When you want to concentrate on and understand what someone is saying, and when you want to raise a tricky subject, give some thought to the environment in which the conversation will take place.
A bit of noise
The best place is not necessarily somewhere very quiet. Sometimes a low level of background noise is soothing and actually helps the conversation to flow more freely. Having a quiet hum of talk or a bit of gentle music going on can prevent either of you from feeling embarrassed, and could help you to feel comfortable with gaps and silences.
Don’t have the television on in the background, though. All eyes will be drawn to it. The same goes for having young children and pets around.
A comfortable distance
Although there is no need to sit ascloseasthis when you are talking, you don’t want an awkward distance between you. Just the right amount of space will encourage communication.
If you are in a spacious room with the seats far apart from each other, try shifting chairs so you create a pocket of closeness.
When you are separated by a lot of space, words fall like stones into the gap. Light-hearted comments become measured and heavy, mild observations become public announcements and a conversation can seem like an interview or an interrogation.
Walking and talking
Although eye contact is a very important part of communication, sometimes not being able to look at each other all the time can be an aid to discussion, particularly if the topic of conversation is painful or embarrassing.
Walking together with the same pace and rhythm creates a connection between you, and allows for pauses and silences as you go along.
Sitting side by side with the distraction of scenery and the soothing effect of motion can create a relaxed environment in which difficult topics can be aired. Careful though — you don’t want to tell your mother that you are emigrating to the other side of the word just as she is negotiating a tricky bend…
Doing something practical
You can pay close attention to what someone is saying, and find the right moment to raise a topic, if you are both engaged in doing something physical like cooking or painting or cleaning.
Sharing a task that requires intermittent attention can create an unthreatening environment. The combination of activity, movement and speech is particularly helpful for awkward conversations.
It also takes some of the emphasis away from your actual words, which can be helpful if you worry about getting it a bit wrong. It’s not so hard to repeat something, or put it a different way, when you are sorting laundry or clearing out the garage.
In the kitchen
It’s the traditional place to hide at parties, but it’s also a great place for conversation. There is something intimate about shutting the kitchen door and getting on with cooking or cleaning together that generates an atmosphere of togetherness and encourages the exchange of information in an easy, non-threatening way.
When you are preparing vegetables or putting things in and out of cupboards your body language is relaxed and fluid, and the activities offer ways of hiding embarrassment or softening the intensity of an exchange.
You might consider ignoring the dishwashing machine, and engage in some hands-on soapy water action. Just putting your hands in hot sudsy water can take the edge off things, and the rhythm and co-operation involved in the give and take of washing and drying procedures encourages the exchange of confidences.
With your elbows deep in soapy suds, you can casually ask your Young Person how that test went, or tell your sister you are starting IV treatment, or tell your dad that you have lost your job.
Everyone can deflect awkward moments, if they occur, by asking where the small saucepans go. If you want to stop and think about something that has been said, you just take special care washing or drying that plate. Let your hands move slowly and methodically while your thoughts evolve.
Be prepared, though – the scenario might work so well that shocking revelations emerge, causing someone to drop and break your favourite china dish, the one with the art deco pattern — no, it’s all right, honestly…
And remember, if you want to create this kind of atmosphere in which confidences are exchanged and difficult things are made easier to say, it’s as well not to hand back an item with the words ‘You missed a bit.’ Somehow it’s hard to make that sound warm, and you don’t want to break the connection you have formed.