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TEDxCreativeCoast

Celeste Headlee: 10 ways to have a better conversation

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When your job hinges on how well you talk to people, you learn a lot about how to have conversations -- and that most of us don't converse very well. Celeste Headlee has worked as a radio host for decades, and she knows the ingredients of a great conversation: Honesty, brevity, clarity and a healthy amount of listening. In this insightful talk, she shares 10 useful rules for having better conversations. "Go out, talk to people, listen to people," she says. "And, most importantly, be prepared to be amazed."

- Writer and radio host
Celeste Headlee's years of interview experience give her a unique perspective on what makes for a good conversation. Full bio

All right, I want to see a show of hands:
00:12
how many of you have
unfriended someone on Facebook
00:14
because they said something offensive
about politics or religion,
00:17
childcare, food?
00:21
(Laughter)
00:23
And how many of you
know at least one person that you avoid
00:25
because you just don't want
to talk to them?
00:28
(Laughter)
00:30
You know, it used to be that in order
to have a polite conversation,
00:32
we just had to follow the advice
of Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady":
00:36
Stick to the weather and your health.
00:39
But these days, with climate change
and anti-vaxxing, those subjects --
00:41
(Laughter)
00:44
are not safe either.
00:46
So this world that we live in,
00:47
this world in which every conversation
00:50
has the potential
to devolve into an argument,
00:53
where our politicians
can't speak to one another
00:55
and where even the most trivial of issues
00:57
have someone fighting both passionately
for it and against it, it's not normal.
00:59
Pew Research did a study
of 10,000 American adults,
01:04
and they found that at this moment,
we are more polarized,
01:08
we are more divided,
01:10
than we ever have been in history.
01:12
We're less likely to compromise,
01:14
which means we're
not listening to each other.
01:16
And we make decisions about where to live,
01:18
who to marry and even
who our friends are going to be,
01:21
based on what we already believe.
01:23
Again, that means
we're not listening to each other.
01:26
A conversation requires a balance
between talking and listening,
01:29
and somewhere along the way,
we lost that balance.
01:32
Now, part of that is due to technology.
01:35
The smartphones that you all
either have in your hands
01:37
or close enough that you could
grab them really quickly.
01:39
According to Pew Research,
01:42
about a third of American teenagers
send more than a hundred texts a day.
01:43
And many of them, almost most of them,
are more likely to text their friends
01:48
than they are to talk
to them face to face.
01:53
There's this great piece in The Atlantic.
01:56
It was written by a high school teacher
named Paul Barnwell.
01:58
And he gave his kids
a communication project.
02:01
He wanted to teach them how to speak
on a specific subject without using notes.
02:03
And he said this: "I came to realize..."
02:06
(Laughter)
02:08
"I came to realize
that conversational competence
02:12
might be the single
most overlooked skill we fail to teach.
02:15
Kids spend hours each day engaging
with ideas and each other through screens,
02:19
but rarely do they have an opportunity
02:23
to hone their interpersonal
communications skills.
02:25
It might sound like a funny question,
but we have to ask ourselves:
02:28
Is there any 21st-century skill
02:31
more important than being able to sustain
coherent, confident conversation?"
02:33
Now, I make my living talking to people:
02:39
Nobel Prize winners, truck drivers,
02:41
billionaires, kindergarten teachers,
02:43
heads of state, plumbers.
02:46
I talk to people that I like.
I talk to people that I don't like.
02:48
I talk to some people that I disagree with
deeply on a personal level.
02:51
But I still have
a great conversation with them.
02:55
So I'd like to spend the next 10 minutes
or so teaching you how to talk
02:58
and how to listen.
03:02
Many of you have already heard
a lot of advice on this,
03:04
things like look the person in the eye,
03:07
think of interesting topics
to discuss in advance,
03:09
look, nod and smile to show
that you're paying attention,
03:13
repeat back what you just heard
or summarize it.
03:18
So I want you to forget all of that.
03:21
It is crap.
03:22
(Laughter)
03:24
There is no reason to learn
how to show you're paying attention
03:27
if you are in fact paying attention.
03:31
(Laughter)
03:35
(Applause)
03:36
Now, I actually use the exact
same skills as a professional interviewer
03:39
that I do in regular life.
03:43
So, I'm going to teach you
how to interview people,
