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Americans feel less connected and more divided than ever before. Electronic devices are partly to blame, but the erosion of our conversational skills lies with each of us. The only way forward is to start talking to each other, says Celeste Headlee, TV and radio show host and author of We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter (out in September). In 30 minutes, Headlee discusses her simple strategies for having satisfying conversations online and in person, at home and at work.
CELESTE HEADLEE is an award-winning journalist and author of the upcoming book, We Need to Talk – How to Have Better Conversations (September 2017). She has appeared on NPR, PBS World, PRI, CNN, BBC and other international networks. She hosts a daily talk show called ” for in Atlanta. She was formerly a host at National Public Radio, anchoring shows including Tell Me More, Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition. Until September of 2012, Celeste was the co-host of the national morning news show, The Takeaway, from PRI and WNYC. She anchored presidential coverage in 2012 for PBS World Channel. She is also the author of . For many years, she has been a mentor and managing editor for NPR’s Next Generation Radio Project, training young reporters and editors in broadcasting.
CFW: Welcome to the Conference for Women tele class – Finding the Connection, Your Guide to Meaningful Interaction at Home and at Work. Our guest today is Celeste Headlee, an award‑winning journalist, national public radio anchor and author of the upcoming book, “We Need to Talk: How to have Better Conversations.”
In today’s tele class Celeste shows us how to get more out of our interactions and to break out from behind the computer screen at a time when Americans feel less connected and more divided than ever. Celeste explains why the only way forward is to start talking to each other. She outlines the strategies that have made her a better conversationalist and offers simple tools that can improve anyone’s communication, whether it’s online, in person, at home or at work. Celeste Headlee, welcome to the Conference for Women tele class.
Celeste: My pleasure; it’s good to be here.
CFW: And let’s talk! Let’s start, if you could, by describing the state of conversation and connection today in a world of text messages and email and social media. What do we have?
Celeste: Well, it’s kind of a double blow to a certain extent, and by that I mean our conversation skills are degrading because the technology that we use actually gets in the way of good, meaningful conversation, and yet at the same time, the double edge of that sword is that because we have so many options for communication. Because we have our smartphones with us all the time and instant messaging online and slack channels and email and all these other ways to communicate we think we’re communicating more, and maybe we even think we’re communicating better when it’s the exact opposite. The very technology that helps us connect is keeping us from communicating.
CFW: Okay; so we think we’re communicating more but we’re actually not?
Celeste: We’re not.
CFW: We’re not; okay. What would you say makes for a good conversation?
Celeste: You know a good conversation isn’t necessarily a long one. It can be but it doesn’t have to be. A good conversation, an effective conversation is just one in which two people both hear each other, understand each other and respond to each other. We don’t often have those because generally – often and certainly recently, when we get into a conversation what we do is we tell what we know and we tell what we think, and the other person says what they know and what they think, and then it goes back to the other person, well, here’s what I think; well, here’s what I think.
That’s just two people talking about their own thoughts and feelings. They could say the exact same thing with nobody in the room. That’s not a conversation. A conversation has to be interactive. In other words, you have to actually listen to what the other person is saying, not only hear it but then think about it, process it, understand it and respond to it, and those conversations are happening less and less and less.
CFW: So it requires quite a degree of investment to really have a conversation?
Celeste: Oh yeah; and you have to be able to give that investment, and it’s not just investment. What’s interesting to me anyway, because I get all geeky about the brain science of it, what they found is that level of focus, listening to someone and that level of focus and the decision making, it literally is draining in that they can measure the energy that your body burns while you’re doing that. So if you’ve had a really great conversation and you feel exhausted afterwards, you absolutely are justified in feeling that you’ve burned energy over the course of it.
CFW: Maybe a new diet; the talk diet.
Celeste: Oh God; I think that would take a very long time to burn a few calories, but you’d certainly be smarter in the end if you listened to that – with that much energy. What I mean is that if you can’t – you know oftentimes we engage in conversations when we really are not able to give that level of commitment, and I’m not talking about your quick exchange with your coworker, “Hey, do you have the memo from last week?” “No, I don’t.”Informational exchanges are not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a real conversation when somebody is telling you about their kid or telling you about something that happened in their life, and if you’re not able to commit you should walk away. You should; you should say, “I’m sorry, my brain isn’t here right now, I have a bunch of other things on my mind. I really do want to hear this so give me a rain check,” or whatever it is that you say, you should walk away. Either you should invest, be there or be gone.
