Conversation Is a Skill. Here’s How to Be Better At It

“I consider questions to be the most powerful tool you have at your disposal.”

READ ON TO DISCOVER:

  • How a single black man inspired 200 KKK members to quit the organization
  • Why we are often guilty of conversational narcissism—without even realizing it
  • How to have a fulfilling, meaningful conversation with anyone

Celeste Headlee is a journalist, public radio host, and professional opera singer whose TED Talk on conversations has been viewed over 10 million times. She recently sat down with Heleo’s Editorial Director, Panio Gianopoulos, to discuss what makes a conversation good, how to connect with friends and strangers alike, and other crucial insights from her new book, We Need to Talk.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full version, click the video below.

Panio: Conversation is a skill, and one we are actually quite bad at.

Celeste: Yes, naturally. Knowing how to have a good conversation is not information that you can just memorize and then you’re done. As a skill, you have to practice it. You don’t go to the gym [just] once. It’s the same thing with conversation.

We as human beings are not particularly great at listening when we’re born. Babies come out of the womb knowing how to scream, not listen, and it takes quite a while for parents to teach their kids to listen, right? So if you’re bad at conversation—and you probably are—at least take comfort in knowing that it’s okay. Everybody has this problem.

Panio: I experience it every day because I have eight-year-old twins. One will talk in this ear and one will talk in the other ear about totally unrelated topics, and they won’t even pause for each other.

One of the things that I thought was really intriguing [in We Need to Talk] was conversational narcissism. Maybe I just did it by bringing up the anecdote about my kids, but it’s when someone talks about something, and your [conversation] partner immediately brings up something personal or relative to them.

Celeste: Conversational narcissism is a scary term for something that just happens constantly, and the way that the researchers talk about it is a shift response or a support response. Either I can shift the attention to myself, or I can support what it is that you’re talking about.

Panio: What would a shift example be?

Celeste: If you were to say, “I have eight-year-old twins and they talk in my ear all the time,” and I would say, “God, I know what you mean. My son talks to me — ” and we start talking about my kid. As opposed to, “I have a kid, too. What is that like [for you]?” I’m bringing something up, but it’s in support of what you’re saying.

Panio: It’s a more of a back and forth.

Celeste: Exactly. A conversational narcissist is the one that keeps taking the ball from the game of catch and not ever passing it back.

“Just listening to somebody is an act of love.”

Panio: Yeah. I had a fear while reading your book: “Am I doing these things? Do I have these conversational bad habits, and I’m just unaware of them?” What’s a way that I could find out? Day-to-day, your friends don’t give you feedback and say, “You know, you talk way too much about yourself.”

Celeste: Right. Or they do—when they’re ready to not be friends with you anymore.

There’s this great exercise, and it’s inspired by Pat Wagner, an expert on conversation. Make a list of the five things that people do in a conversation that annoy you the most. Maybe “interrupt you all the time,” maybe “only give yes or no answers,” whatever they are. Five things that are most annoying to you.

Then go to the people closest to you. Do not tell them what the list is. Just say, “Okay, how many of these things do I do when I’m in conversation with you?” You will usually discover that many of the things that annoy you the most when other people do them are things that you are doing.

That’s partly because a conversation, at its worst, is a power struggle.

Panio: What do you mean by that? Someone is trying to dominate the other person?

Celeste: Exactly. It’s part of that conversational narcissism. It’s this pull of attention, this tug of war. If you’re constantly trying to win that tug of war, and someone else is tugging back, that’s irritating. But that means that they’re doing what you’re doing, and that’s probably the most annoying thing you can think of.

Panio: You’re also a host of a radio show. Did you find that what you learned in professional interviews helped your daily conversations?

Celeste: Yeah. I started this whole thing to learn how to be a better interviewer. Then I discovered that those exact same skills, the things that worked in the studio, worked just as well with my kid and my spouse and my boss and everybody else in my life. The essential components of what makes a good conversation are basically universal.

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Panio: I don’t know if you use this word, but it seems like the implication is authenticity. People can smell it if you’re not being sincere. They just check out.

