Celeste Headlee: How to have conversations that matter

Cartoon balloon reads "We need to talk"

Images courtesy of Celeste Headlee

Reclaim your humanity, says the journalist and author of a book on the lost art of conversation. Put away the smartphone and have a conversation with someone, face-to-face, on matters small and large.

Having a conversation -- a real conversation that goes beyond the most basic exchange of information -- can be difficult. But it is well worth the effort, says Celeste Headlee.

“We think [conversations] are more trouble than they’re worth,” Headlee said. “But that’s not backed up by research. They are not more trouble, because a conversation is worth so much more than the trouble you incur. The benefit outweighs the cost.”

A journalist and radio host who has appeared on NPR, PBS World, PRI, CNN, the BBC and other international networks, Headlee is also the author of “We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter.” The book, published last year, expands on a TED talk by Headlee that went viral, “Ten Ways to Have a Better Conversation.”

Even the most trivial conversations are part of what makes us human, Headlee said.

“Those conversations that we think of sometimes as being trivial or irritating or whatever it may be are the glue that holds together humankind. They make us humanize one another and feel empathy for one another, which makes us so much less likely to harm one another.”

A good conversation, one on more important matters, requires a mutual exchange of ideas, a sharing of time and attention.

“And that requires listening, which is the piece that is most often missing these days,” she said. “People are quite good at talking and expressing what they think and what they believe. They’re not that great at really listening to the other person.”

Headlee spoke with Faith & Leadership recently about her book and the art of conversation. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: You say that no skill is more important than being able to sustain a meaningful conversation. Why?

One of the most compelling needs that humans have is for belonging. That’s how we function. We function tribally. We function as in-groups and out-groups. We function by collaborating and cooperating.

And the thing that allows us to do that so well is communication with one another -- the fact that I can go to a doctor and not just say “Ow!” but specifically, “This is what’s hurting me. This is when it hurts. These are the symptoms.”

As a human being, I have communication skills superior to those of any other species, as far as we know. That’s what allows us to work together to be a successful species.

Q: Tell us more about the book’s subtitle. What are “conversations that matter,” and why are they so difficult to achieve?

Communication is hard. The conversations that don’t really matter are just simple exchanges of information, right?

“What kind of coffee do you want?”


“Great, here you go.”

“Thank you.”

Those conversations are easy.

But conversations in which there is any kind of dispute, in which there is any kind of explanation needed, or nuance or emotion -- which is most conversations -- are more difficult.

There are intangibles. There are feelings and emotions that are difficult to describe or express, and that has made us a little afraid of conversations in some cases. So we sometimes avoid conversations, because we think they are more trouble than they’re worth.

But that’s not backed up by research. They are not more trouble, because a conversation is worth so much more than the trouble you incur. The benefit outweighs the cost.

Q: What connection if any do you see between the partisan divide in America today and this lack of meaningful conversation?

It all comes back to this idea of in-groups and out-groups. The most effective way to break through biases and prejudices about other people is simply to establish any kind of social bond with them. But we’re not doing that. We are not seeing other people as part of our own tribe, and that’s causing us to hate each other.

When someone is from another tribe, you go to war. That’s why it’s called “tribal warfare.”

Those conversations that we think of sometimes as being trivial or irritating or whatever it may be are the glue that holds together humankind. They make us humanize one another and feel empathy for one another, which makes us so much less likely to harm one another.

In a famous experiment a few decades ago, researchers put rhesus monkeys into cages and showed them that if they [pulled a chain] they could get food. Then they changed it so that when they [pulled a chain], not only did they get food but they also sent an electric shock into the monkey in the next cage.

Some monkeys would starve themselves for days rather than send an electric shock, and that effect was way stronger if they had ever shared a cage. Just having shared the same space made them more likely to suffer starvation for days rather than shock the other monkey.

And we have seen this to be the case among humans as well. Just having a brief conversation with strangers before beginning an experiment in which you’re asked to do something negative to the other person makes you way less likely to hurt that other person.

So we may think of these as little trivial chats, but they make us recognize the other person as a human being and make us less likely to hurt them.

Q: I gather that your book is about both how to have really important and difficult conversations and also just simply how to sit and talk.

Yes, exactly, just chat.

When people ask me, “How do I do this? How do I get started?” the advice I always give is, “Go have a 90-second chat with someone who is paid to be nice to you.”

Chat about the weather with your grocery store clerk. Talk about the football game with your barista at Starbucks.

Because there’s no risk. You know it’s going to be short. They could lose their jobs if it’s not.

And those things count. They count to your mental health. They count to your emotional health. But even more importantly, every positive conversation, every positive experience that you have with a conversation is going to encourage you to have another one.

You’re going to experience those benefits, and it’s going to make you even bolder when you start the next conversation, until you have worked your way up to having conversations even if there might be disagreements.