03:46
and that's actually going to help you
learn how to be better conversationalists.
03:49
Learn to have a conversation
03:53
without wasting your time,
without getting bored,
03:55
and, please God,
without offending anybody.
03:57
We've all had really great conversations.
04:00
We've had them before.
We know what it's like.
04:03
The kind of conversation where you
walk away feeling engaged and inspired,
04:05
or where you feel
like you've made a real connection
04:09
or you've been perfectly understood.
04:11
There is no reason
04:13
why most of your interactions
can't be like that.
04:14
So I have 10 basic rules.
I'm going to walk you through all of them,
04:18
but honestly, if you just choose
one of them and master it,
04:21
you'll already enjoy better conversations.
04:25
Number one: Don't multitask.
04:27
And I don't mean
just set down your cell phone
04:30
or your tablet or your car keys
or whatever is in your hand.
04:32
I mean, be present.
04:35
Be in that moment.
04:37
Don't think about your argument
you had with your boss.
04:39
Don't think about what
you're going to have for dinner.
04:42
If you want to get out
of the conversation,
04:44
get out of the conversation,
04:46
but don't be half in it
and half out of it.
04:48
Number two: Don't pontificate.
04:50
If you want to state your opinion
04:52
without any opportunity for response
or argument or pushback or growth,
04:55
write a blog.
05:01
(Laughter)
05:02
Now, there's a really good reason
why I don't allow pundits on my show:
05:05
Because they're really boring.
05:09
If they're conservative, they're going to
hate Obama and food stamps and abortion.
05:10
If they're liberal, they're going to hate
05:14
big banks and oil corporations
and Dick Cheney.
05:16
Totally predictable.
05:18
And you don't want to be like that.
05:20
You need to enter every conversation
assuming that you have something to learn.
05:21
The famed therapist M. Scott Peck said
05:27
that true listening requires
a setting aside of oneself.
05:29
And sometimes that means
setting aside your personal opinion.
05:34
He said that sensing this acceptance,
05:38
the speaker will become
less and less vulnerable
05:41
and more and more likely
to open up the inner recesses
05:43
of his or her mind to the listener.
05:46
Again, assume that you have
something to learn.
05:49
Bill Nye: "Everyone you will ever meet
knows something that you don't."
05:52
I put it this way:
05:57
Everybody is an expert in something.
05:58
Number three: Use open-ended questions.
06:03
In this case, take a cue from journalists.
06:06
Start your questions with who,
what, when, where, why or how.
06:08
If you put in a complicated question,
you're going to get a simple answer out.
06:11
If I ask you, "Were you terrified?"
06:14
you're going to respond to the most
powerful word in that sentence,
06:17
which is "terrified," and the answer is
"Yes, I was" or "No, I wasn't."
06:20
"Were you angry?" "Yes, I was very angry."
06:23
Let them describe it.
They're the ones that know.
06:25
Try asking them things like,
"What was that like?"
06:28
"How did that feel?"
06:31
Because then they might have to stop
for a moment and think about it,
06:33
and you're going to get
a much more interesting response.
06:37
Number four: Go with the flow.
06:40
That means thoughts
will come into your mind
06:43
and you need to let them
go out of your mind.
06:46
We've heard interviews often
06:49
in which a guest is talking
for several minutes
06:51
and then the host comes back in
and asks a question
06:54
which seems like it comes out of nowhere,
or it's already been answered.
06:56
That means the host probably
stopped listening two minutes ago
07:00
because he thought
of this really clever question,
07:02
and he was just bound
and determined to say that.
07:06
And we do the exact same thing.
07:09
We're sitting there having
a conversation with someone,
07:11
and then we remember that time
that we met Hugh Jackman in a coffee shop.
07:14
(Laughter)
07:17
And we stop listening.
07:18
Stories and ideas
are going to come to you.
07:20
You need to let them come and let them go.
07:22
Number five: If you don't know,
say that you don't know.
07:26
Now, people on the radio,
especially on NPR,
07:30
are much more aware
that they're going on the record,
07:33
and so they're more careful
about what they claim to be an expert in
07:36
and what they claim to know for sure.
07:39
Do that. Err on the side of caution.
07:41
Talk should not be cheap.
07:44
Number six: Don't equate
your experience with theirs.
07:46
If they're talking
about having lost a family member,
07:51
don't start talking about the time
you lost a family member.
07:54
If they're talking about the trouble
they're having at work,
07:56
don't tell them about
how much you hate your job.
07:59
It's not the same. It is never the same.
