6 Questions With Master Conversationalist Celeste Headlee: Transcript

As part of our “6 Questions With” series, we spoke with national radio host Celeste Headlee about the art of conversing, why English speakers are some of the worst communicators, and how learning a new language can be one of the best ways to practice listening. Here’s the full interview.

This is the full transcript of our interview with Celeste Headlee. To read the condensed version, “6 Questions With Master Conversationalist Celeste Headlee,” click here.

BABBEL: I know you’ve been working in public radio for a while, but when would you say you really started discovering your niche of conversational arts?

HEADLEE: It was mainly because I was trying to become a better interviewer. I did not study journalism. I went to college and got multiple degrees in opera. I had to start training in journalism after I got a full-time job as a journalist, so I was constantly trying to get the training I needed. When I started researching how to become a better interviewer … which is basically how to have a better conversation with people, right? The best interview sounds like a conversation. That’s when I first started doing research.

I think the thing that really got me into it was the fact that the research that I started doing when I started reading advice on having better conversations — it was generally bad. The advice was bad. By that, I mean it didn’t actually work, so I had to sort of start from scratch.

BABBEL: Right. I know you mentioned in your TED Talk that a lot of advice is all about acting like you’re paying attention, but if you’re actually paying attention, you don’t really need to be over-thinking it so much, right?

HEADLEE: Yeah, it’s really authentic, because you’re actually listening. Yeah, I’m not really sure why we put so much energy into pretending that we’re listening to people, instead of just learning how to listen better.

BABBEL: Yeah. I know. Would you say we could all benefit from approaching conversations like an interview?

HEADLEE: I would actually do it the other way, and just say that interviewers would be better if they just approached everything like it was a great conversation. Because, you know, there’s some things that don’t transfer over, right? I mean, an interview is time-limited. In an interview, one person absolutely has control over the interview. It’s not a completely equal conversation. But most everything else is basically the same. When I listen to interviews that go wrong, a lot of times it’s the exact same things that seem to go wrong in conversations.

BABBEL: Yeah. I probably have a sense of what those would be.

HEADLEE: Well, the first one is people don’t listen to each other, right? [The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People author] Stephen Covey says that we just wait until they stop talking, so that we can reply. That’s a big problem, so most of the time, we’ll listen to the first 10 or 15 words somebody says, and then we’re just waiting to say what we want to say. When you consider that people generally say a lot more than just 10 or 15 words, it means you’re missing out on most of what they said. It also means you’re making assumptions that you already know where they’re going. This happens in interviews also. You assume you know what the rest of that response is, and that’s another reason why we stop listening.

BABBEL: The overview for your book mentions that the blame lies with all of us as individuals, that we can’t have meaningful conversations with each other anymore. When do you think this really started happening?

HEADLEE: I’m not really sure. And the reason I’m not really sure is because we don’t really have a measure for great conversation. Right? Like, I can’t look back to the 1950s and say, “Oh, conversations were way better back then,” because I have no way of knowing. But I can say that we do know our attention spans are much shorter now. Much shorter. And I can also say that we’re not having a lot of conversations, and by that I mean the average American adult, at this point, spends 30 minutes a day texting, and only six minutes actually on the phone. I already know that we’re not having as many conversations as we used to. Some companies, like JP Morgan, like Cisco Systems, like Coca-Cola, use the phone so little that they have a limited voicemail for their company phones, except for the sales team.

I also happen to know that conversation requires practice. It’s not like information that you learn, and then you’re done. It’s more like training your muscles at the gym. Nobody goes to the gym and has a really great pump, and then they’re done for the rest of their lives, right? Since I know that conversation is an ongoing practice, and we’re not practicing it, I feel like it’s pretty fair to say that since the smartphone revolution began, our conversations have degraded.

BABBEL: Yeah. That seems like a logical conclusion to make. I actually kind of have a question about that. Obviously, technology is a big reason why we’re having more trouble speaking to each other face to face. But would you say there’s anything it’s actually done to help us converse in a more meaningful way? Maybe it makes certain things worse, or makes certain things better?

