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Better Conversation by Celeste Headlee

by Lihong McPhail

Celeste Headlee's Ted Talk, "10 Ways to Have Better Conversation," has garnered widespread acclaim for its insightful take on the lost art of meaningful dialogue. Headlee, a seasoned NPR journalist skilled in conducting engaging interviews, brings to light the underestimated value of conversational competence – the ability to sustain confident and coherent exchanges. In our current landscape, conversations often teeter on the brink of turning into heated arguments. Politicians struggle to communicate, and seemingly trivial matters elicit fervent clashes of opinion. A digital era sees a significant fraction of teenagers sending over 100 text messages daily, preferring text over face-to-face interaction. Amidst this backdrop, our nation, the United States of America, finds itself increasingly divided, and compromise has become a rarity, signaling a troubling lack of active listening.

This article distills Headlee's ten strategies for improved conversation into three key guideposts.

The first guidepost is that a good conversation requires a balance of talking and listening. A good conversation here means a dialogue between two people to build deep connections. A good conversation is not arguing, or lecturing, or venting. If you want to argue, set up a debate. If you want to lecture, write a blog. If you want to vent, find a therapist. Being a good talker is important, but it is even more important to be a good listener. Nobody ever lost a job by being a good listener. Sometimes being a good talker doesn’t make you a good listener, and being smart might make you a terrible listener, because highly intelligent people tend to place a great deal of value on logic and discount the importance of emotions. As human beings we are emotional creatures. To remove, or attempt to remove, emotion from your conversation is to extract a great deal of meaning, therefore, to reduce the quality of a conversation.

The second guidepost is that every participant in the conversation is deeply interested in each other, even if you deeply disagree with each other on a personal level. You can’t fake interest by nodding and smiling, because others can tell that you are faking it. Without a doubt, if you are not actually interested in the other person, there won’t be a good conversation. Why should you be interested in someone who you disagree with? Because in this world we live in, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to find anyone who agrees with you on every issue one hundred percent. If we don’t want to be alone, we must learn to talk to people who we disagree with. When we can set aside our differences, we will be surprised at what we can learn from each other. If the conversation does not go as well as we hoped, ask for feedback. Ask if we could have phrased things differently, or if we were focused on the wrong things, or if we didn’t understand their point. Then listen. Listen to what they have to say without taking offense. It’s never easy to listen to constructive criticism, but if we don’t get an honest assessment of where we can improve, we can’t achieve our goal of having better conversation.

The last guidepost is that a good conversation requires commitment. Engaging in a conversation demands genuine commitment. Opting for a succinct yet focused exchange is more productive than engaging in lengthy discussions while being distracted. The adage, "If you want to be remembered, keep it short and impactful," resonates. Striking the balance between holding interest and covering subject matter is akin to a well-fitted skirt – captivating yet sufficiently comprehensive.

In conclusion, this article distills three pivotal guideposts from Celeste Headlee's Ted Talk and her book on the art of meaningful conversation. These principles emphasize the equilibrium between speaking and listening, the significance of authentic curiosity amid disagreements, and the value of committing fully to each exchange. By internalizing and practicing these principles, we can navigate the intricate terrain of conversation with finesse and connection.

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