We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations that Matter, Celeste Headlee

When I began to work on my conversation skills, I asked myself: Am I doing the things Salman Rushdie does that make him such a delight to speak with? Was I listening to what people said and then responding, or did I simply wait for them to take a breath so I could say the clever thing I’d already formulated in my mind? After my third interview with the novelist, I started to take note of how often I listened closely before I responded. I realized I hadn’t really been listening to him, and that meant that we didn’t really have a conversation. I had just been asking unconnected questions, crafted in advance, unchanged by his answers.

33385019It’s easy to turn a blind eye to our communication weaknesses; we tend to make exceptions and excuses for our mistakes, and sometimes even go so far as to recast our weaknesses into strengths. For example, you may not enjoy making small talk with your neighbors at the end of a long day, but you tell yourself that the reason you avoid eye contact with the guy next door is because you respect everyone’s privacy. Or let’s say you’re reluctant to engage with your colleagues at the office. You may tell yourself it’s because you don’t want to interrupt them when they’re working or because you’re too focused on your own work to waste time, but the truth is you may not care what the person in the adjacent cubicle did over the weekend.

We have an amazing capacity to justify almost any action that we want to take or avoid. Pat Wagner, a management and communication consultant at Pattern Research, refers to these justifications as “virtuous flaws.” Of course, we rarely extend the same courtesy to others. We don’t talk to people on the elevator but say of a coworker, “She’s so cold! When I pass her in the hall, she barely says hello.” Wagner says we are frequently oblivious to how poor our interpersonal skills are and how they affect other people. We don’t know or don’t care that our tendency to interrupt is discouraging others from speaking up in meetings or that our failure to remember details makes people anxious.

Here’s an exercise I used to try to get over this perception problem. (It’s based on something that Wagner does in her workshops.) I made a list of the things people do in conversation that bother me. Do they repeat themselves? Ramble on? Interrupt? I wrote it all down. Then, I took that list to my friends and coworkers and asked them how many of those things they think I do. I asked if I do those things often or just once in a while. I made sure to impress upon them that I was looking for absolute honesty because the purpose of the exercise was to improve my skills and I promised not to be offended by their answers. This was a scary enterprise, but a very, very enlightening one. (loc 756)

This whole post could easily be filled quotes from this book, and you would be well served. My husband recommended it to me after hearing Ms. Headlee on a podcast (he listens to all the things, I read all the things, and then we discuss – it plays to both of our strengths), and I was immediately intrigued.

I’m one of those introverts who loves to talk with close friends and family, but recently, I’d been feeling a disconnect from some of the people in my life I’m closest to, and I was desperate to find a way to broach some difficult topics with them. I’d run through the conversations in my head many times, but I was feeling anxious and unprepared for the reality of sharing those thoughts. I knew it was crucial to go into the conversations with the right strategy, and I’ll be the first to admit that this sort of planning is not my strong suit. (Words that have been used to describe my conversational style include: brash, blunt, and somewhat generously, straightforward.) I wasn’t sure a journalist’s take on conversation was going to be the help I needed, but it seemed like a good place to start. As it turned out, a person who speaks to others for a living is a wonderful resource on what works (and what doesn’t) in conversation.

Headlee is the first to admit she has done many things wrong over the course of her long career, but in her efforts to improve, she has struck on some salient advice for those of us trying to muddle through more mundane conversations. What really struck me though was something she mentioned in the quote above – how she started to think about characteristics that irritated her in conversations with others, and how she realized that many of those traits were hers to struggle with as well. For me (and this is related to being an introvert, and therefore not always quick to follow the conversational gambit, especially in meetings or during important or complicated discussions), my biggest challenge is that I try to formulate my side of the conversation either beforehand or while the other person is speaking. The idea of pausing, of allowing empty space in the middle of a discussion is stressful, so my brain is always busy pumping out ideas (not always gems, either) to fill those dreaded gaps.

While I was considering this problem, I realized that in recent conversations with people I’m struggling to connect with, I was in overdrive. My brain was so panicked about the problems we were facing, I wasn’t giving the other person space to explore their own pain aloud without jumping in to offer advice or sympathy – anything that would patch over what felt hard to manage. Instead of focusing on their needs, I was absorbed in myself, and it was causing the rift to get worse.

It seems like we rarely converse anymore. I mean, we talk and we chat (often over text or e-mail), but we don’t really hash things out. We spend a lot of time avoiding uncomfortable conversations and not enough time making an effort to understand the people who live and work around us.

Once I really got into the meat of this book, I felt a huge sense of release. Here were some genuine and thoughtful ideas for improving my conversational skills, and when I tried them out in lower stakes situations, they worked! And I don’t mean just sometimes, but every time I used them, the conversation was more successful. (The only person it didn’t work with was my mother, but I suspect that’s because decades old conversational paths take more practice to diverge from – for the record, I was trying to be a more patient listener after a lifetime of her being the one who listens well to me.) I felt empowered to go into the conversations I had been dreading with an open mind, rather than a well rehearsed script, and the results were better than I could have imagined.

I don’t often read books that I feel everyone could benefit from, but it would be amazing if this were taught to children…and then also became mandatory reading for the workplace, driving schools, family reunions, political summits. We could all use this information to become not just more astute listeners, but better friends, and partners, and advocates. Communities on all scales would thrive from the education Headlee provides in this book, and with them, each of us as individuals.

If you’re still looking for a present for the holidays, consider this – and make sure you read it before wrapping, because the best gift you can give to the people you care about is an attentive ear and mind.

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