CFW: Okay; so you’ve drawn on your experience as a radio host to help people have better conversations, could you tell us why having a good conversation is a lot like hosting a radio interview?
Celeste: Yes, because a radio interview at its best is a great conversation, right? That’s supposed to be a curated, structured, excellent conversation between two people who know stuff.
Celeste: Yeah; and the thing for me was that I didn’t go into this to try to figure out how to tell – give other people advice. I just started researching this in order to help myself because I realized that despite all my training in interviewing I was not as good a conversationalist as I thought, and that’s a tough thing to accept because most people – and this is not just my opinion – research shows us that the vast majority of people think they’re good conversationalists. And I did but I wasn’t, as it turns out. So I was a good talker, a very good talker, but that’s not the same thing as being a good conversationalist.
CFW: [Overtalking] as being a good conversationalist?
Celeste: Well, a good conversationalist at heart is someone who really listens. I can start a conversation with a question; it doesn’t even have to be about my knowledge. If you’re giving TED talks or you’re writing a blog then it’s all about your knowledge, fine, but in a conversation it’s not really about your knowledge. It’s about listening to the other living, breathing human being next to you and then actually responding to them. You know the quote I use all the time from “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” is most people listen with the intent to reply; they don’t listen with the intent to understand and I’m paraphrasing that. In order to be a great conversationalist you need to listen with the intent to understand; not debate, not rebut, not argue but to understand, and that’s hard. It’s really hard.
CFW: How do we become better listeners? How do we learn to listen to understand rather than to respond?
Celeste: That’s a really great question because, as it turns out, you really do have to learn how to listen. They’ve done a whole bunch of really excellent research in New Zealand and Australia and what they were really trying to do was figure out how to help kids learn better. And what they discovered over the course of years of study was that, A, if you help kids listen better they’re going to be better learners in every subject, but B, you can’t just learn to listen to osmosis. You don’t learn to listen in math class or in drama class; you learn to listen in listening class.You have to know that you’re learning to listen, that you’re learning listening skills and you have to focus on that. So that’s the first thing, is that is has to be intentional. It’s not going to happen because one day you get up and you say, “Okay, I’m going to be a better listener from now on and just muscle through it.” You need to actually figure out, okay, how do I do that?
So how do you do that? Number one, one of the best things that you can do is learn how to be mindful, and by that I mean you have to learn how to let thoughts go out of your head without holding onto them. So people speak at an average – a really blunt average – of about 150 words a minute, right, but we think 450 words per minute so thoughts are going to come into your head.You’re going to think faster than the other person can speak and what you have to train yourself to do is let that thought come in, “Oh, that reminds me of the time that I was down in Mexico,” and then just let it go without holding onto it, without letting it distract you, without trying to insert it into the conversation. Your first step is to be aware of the thoughts that came into your head but not hold onto them at all, so that’s number one.
And then number two is to then try to focus on what the other person is saying. So one of the ways that I do this is by somebody saying stuff, and I use those extra words in my head to rephrase what they’re saying. What does that mean then? What are they really saying here? I’m looking at their body language. I’m hearing their tone of voice and trying to pay attention to all that to try to get a really great understanding of what they’re truly saying to me. And sometimes I don’t and then it leads to a question and that’s a good conversation. That’s the beginning of a really great exchange.
CFW: Okay; so the two factors that you outline for learning to be an intentional listener, listening to understand rather than to respond, are one, to be mindful, to let intrusive thoughts as they come into your mind, let them go. And two, to really focus on what the other person is saying, if it means rephrasing in your head what they’re saying or observing their body language, but really focusing on the person you’re having the conversation with?
Celeste: Yeah; those are the first two. After that, once you’ve mastered that – and that’s a big fence to leap; that’s hard – then you can move onto other things in terms of listening. Then you can move onto things like figuring out how to – when you have a question making sure that you’ve asked it as who, what, where, when, why and how questions. Or in terms of listening you can then move onto things like being aware of yourself and your insertion; in other words, the phrasing that you use. How often do I respond to someone else’s story with my own story? Those kinds of things are things that come later. It’s those two things you just described that are just foundational.
