Discover These Secrets of Conversational Skill

The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right place but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.  ~Dorothy Nevill

Career, dating, marriage, and friendships all depend on conversation for success.

Yet conversational skill often eludes people on the autism spectrum.

Recently, Alex Plank put together a video with Dr. Liz Laugeson, director of the PEERS center.

This video gives you a step by step tutorial for joining a social circle and making friends in a group.

Here are some steps for honing your conversational skill:

This method of joining and leaving conversations is based on an “ecologically valid model.”  This is another way of saying that this is what people who are naturally gifted do in social situations.

conversational skillApproaching The Conversation


Listen to the conversation you want to join from a distance.  Most teens with autism, when they enter a conversation, tend to say something completely unrelated to the topic being discussed.  Instead, they tend to talk about their specialized interest/s, without regard to what the current topic of conversation is.

The people conversing will then perceive that person as butting in, talking off topic, and being intrusive.  And they will then tend to feel puzzled and annoyed, and confused about why you’re in the conversation.

So make sure, after you hear what the conversation’s topic is about, that you know something about the topic.

Hints for Eavesdropping

You’ve heard many people tell you to look others in the eye when you’re talking to them.  But when you haven’t yet joined a conversation, you don’t want to make eye contact.  Instead, make casual, periodic eye contact.

Use a prop, like your phone, iPod, or a book.  Look up every once in a while and gaze toward the direction of people in the group, but don’t stare.

Wait For A Pause In The Conversation

People don’t like being  interrupted, so if you enter during a pause in the conversation, you’ll be showing respect and grace.

The trick, per Dr. Laugeson, is that there is not always a perfect pause.  You’re bound to do well, however, just because you’re aware of the need to wait for a pause.

Once you notice a pause, move a bit closer and join the conversation.

Joining The Conversation

Once you join the conversation, make a comment or ask a question that’s on topic.

Assess Whether You Have Been Accepted Into The Conversation

Once you’ve made a couple of comments, or asked a couple of questions, it’s important to gauge whether you’ve been accepted into the conversation.

Dr. Laugeson pointed out that, per research, neurotypical people are not accepted into conversations 50% of the time!  And that’s okay!

It’s not a big deal.  There are other conversations.  You don’t want to force people to talk to you.

So, how do you know if you’ve been accepted into the conversation?

Look for signs of interest.  If the members of the group are talking to you, looking at you, leaning toward you with their bodies, or pointing their bodies toward you, those are good indications of acceptance.

And the reverse is true if they are not interested.  They won’t engage you in conversation, or if they are looking at you, they may be squinting their eyes or making other expressions of annoyance.  Or they may turn their bodies away from you entirely.

When more than two people talk in conversations, they talk in circles, facing each other.

When they want to talk to you, they open the circle.

When they don’t talk to you, the people closest to you close the circle through their body positions and spacing.

It’s important to know if you are accepted, because you don’t want to force them to talk you.  If you continue to try to engage them, they might find you annoying and not want to talk to you in the future.

Make A Graceful Exit

If you find out that you’re not welcome in a conversation, it’s important to exit that conversation gracefully.

Dr. Laugeson and Alex both recognized from experience that teens and adults on the autism spectrum may appear to be storming off when they leave a group.

So here’s how you can make a proper exit.

Slow it down.  Begin by looking away.  This shows the people talking that you aren’t interested in the conversation.  After looking away, turn your body in the same direction you are looking away.   Then casually and slowly walk away.

In Conclusion

  • Eavesdrop
  • Join the conversation
  • Monitor whether you’ve been accepted into the conversation
  • If not accepted into the conversation, it’s no big deal!  Make a graceful exit.
  • If accepted, you can continue the conversation [if you feel uncomfortable, or feel the need to leave, you can make a graceful exit using the same technique]

What do you think of this step by step model?  What do you think of the video?  What other tips can you offer for improving conversational skill?

Image credit: Tawng / 123RF Stock Photo

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About Stephen Borgman

 I'm Steve Borgman.  I'm a licensed clinical professional counselor and blogger committed to bringing you hope, understanding, and solutions that you can apply to your life immediately.
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DrErica 1 Like


What a wonderful and eye opening post about conversations.  I have often felt either accepted or unaccepted but without such detailed clarification about what I was experiencing.  Having studied a lot about body language, I certainly have a sense when people are open and receptive or subtly ignoring, avoiding or excluding me.  So much better to see it clearly, to not take it personally and to behave appropriately for the situation.  Those same people may reach out to talk at a later point, in a different situation or about a separate topic.


Dr. Erica

SteveBorgman moderator

Erica, thanks for sharing your experience with body language.  Many people on the spectrum find it hard to believe how much body language can affect NTs (neurotypicals).  They find that, when they learn this 'hidden language' and practice it, they improve their communication with others.