Many neurodivergent (ND) adults struggle with social conversations. Life would be so much simpler if people would just say what they mean and mean what they say, rather than assuming that everyone is privy to their secret social rules of conversation. It’s easy to become frustrated when you are so often misunderstood, or accused of being rude when that was never your intention.
There are four FACE ideas may smooth the way when you must engage in social conversations with your neurotypical friends, family, and colleagues. FACE stands for Follow back, Ask back, Comment, and End well. In this post I’ll write about the Follow Back strategy.
Sometimes a conversation bounces around from topic to topic. Neurotypical people seem to have a much shorter “wave length” of talking vs. pausing for someone else to jump in. It’s like trying to run in to double jump ropes that are already turning, timing it just right to get in there at just the right moment so you can jump rather than getting hit by the ropes. Neurotypical conversational “jump ropes” are turning much faster than most NDs are comfortable with. You may be looking for a much wider opening, or longer pause, before you feel confident to insert your comment into the conversation. What if you miss the moment, and the talk turns to different topics? Is your opportunity lost forever?
No, not necessarily. If you wanted to say something about Topic A, and now everyone is talking about Topic B, it may not be too late to make your point. Of course, if you jump right in with your Topic A comment smack dab in the middle of their Topic B conversation, it can be awkward. It might even bring the conversation to a full stop while people try to process what you just said. Don’t worry, though. Even if the talk has turned to other matters, all is not lost. You can still bring the conversation back around and say your piece. You just want to do it in a way that the others can follow you back instead of getting lost in the weeds.
The first thing to do if you want your conversational partners to follow you back to the previous topic is to wait for a pause or lull in the conversation. I know, this sounds easier than it is when you have a bunch of typical talkers hitting the conversational ball around at top speed. Eventually, though, you should see your opening.
Now insert a brief script to let them know you’re returning to Topic A. It might be something along the lines of, “Something you said earlier reminded me…” or “Getting back to (Topic A), I had another thought about that…” Now you’ve got their attention and you’ve telegraphed your intention to return to an earlier discussion. They should be able to follow you back with no difficulty. Chances are whatever you had to say was worth it, and you’ll be glad you did. They probably will be, too.
While it is often fine to bring the conversation back to a previous topic, sometimes it’s not welcome. There are three specific situations to look out for to avoid using the Follow Back strategy.
- If the previous topic was an intense interest of yours, a topic that you’re an expert in, and you had been dominating the conversation by lecturing or sharing your expertise, don’t go back at this time. If someone changed the subject to something more of them were interested in, they would not be very open to following you back to your personal passion. That doesn’t mean you should always squelch your interests, and there will be another time to talk about your favorite things, but learning to read the room can help you avoid awkwardness. If reading the room is not your strength, just assume that if the previous topic was your absolute favorite thing to talk about, they may be ready to move on to other topics.
- Another reason not to try to return to a previous topic is if the topic had been uncomfortable or disturbing. If you had all been talking about politics, religion, a tragedy in the news, or something sad or upsetting, people might want to shake off those feelings and talk about lighter, less intense things. The fact that someone changed the topic away from one of these issues means they probably don’t want to keep talking about the uncomfortable thing. Let it go.
- A third reason not to try to turn a conversation back is if everyone seems to be extremely interested in the new topic and the conversation is rolling happily along. How can you tell? If people are smiling broadly, gesturing more with their hands than usual, leaning in towards each other, laughing, and almost talking over one another to get their points in. These are signs that the people chatting are really into the new topic. It’s not a good idea to interrupt a lively, free-flowing conversation to return to a past topic, or it can feel like a wet blanket has been thrown over the group.
Other than these three situations, any time you see a pause in a conversation that has moved on, and you want to put in your thoughts from the previous topic, go for it. Your people can follow you back.