead, Fine suggests, take the time to frame a question that allows a young person to share the information he or she wants to share.

"So, what's been going on since the last time I saw you?"

"What kind of impact do these crazy holidays have on you at work?"

"Are you doing anything fun this Christmas break?" (Instead of, "Are you going to earn some money this Christmas break?")

The advice Fine gives in her book especially targets those of us whose conversational skills in the business world could use some polishing.

But no matter what kind of an impression we want to make at a conference or at a business social gathering, face it: we care more about our relationships with our children. Avoid being a proselytizer, Fine says, or an adviser.

Religion and politics are not dangerous topics if you take the time to ask what someone else thinks, instead of spouting your point of view.

And if your children are candid enough to tell you of troubles at work or in a relationship, don't jump in to fix it.

"It is possible they just want someone to listen," said Fine. "You can still say something like, 'If there is a way I can help, let me know.'"

Whatever you do, don't act like some kind of FBI agent. Relax. Listen, don't lecture, don't interrogate.

Thanksgiving is coming. Both of my children will be home.

Wish me luck.


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