08:02
All experiences are individual.
08:04
And, more importantly,
it is not about you.
08:05
You don't need to take that moment
to prove how amazing you are
08:09
or how much you've suffered.
08:13
Somebody asked Stephen Hawking once
what his IQ was, and he said,
08:15
"I have no idea. People who brag
about their IQs are losers."
08:18
(Laughter)
08:21
Conversations are not
a promotional opportunity.
08:23
Number seven:
08:28
Try not to repeat yourself.
08:31
It's condescending,
and it's really boring,
08:32
and we tend to do it a lot.
08:35
Especially in work conversations
or in conversations with our kids,
08:36
we have a point to make,
08:40
so we just keep rephrasing it
over and over.
08:42
Don't do that.
08:45
Number eight: Stay out of the weeds.
08:46
Frankly, people don't care
08:49
about the years, the names,
08:52
the dates, all those details
08:54
that you're struggling
to come up with in your mind.
08:56
They don't care.
What they care about is you.
08:59
They care about what you're like,
09:01
what you have in common.
09:04
So forget the details. Leave them out.
09:05
Number nine:
09:08
This is not the last one,
but it is the most important one.
09:10
Listen.
09:13
I cannot tell you how many
really important people have said
09:14
that listening is perhaps the most,
the number one most important skill
09:18
that you could develop.
09:22
Buddha said, and I'm paraphrasing,
09:23
"If your mouth is open,
you're not learning."
09:25
And Calvin Coolidge said, "No man
ever listened his way out of a job."
09:28
(Laughter)
09:32
Why do we not listen to each other?
09:34
Number one, we'd rather talk.
09:36
When I'm talking, I'm in control.
09:39
I don't have to hear anything
I'm not interested in.
09:41
I'm the center of attention.
09:43
I can bolster my own identity.
09:45
But there's another reason:
09:47
We get distracted.
09:48
The average person talks
at about 225 word per minute,
09:50
but we can listen at up to
500 words per minute.
09:53
So our minds are filling in
those other 275 words.
09:57
And look, I know,
it takes effort and energy
10:01
to actually pay attention to someone,
10:05
but if you can't do that,
you're not in a conversation.
10:07
You're just two people shouting out
barely related sentences
10:10
in the same place.
10:13
(Laughter)
10:14
You have to listen to one another.
10:16
Stephen Covey said it very beautifully.
10:19
He said, "Most of us don't listen
with the intent to understand.
10:20
We listen with the intent to reply."
10:24
One more rule, number 10,
and it's this one: Be brief.
10:28
[A good conversation is like a miniskirt;
short enough to retain interest,
10:32
but long enough to cover
the subject. -- My Sister]
10:36
(Laughter)
10:38
(Applause)
10:40
All of this boils down to the same
basic concept, and it is this one:
10:42
Be interested in other people.
10:47
You know, I grew up
with a very famous grandfather,
10:50
and there was kind of a ritual in my home.
10:52
People would come over
to talk to my grandparents,
10:54
and after they would leave,
my mother would come over to us,
10:57
and she'd say, "Do you know who that was?
11:00
She was the runner-up to Miss America.
11:02
He was the mayor of Sacramento.
11:03
She won a Pulitzer Prize.
He's a Russian ballet dancer."
11:05
And I kind of grew up assuming
11:08
everyone has some hidden,
amazing thing about them.
11:12
And honestly, I think
it's what makes me a better host.
11:15
I keep my mouth shut
as often as I possibly can,
11:19
I keep my mind open,
11:22
and I'm always prepared to be amazed,
11:23
and I'm never disappointed.
11:26
You do the same thing.
11:28
Go out, talk to people,
11:30
listen to people,
11:33
and, most importantly,
be prepared to be amazed.
11:34
Thanks.
11:38
(Applause)
11:39

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About the Speaker:

Celeste Headlee - Writer and radio host
Celeste Headlee's years of interview experience give her a unique perspective on what makes for a good conversation.

Why you should listen

Celeste Headlee hosts a daily news/talk show, On Second Thought, on Georgia Public Broadcasting. 

Headlee has worked in public radio since 1999, as a reporter, host and correspondent. She was the Midwest Correspondent for NPR before becoming the co-host of the PRI show "The Takeaway.” After that, she guest hosted a number of NPR shows including "Tell Me More,” "Talk of the Nation,” "Weekend All Things Considered” and "Weekend Edition". Headlee also anchored election coverage for PBS World in 2012 and was a regular guest on CNN.

Headlee holds multiple degrees in music and still performs as a professional opera singer. She appears on the album “Classically Blue” from gospel artist Lea Gilmore. She's the granddaughter of composer William Grant Still.

More profile about the speaker
Celeste Headlee | Speaker | TED.com