Celeste: Exactly. Kids know when you’re BS-ing them. They aren’t subtle about it at all — they’ll immediately point it out. As adults, we just get better at hiding that we’ve discovered someone is BS-ing us.

Human beings have a BS detector. We know when somebody doesn’t actually like us. We know when someone’s distracted and doesn’t want to sit there and talk to us. Look, if you don’t want to talk to somebody, just walk away. Excuse yourself and walk away.

Panio: I like having conversations, but as a pretty introverted guy, I certainly have those moments where I’m fried and tired, and I’m just like, “I can’t do this.” How do you extricate yourself with tact? Is it enough to say, “I’m so sorry, I’m just really tired. Do you mind if we talk later?”


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Celeste: Yeah, absolutely. I do it all the time. I have adult ADD, so I’m constantly saying to people, “My brain is in a million places. I’m having trouble focusing. I want to hear what you’re saying, and I can’t right now. Give me a rain check, and I’ll come back to you when my brain is functioning.” I say some version of that pretty much all the time.

Or my son will come and tell me about another new video game. I’ll be like, “Dude, I can’t absorb anything you’re telling me, but I will sit here and listen if that’s what you need from me.”

That’s one of the things I try to get through in the book — just listening to somebody is an act of love. That’s a gift. We always feel like we need to prove how smart we are, or prove how much we know, and interject what we think and give advice to other people. Sometimes the best thing you can do for that person is just listen to them. You don’t actually need to say anything at all. You can just listen.

Panio: I was really moved [when] you wrote about your friend. Her father passed away, and she was, of course, devastated. Then you weighed in about your experience losing your father. You thought you were empathizing and being a good friend, but she got really annoyed with you.

Celeste: She got angry, yeah. She said, “You win. Fine.”

Panio: Like, “Your pain is worse.”

Celeste: Exactly. For quite a while I kept thinking, “Well, she didn’t understand. I was just trying to be helpful.” I was just trying to say, “I know how you feel.”

[But] she was right. I was interjecting my story of my own struggle, when it just needed to be about her. She needed me to bear witness to the kind of man her father was. That’s all she needed.

“If you don’t know what to say, it’s an indication that you need to learn something.”

Panio: I thought you had a really astute insight — you said you were uncomfortable by her feelings or what she was expressing. I think a lot of us are. If a friend comes to us, and they’re really hurt —

Celeste: You don’t know what to say.

Panio: You don’t want to say the wrong thing. You don’t want to distract them, because that seems unfeeling. [So] everyone says, “I’ll share a moment of vulnerability for me. I’ll tell them about when my parent passed away or when something hard happened to me.”

[But] if your parent just died and your friend jumps in like, “Yeah, my dad died and it sucked,” it’s like, “Okay, but that doesn’t do anything for me right now.” Another person’s pain doesn’t achieve anything for your emotional state.

Celeste: Exactly, it does not help the other person at all. I felt uncomfortable and didn’t know what to say, [but] she didn’t need me to say anything. She just needed me to listen to her.

What’s more, the way that our brains work is that sharing that story feels really good to us.

Panio: Right. [When] we’re talking about ourselves, we get a little dopamine kick.

Celeste: Exactly. It’s activating the same pleasure center as sex and heroin and chocolate. We feel really good about it.

That gives us an unreal perspective to what just actually happened. Just because we feel good about it doesn’t mean the other person did.

Panio: Situations like those can make or break a friendship. The general advice is go talk to them and tell them how you feel, but should it be just listen or ask a few questions?

Celeste: Yeah. There’s a PBS documentary about this jazz musician Daryl Davis. In his off time, he’s made it his hobby to talk guys into leaving the KKK. He’s a black man. He’s so successful that he almost single-handedly dismantled the KKK in Maryland. When people ask him, “How on Earth do you do this?” he says, “I just listen to them. People just want to be heard. I don’t go in there to lecture them. I’m not going to tell them what they should or ought to be doing. I just listen to them.”