CFW: Okay. Why is it that we tend to overestimate our ability to communicate and overestimate our skills at conversation? What makes us think we’re more confident than we should be?
Celeste: That’s a really complicated question. I’m neither a psychologist or a sociologist but based on the research I’ve done, both on myself and my poor guinea pig friends and all of the research I’ve done, the best days that we have, is there are a couple of things going on. The first thing is this thing that Pat Wagner or Wagner Research calls virtuous flaws. So the human brain has a truly miraculous ability to find justification for the things that we do that might be considered flaws, right? So I don’t chat with people on the elevator or I don’t chat with my colleagues at work, but that’s because I’m respectful of their time and I’m not trying to, you know, bore anybody else with my personal life, right? I’m going to make up all kinds of reasons why me, not being social at work, is a virtue.
But if there’s somebody else at my work that barely nods at me in the elevator or doesn’t talk to me or walks away from conversation, I think she’s a jerk and unfriendly, so that’s why she calls it a virtuous flaw. It’s a flaw that we turn into virtue but we don’t accord that to other people. That’s pretty much reserved just for ourselves and people that we’re really, really close to. That’s the first thing. The second thing – oh; go ahead.
CFW: No; go ahead.
Celeste: The second thing is this thing called the Dunning‑Kruger effect. Have you heard of this?
CFW: I have not.
Celeste: So the Dunning‑Kruger effect – back in the 1990s two researchers, Dunning and Kruger, wanted to figure out how to train people better. And so over the course of their tests – they would give people written tests, right, and a whole range of people, and then after the test was over they would ask them both to rate themselves – “How well do you think you did on this? How many questions do you think you got wrong?” But they’d also ask them, “How well do you think you did in comparison to other people?”And what they found was the worse you did on the test, in other words the more incompetent you were at that particular test, the more likely you were to think that you were above average because you’re very competent in that area, whatever it was – grammar, math. Your very incompetence in that area also made you incompetent, not capable of judging how good you were.
So it makes sense, right? If you don’t know how to do physics you can’t tell if a physics problem is hard or easy. If you can’t play tennis you don’t know whether a particular move is difficult or hard, right? And an F student has no idea how well they did on a test; they don’t have any basis for comparison. So somebody who is really bad at conversation might also be more likely to think that they’re better or above average.
CFW: Interesting; okay. Now, the book is “We Need to Talk” and in it you cite a study that sounds – and I found this really kind of shocking – 40 percent decline in empathy among college students over a 30 year period. I’m wondering if you can tell us more about this shift in empathy and why it’s so important to meaningful conversation.
Celeste: So this is a personal opinion but I just can’t think of a human skill that we need more than empathy right now. For me it’s quite personal to the extent that I look around the world at the refugee crisis or what’s happening in the United States, and realize that the bridge that’s missing, the bridge that is out, is empathy for other human beings. Our ability not to say I feel for you; I’m sorry for you, but I feel with you. I am sorry that that’s happening to you and I want to make it better, right?And empathy is not a touchy‑feely kindergarten thing; it’s an essential skill for human beings. It’s how we, as a team, create tribes. It’s how we protect ourselves. It’s how we have advanced in the world evolutionarily. It’s a skill – EQ is just as important as a skill for human beings, as IQ.
CFW: [Overtalking] emotional intelligence?
Celeste: Right; exactly. So if you think about it – let’s say that you’re thinking about somebody who just had high skills and no EQ – that’s like a shark, right? That’s an unfeeling thing that is king of the ocean because they’re at the top of the food chain in one thing but no EQ, as far as we know. We don’t understand sharks all that well, but for the purposes of the metaphor I’ll leave it there. So empathy has been missing and this decline in empathy, we don’t know exactly what’s causing it, frankly, but what we do know is that most of it has occurred since the year 2000. Now, is there any world changing thing that you can think of that has occurred since the year 2000?
CFW: Well, does it have anything to do with the rise of social media?