Q: Is there a way to measure conversational skills? I suspect that people in the past probably had better conversations than we do today, but how would we know?

We don’t. We don’t actually know, because the so-called “goodness” of a conversation is always self-reported. But also, we don’t know if people were better at this before.

We don’t actually have a long-standing history of research into conversation. We have for decades studied people talking. We have for decades studied people listening. But the idea of studying the interaction between two human beings talking to one another is pretty recent.

But I can tell you two things.

We know that people are having fewer conversations face-to-face or voice-to-voice than they have in years past. We know that social isolation and loneliness are at an all-time high.

And we know that human beings are not naturally good listeners. Listening is something that you actually have to practice and learn about to get good at. It’s not something we’re born knowing how to do well, and because we don’t [practice], and because most schools offer public speaking but not listening courses, it means we’re not getting any better at it.

And with all the distractions today -- and how they increase and increase, mostly from that smartphone in everybody’s hands -- I have to assume that makes it harder and harder for us to listen, which requires focus.

Q: So what are the keys to a good conversation?

A good conversation needs to be a mutual exchange of ideas and thoughts. It needs to be an equal sharing of time and attention, and that requires listening, which is the piece that is most often missing these days.

People are quite good at talking and expressing what they think and what they believe. They’re not that great at really listening to the other person. I don’t mean hearing what they’re saying --even though very often we don’t do that. I mean really hearing it and understanding it and considering it with a curious mind rather than a judging mind. You have to have that mutual exchange or it’s not a good conversation.

You already know everything that you’re going to say [in a conversation]. Everything that you [will] say today you already know. You’re not going to learn anything from that. You can only learn from other people.

We make the mistake of thinking that a good talker, a good storyteller, is a good conversationalist, and that’s just not true.

A study at Harvard [in 2012] showed that talking about yourself activates the same pleasure center in the brain as sex and cocaine. So you can be really happy with a conversation in which you dominate most of the time or you tell stories most of the time. That’s going to make you feel really good. Your brain is awash in dopamine, and you feel fantastic, but it’s not a good conversation.

Q: Why is listening so hard?

Like I said, it’s way more pleasurable to talk about yourself and what you think and what you know, and the deck is stacked against us. Dopamine is the addiction hormone. We get addicted to expressing our own thoughts and ideas.

That’s hard to let go of. But also, human beings are the only species that suffers from confirmation bias. We don’t like hearing things we don’t agree with. In fact, they have shown that hearing things you don’t agree with or that challenge your beliefs puts your brain into literal defense mode -- its “fight or flight” mode.

It pulls up the drawbridge and calls out the archers.

When you are in a conversation, you risk hearing something you don’t agree with. That can be scary to the brain and to the body. You have to learn to overcome that fear in order to have the kind of conversation in which you open your mind to the perspectives and experiences of someone else.

Q: This would seem to play out in so many ways right now, with the political divides in our country. But if conversation can cause the drawbridge to go up, isn’t it also the key to getting the drawbridge to come back down?

Yes -- having those conversations with people with whom we disagree. Listening is not the same as endorsement. Listening to someone doesn’t mean support. It just means opening yourself up to someone else’s experiences and perspectives. That’s all it means.

Daryl Davis is an African-American jazz pianist, and in his off hours, he convinces guys to leave the KKK -- and he’s very good at it. There’s a PBS documentary on him called “Accidental Courtesy.”

He says that by actively listening to another person, I am passively teaching them about myself. And sometimes people just want to be heard.

We have to stop thinking about listening to somebody else as something you’re giving them and think instead of it as something you’re giving yourself.

Q: You’ve said before that ultimately, this is about considering others when you’re talking.

That’s what “considerate” means. It means you are considering another person, and sadly, we don’t do it very much. Our conversations are all too often self-focused.

I’m not saying you need to be selfless. Compassion for the world comes after compassion for yourself.

But we have lost our consideration for others while we have been too focused on self-consideration, and we need to bring it back into balance.

Q: You wrote on your blog about how much you like to read, and I couldn’t help but wonder -- do you think there’s a connection between reading and conversation?

I do, in that to truly enjoy a book, you have to open yourself up to that other person’s perspective. A lot of research is going on into empathy right now, and they have found a few things that can increase your empathy.

The most effective way to do that is to listen to someone else’s experiences and perspectives. But another way to do that is reading novels, which to me is kind of the same thing. You’re opening yourself up to someone else’s voice.

Q: Anything else?

I acknowledge how hard it is to listen. It can be exhausting, but it’s worth it.

The stuff that we use to justify avoiding these conversations -- the risk, the messiness, the unpredictability -- is also the stuff that makes conversations great.

I’m not expecting everybody to go out and have a life-changing conversation every day. I just want people to start every once in a while walking away from your phone. Don’t just put it down; put it away and experience a face-to-face or voice-to-voice conversation with someone.

Start there, and then hopefully it can build as we begin to reclaim our own humanity.