By Brittany Ryzenga

I recently listened to a valuable TedTalk by Celeste Headlee titled, “10 ways to have a better conversation.”  The topic caught my attention as improving ones’ communication skills is always beneficial.  However, Headlee made a strong observation that the world we currently live in, “this world in which every conversation has the potential to devolve into an argument, where our politicians can’t speak to one another and even the most trivial issues have someone fighting both for it and against it” she says, “is not normal” and we need to learn how to have confident, productive, good conversation even more today than ever before.  Her talk looked at Pure Research’s study of 10,000 American adults that stated that at this moment we are more polarized, more divided, than we ever have been in history.  She says we’re less likely to compromise, which means we’re not listening to each other.

She mentioned how, as a professional speaker, she speaks to many people, including people she doesn’t agree with or like, but she can still have a good conversation with them.   Productive conversation requires balance between talking and listening, and often, that balance is lost.  Headlee believes, and I think most of us would agree, that part of that is due to technology, specifically smart phones and social media.  According to Pure Research, nearly 1/3 of American teenagers send more than 100 texts a day and most of them are more likely to text their friends than they are to talk to them face to face.  Headlee shares, “Conversational competence might be the single most overlooked skill we fail to teach.” She also says the typical “tips” we’ve all heard in order to be a better listener like thinking of good questions to ask and nodding are actually distracting us from being present and listening… she encourages us to forget that advice and exclaims there’s no better way to show you’re in fact paying attention, than to take your mind off of all of that and to actually pay attention. She compares a good conversation to interviewing someone and says, “learn how to interview people.”

Headlee shared 10 useful rules for having better conversation: 

  1. Don’t multi-task.  She further explained that this doesn’t just mean setting down the phone but actually being present with our minds.  To be in that moment and not thinking about work, your next task or what to cook for dinner.
  2. Don’t pontificate.  Enter every conversation assuming that you have something to learn.  Set aside your personal opinion- especially in today’s world.  She shares a fitting quote by Bill Nye (the science guy!), “everyone you will ever meet knows something that you don’t.”
  3. Ask open-ended questions. Instead of asking questions like, “were you angry?” or stating, “I bet you were upset,” try engaging questions like, “what was that like?” and “wow… how did you feel?”
  4. Go with the flow.  We’ve all been in the conversations where clever questions or relative thoughts come into our mind and we try to remember them as the speaker continues to speak, however, Headlee says to let it go. If you ask that question two minutes later, it is obvious that you stopped listening when your question arose… go with the flow and let it go.
  5. If you don’t know, say that you don’t know….err on the side of caution.
  6. Don’t equate your situation with theirs.  If the speaker talks about something that affected them significantly, don’t start talking about your similar situation. Headlee emphasizes that you don’t need to take that moment to prove the similarity or understanding- it’s not about you.
  7. Try not to repeat yourself.
  8. Stay out of the weeds– people don’t care about the fine details, they care about you- forget the details.
  9. Listen.  Headlee says that this is, “perhaps the #1 most important skill you can develop.  As humans, we’d rather talk and be in control.”  She also shared a thought-provoking quote by Stephen Covey.  Covey states, “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand. We listen with the intent to reply.”  I think this goes back to the go-to tip that coming up with good questions will make you a better listener, however, it’s easy to see that this tactic causes just the opposite- a distraction.
  10. Be brief.  Be interested in other people. Headlee says that she keeps her mouth shut as often as she possibly can and keeps her mind open.  She says, in doing that, prepare to be amazed.

Admittedly, it does take effort and energy to pay full attention to someone but if you can’t do that then you’re truly not in a conversation and just wasting each other’s time.  We’ve all had conversations where we’ve felt engaged, inspired or listened to (and we’ve all experienced the opposite!)… let those feelings inspire us to promote good, productive conversation.