HEADLEE: There’s lots of things that are better. It’s way easier to stay in touch with people, right? It’s faster, and there are some conversations that are absolutely helped by technology. For example, a simple exchange of information. “What do you want for dinner?” “Chinese.” “Okay, thanks” — is really easy to have. You don’t have to interrupt them, you don’t have to get them on the phone. You know what I’m saying? Then you can have a really quick exchange of information, simple and done. But the problem is that we’re trying to use these limited tools. Texting is a limited tool. It only works for a few types of conversations, and we’re trying to use it for everything, and that creates a problem. Same with email.

BABBEL: Yeah, I’m definitely part of the generation that grew up with having AOL Instant Messenger, and that was what I used to tell people how I really felt. You know? You get used to hiding behind the screen to an extent.

HEADLEE: And it’s unfortunate because … There’s a lot of different reasons, but just a couple things; we know that an apology just does not really have any kind of effectiveness when it’s given by text. I mean, you might as well not have sent it. You might as well not have said sorry at all, because it never reaches the compassion part of their brain, which means the whole process that leads to forgiveness and being able to move on never begins. That only happens when you do that face to face or voice to voice.

There’s a lot more research also, that shows that, for example, if you read someone’s opinion in any format, even in a newspaper or a printed book, and they disagree with you, you’re more likely to think they disagree because they’re stupid, and they don’t understand the issues at play. Whereas if you hear somebody tell you their opinion in their own voice, even if it’s not face to face, and they disagree with you, you’re more likely to think that they disagree with you because they have a different experience and perspective. Which literally means that it is the voice, the sound of the human voice, that humanizes us. By not using it anymore, it is no surprise to me at all that we have dehumanized one another, and that we hate people who disagree.

BABBEL: Yeah. Do you think that political polarization came before bad conversations, or did bad conversations come before political polarization? Or is it sort of a chicken and the egg situation?

HEADLEE: Yeah, I’m not entirely sure, because political polarization is partly a result of the fact that it’s more effective for politicians to campaign to polarized people. It’s cheaper, it’s more effective, and you can motivate people with politically polarized issues. I’m not sure which came first, because there’s also the fact that in Washington, people, politicians, even those who do not agree with one another, used to hang out socially. They used to go to each other’s kids’ birthday parties, and bowl together, and go to barbecues. They don’t do that anymore. And I don’t know which one came first, frankly, but it’s all bad.

BABBEL: Yeah. Going back to your TED Talk, you listed 10 commandments, so to speak, for having better conversations. Have you come up with any others since then?

HEADLEE: I think, yes, only because one of the most common questions I get now is, “How do you have conversations about politics?” I had to add some, in terms of how do you have conversations without getting into an argument? Which is at the core of that question. The things I had to add for that were things like, don’t try to convince anybody else. Don’t try to change anybody’s mind, or educate them on your point of view, which is kind of related to “Assume that everyone has something to teach you.” It’s not quite the same thing, but it’s close.

Another one is to be aware that you’re biased. By that, I mean every single person on the planet is biased. There’s no such thing … as we have found so far … as a person who doesn’t have some kind of implicit bias, so understand that and give people the benefit of the doubt without making assumptions.

BABBEL: Yeah. Definitely. Most of your work, especially recently, I guess focuses on these sorts of political disagreements and our inability to actually listen to each other, but what about when you’re talking to someone whose first language is different from yours, or who comes from another country? How does that alter the dynamic, in your experience?

HEADLEE: This is really interesting, and there’s actually some good research out there that shows that, in fact, native English speakers are the worst communicators.

BABBEL: Interesting.

HEADLEE: Yeah. And part of the reason for that is we use references all the time that people don’t understand, like, “Beam me up, Scotty,” or other things. We’re constantly using stuff which is kind of elitist in a way, and assuming other people are supposed to understand what we’re talking about. We aren’t all that considerate of non-native speakers. We shorten words, we use acronyms, we do all kinds of stuff that just doesn’t help people understand, and we tend to use sports analogies a lot. We don’t communicate very well. If the whole point of communication is to get a message across that someone else understands and can respond to, well, then we are not good at that.