Think about that for a moment. [There are] all these people that we say we can’t talk to, “I can’t talk to her,” or whatever, [but] that’s not true. There’s no such thing as somebody you can’t talk to.

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The other thing is that conversation is almost less about what you say than about what you hear. You will not learn a single thing from anything that you say. You already know it. The only way you’re going to learn is by listening to another person. In those moments of grief, if you don’t know what to say, it’s because you don’t fully understand how they’re feeling and what they’re going through, which means stop talking and listen. Ask questions if you need to. But if you don’t know what to say, it’s an indication that you need to learn something.

Panio: That’s good. But how do you have conversations with people with which you aggressively disagree?

This is a big topic these days, where I feel like the national discourse has almost collapsed. Everyone says you can’t talk to anyone. It’s all vilification and outrage. Some of it justified, I get it, but looking back, when I was a kid, you could still be friends and neighbors and have a civilized disagreement about some things. That seems to have just disappeared in one generation. Every study says we only get more and more polarized.

Celeste: You’re totally right. Even during the Nixon administration, about a third of Americans said they’d be unhappy if someone from the other political party married into their family. It’s now about 80%. By some measure, we are more polarized than we were since the Civil War.

Here’s the error in logic that I don’t understand — what do you think you’re giving somebody by listening to them? You say, “This person’s a racist, so I can’t talk to them.” What benefit do you think you’re giving to them by having a conversation with them? You’re not helping them — it’s not like you’re donating to their cause. But you’re doing a lot for yourself because you can actually learn a great deal.

We also know from studies of the brain that by hearing diverse opinions, you’re helping yourself in ways you can’t even notice. That’s what helps you grow and evolve. If you are in your ideological bubble, then you’re not growing and evolving, you’re just stagnating.

We do get this sense from social media that we can tailor our interactions like we tailor our Twitter feed, right?

Panio: Right. “I don’t want that in my life, so I’m just going to cut it out.”

“I consider questions to be the most powerful tool you have at your disposal.”

Celeste: Exactly. “That’s a negative thing in my life, so I’m not going to have anything to do with that.”

Well, you’re not helping yourself. You’re not helping them by listening to them, you’re not helping yourself by not listening to them. At this point, we have to stop only searching for comfort. Comfortable is not a productive state. Discomfort is the state in which you actually invent and create and innovate and strategize.

Panio: Right. Dissatisfaction and discomfort underpin all of human achievement.

To your point about people being unwilling to talk, I think people often think that if they’re listening, that’s a tacit approval. That if you listen, then that’s a way of saying, “Well, maybe there’s some validity to what they’re saying,” as opposed to listening itself just being a virtue, without approval built into it.

Celeste: I think that’s one way of articulating it, but I don’t think people put that much thought into it. I think they just don’t want to do it.

Panio: I wanted to end with practical strategies that you can implement immediately. Can you give me a couple?

Celeste: Yeah. I consider questions to be the most powerful tool you have at your disposal. I was at the TED Summit, and this nuclear scientist from Japan comes up to me and he says, “I’ve watched your TED Talk a bunch of times, and I still can’t figure out how to start a conversation.” I said, “Well, where are you from in Japan?” He goes, “I’m in Kyoto.” I said, “I’ve never been to Kyoto. Is it crowded like Tokyo?” He says, “No. It’s the place with all the cherry blossoms.” I said, “But do you have packed apartments, or do people have houses with yards?” He starts describing it to me. Five or ten minutes on, I said, “That’s how you start a conversation. You ask people questions that they know the answer to, about things they care about.”

If someone has a Yankees cap on, ask them questions about the Yankees. “I don’t know anything about the Yankees. Tell me who’s great on the team.” Or, “Tell me why I should not hate the Yankees.” Just ask them questions they know the answer to. Then it takes the pressure off of you.

People love to talk about themselves. As long as you’re asking them questions and allowing them the opportunity to talk about something they care about, they’re going to feel great, and you’re going to feel great because you’re learning all kinds of stuff. Questions are magic.

 


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