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Better Conversation by Celeste Headlee

Updated: Jan 4, 2022

by Lihong McPhail

One of the most popular Ted talks of all time is “10 ways to have better conversation” by Celeste Headlee, a journalist for NPR. Miss Headlee makes a living by having great interviews with all kinds of people, and she points out that conversational competence, the skill to sustain coherent and confident conversation, might be the single most overlooked skill we fail to teach. In the world we are living in right now, every conversation has the potential to devolve into arguments. Our politicians can’t talk to each other anymore and even the most trivial issues have people fight passionately both for and against it. One third of teens send more than 100 text messages a day and they are more likely to text than have a face-to-face conversation. The United States of America as a country is more divided than ever. We are less likely to compromise, which means we are not listening to each other. In this article, I am going to try my best to summarize her ten ways to have better conversation into three 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. You either commit to a conversation or walk away. It’s better to make a commitment to have a brief conversation and be gone afterwards, than a long conversation while being distracted and multitasking. “If what you have to say is important and you want people to remember it, then keep it short and sweet.” “A good conversation is like a mini skirt; short enough to retain interest but long enough to cover the subject.”

In this article, I summarize three guideposts from Celeste Headlee’s Ted talk and her book on how to have a better conversation. A good conversation requires a balance of talking and listening, requires that every participant has genuine interest in each other even when they disagree deeply on a personal level, and requires commitment.

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