Celeste: Yeah; and the smartphones; like it’s been since the year 2000 that we’ve ended up having all that social media, all that texting, all those things right in the palm of our hands. We don’t know what –
CFW: Yeah; talk to us about the impact of cellphones and their effect on conversation. What have researchers discovered there?
Celeste: And see, this is the fascinating part because the revolution in cellphones has outpaced the research by leaps and bounds. Of course it does; it takes years to do a clinical study and go through all of the clinical tests and then have it peer reviewed and then have somebody try to replicate the studies to make sure it’s true, right?
Studies take a long time, but while those studies have been occurring the adoption of the cellphone and social media has been just explosive, so the research has lagged behind and we’re only now beginning to get some of those results back. It was only in 2014 that we got this result from Harvard where they discovered that talking about yourself – what they call self‑disclosure is as pleasurable to a human being – it hits the same pleasure center in the brain, I should say – as sex and cocaine.
CFW: Oh my!
Celeste: Yeah; so this distorts our view of conversation because you can walk away from a conversation feeling fantastic, but that was you and your brain and it wasn’t shared with the other person. Do you know what I’m saying? Like if you go on a date and you like come back home and you’re like, “Man, we really made a connection. I feel great” and they never call you again and you’re wondering why? It may be because you were talking about yourself the whole time without realizing it, and hitting that pleasure center in your brain that sent dopamine squirting through your system and making you feel fantastic.
CFW: What explains the connection between talking about ourselves and the pleasure centers of the brain?
Celeste: You see now you’re getting into neuroscience and I don’t think we know that yet, but I will tell you a wrinkle. I don’t know the answer to that – I don’t know that anybody does – but I will tell you something I do know, which is that when they were conducting those tests at Harvard they would give them options. So for example they would say, “Okay, you can either self‑disclose, talk about yourself or you can talk about literally anything else. Now, if you talk about yourself we’ll give you this pay rate and if you talk about anything else we’ll give you more money,” and the vast majority of participants chose to talk about themselves for less pay.
And here’s the final wrinkle in that – they didn’t know if there was anybody else in the room because they’re sitting inside a SMRI; they’re getting an SMRI. They’re inside an MRI machine. As far as they know they could be completely alone in the room and yet it still gave them the same amount of pleasure to talk about themselve
CFW: Wow! I want to go back to the cellphone issue, and I hear what you’re saying about technology has outpaced the formal scientific research, but what’s your hunch? What has been the effect of smartphones on conversation?
Celeste: Okay, so if we’re going back to hunches there are a couple of things. The first one is the one I just alluded to. All of this social media, taking photos of your food all the time, it’s fed into our natural desire to talk and post about ourselves. That’s not a personal flaw; that’s a human condition. A human being likes to talk about themselves. There is nothing particularly wrong with that except that, as I said, social media really feeds it. It allows you to become narcissistic in a way that did not occur before. So that’s one thing, this rise in narcissism that a number of psychologists have noted over the past, say, 20 years.
The other thing that social media has done is given us this illusion, that I talked about before, that we’re connecting all the time, that we’re having conversations, and you’re not. There is no such thing as a good debate on Facebook. I just want to bust that illusion right now; don’t bother. You’re not going to solve anything on Facebook. Statistically the odds of that happening are close enough to zero that we might as well not consider it, right, but we have this illusion of closeness And the third thing that the cellphones in our hands have done, it’s allowed us to avoid face‑to‑face or even phone conversation. How many people would much rather send an email or a text at this point than dial and call?
CFW: A lot
Celeste: Yeah; I would and I’m a conversational expert. I would.
CFW: I just want to sum up what I’ve heard from you. Social media, enabled by our smartphones, fuels narcissism and that presumably inhibits good conversation, would that be a fair conclusion?
CFW: Social media feeds the illusion – and again the smartphones in our hands – feeds the illusion of connection and closeness. And third, it makes it really easy for us to avoid face‑to‑face contact because we can text or email rather than have a conversation.
Celeste: That’s right; exactly right.
CFW: Now, one of the things you write about is how to end conversations well, and I wanted to ask you how do we end a conversation well and why is this so importa
Celeste: So in order to answer how to end well we have to talk about how you start. What I mean by that is what do you want out of that conversation? If it’s a conversation with your spouse – let’s say I want my husband to start taking out the trash without me having to nag him, right – that’s a totally realistic conversation I might have.Then what I want out of it is for him to, A, hear me, that this is frustrating me, and B, make the change. That’s what I want. So if he walks away from that conversation angry and defensive and insulted I will not achieve what I want, mostly likely. So in order to end that particular conversation well I need to tell him what I need and why I’m upset about it in the least aggressive way possible, because as soon as someone becomes defensive the conversation is basically over. They’re not going to be listening to you anymore and you’re just going to go on the attack. That’s first; you want them to hear you and make sure that they’re hearing that we’re talking about you and your feelings. What you need. Here is what I need and here is why. The second thing is I want him to walk away feeling like his needs have been met also. I want him to feel he has been heard, and with those mutual needs together then we might arrive at what we want. Now, let’s say it’s just a casual conversation where you’re meeting your friend for coffee then you’ve got to ask yourself, what do you want out of that conversation? Well, then me ask you – you’re sitting down, you’re meeting a friend for lunch, what do you want out of that conversation?
CFW: Well, I guess I want to know what’s going on in his or her life.
Celeste: Right; okay, and that’s simple. So if all you want to know is what’s going on in his or her life then that sets up your conversation, that you’re going to be doing a lot of listening and asking a lot of questions, right?
Celeste: And so in order to end that conversation well, the best way to end that is say, “Thank you so much for sharing all that. I wanted to hear what was going on and I feel like I have a good sense of what things are happening with you and let’s check back in again before too much time passes.” In order to end it well you’re ending it according to what you went in to get.
CFW: Got it; so that has to go about – to another thing you write about is setting expectations in a conversation, or in your case you tell some very funny stories about interviews gone awry and your realization that it comes down to setting expectations.
Celeste: Yeah; and that’s one sort of revelation for me that has been incredibly powerful and a really simple change. You know I brought in an employee to reprimand them. That person was coming in late a lot and I just needed to say, “Look, this is a problem.” And it was serious enough at that point that his job was on the line so I didn’t – I said, “Hey, come and talk with me in my office.” As soon as he came in I said, “Close the door, this is serious but you’re not going to lose your job. It’s just serious that we have to talk about this because if it continues you will” and I said that right from the beginning.And even though that’s a very stressful thing to hear I could visibly see his body relax because I set him at ease because he knew exactly what was happening. Knowledge is power, right, but it’s also very relaxing to know what’s happening.
CFW: So to know he was in trouble but not that he was going to lose his job
Celeste: Right; exactly
CFW: Okay; and that presumably made him more receptive to the message you were about to deliver.
Celeste: Exactly. He knew that I wasn’t there to fire him but he knew that this is a problem – I was very specific about it. There was a solution for it – he needed to come in on time and if he didn’t he’d lose his job; if he did all was well. That’s specific, there’s no judgment there; there is no talking about your personal flaws. I didn’t sit there and get him into conversation about what is it that’s making you be late, blah, blah, blah, because frankly as his boss it doesn’t matter. It’s none of my business what’s making him late.
CFW: Right; well, that’s very interesting. One of the things that you write in your book that apologies are magic and what makes you such a big fan of apologies?
Celeste: Only because I have seen them transform people and transform conversations, and I think one of the things that is – it might end up being controversial in there – is because I talk about apologizing for things you haven’t done. There is a woman that I met from the south who was talking about she felt when people are always calling her a racist and I said, “I’m sorry; I’m really sorry. I can see how much that bothers you. You said it’s cost you sleep and I’m sorry. That’s a terrible thing to happen to somebody.”Then we were able to have a real conversation because, you know, in a way that almost goes back to those expectation things. Like she felt after that that she could share with me openly and honestly because I wasn’t going to attack her. I wasn’t waiting to judge her. I just wanted to hear her. People want to be heard. They just want to be heard.
CFW: Celeste, we’ve only got a few seconds left but I did want to ask you as we’re wrapping up, what is one piece of advice you’d like our listeners to remember?
Celeste: Respond to what you’ve heard and don’t hold a thought in your head waiting for the other person to take a breath. Stop holding onto questions or responses, but actually respond to the last few words the other person just said
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