On the other hand, learning another language actually makes you a better listener, so there’s a lot to be said just for taking the time to learn another language. I think that, culturally, we just need to slow down. We just need to actually give people time to ask questions, or even put ourselves in the mindset of someone who is not American, or a native speaker, and use a simplified language without all that … kind of proprietary talk, or exclusionary terms that we use. And it never even occurs to us.

BABBEL: Yeah. Americans are generally less likely to learn other languages than people from other countries, too.

HEADLEE: Yeah. And it’s unfortunate. I’m a little bit biased on this. I was an opera major, which means I had to learn French and Italian and German. But I can also say, from experience, it really does make you a better communicator when you have the experience of not understanding. When you have that example of having to say to someone, “Wait, slow down. What does that mean?” and they say, “Oh, you know what? It’s slang.” And that’s when you start to realize, “Oh wait, am I using slang?”

BABBEL: There’s so much woven into the language, that you don’t even realize it’s jargon until someone else points it out.

HEADLEE: Absolutely.

BABBEL: So just kind of playing into that, do you think people are more open-minded about stuff like politics and their beliefs when they’re not speaking in their native tongue?

HEADLEE: There’s relatively good inklings about that. I’m not sure that we totally have the data to support it, but if you’re asking my opinion, I would say yes. My opinion is just that learning a different language just makes you a better listener altogether. When you’re a better listener, I think you’re more open-minded. It would make sense that somebody who is speaking in a language other than their own, they would be more likely to listen and consider another perspective.

BABBEL: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I think so too. There was some sort of study done about how people are less “moral” when they’re speaking in a second tongue because the words carry less of an emotional attachment.

HEADLEE: That would make perfect sense.

BABBEL: Yeah. What do you think are some important conversational skills that are specific to language learners that may or may not be missing from most language curriculums?

HEADLEE: I think one of the benefits of learning a language is that it teaches you to slow down. Right? And slowing down is always a really, really good thing in anybody’s communication. But I think that the best information, the best way to learn a language is just by having those conversations. A lot of times, students … And I’m not saying it’s missing from the curriculum, I’m just saying, a lot of times students don’t take advantage of it. Even if you’re doing an online thing, a lot of times they’ll tell you, “Okay, go watch a movie in this language,” or, “Go have a conversation with someone,” or “Listen to the news.” They have the headlines read in slow French. And people don’t do it.

I would say that’s unfortunate because that’s the most effective way to learn a language, by hearing it and being forced to slow it down and figure out what you understand, and what you don’t understand. I don’t know that it’s missing, I just think that people need to actually do it.

BABBEL: Not taking their vitamins, in a sense.

HEADLEE: Yeah, exactly. It’s hard. It’s hard because none of us like not knowing. We don’t like being idiots. We don’t like risking talking to someone when we’re going to say something stupid. And you are going to say something stupid. That’s the whole thing. You’re going to use a word the wrong way. You’re going to say something that sounds silly. It’s going to happen. But that’s the best way to learn, is by allowing yourself to make the mistakes, and having someone correct you.

BABBEL: Mm-hmm.

HEADLEE: So yeah, eat your broccoli.

BABBEL: Sure. So say we have someone who’s traveling in another country, and they have a really shaky grasp on the language. They can barely use two words. What are some ways they can still forge a connection with the people they meet?

HEADLEE: Well, I have found that people love when you try to speak their language. I have yet to find somebody who is not generous about helping. Four of the most powerful words in any language are, “Can you help me?” I have found, when I go into other countries, and if I try to speak their language, I will almost immediately go up to someone and say, “Can you help me? I don’t know very much French or German, or whatever it may be, so if I make a mistake please tell me. Help me.” And people have been really generous. I ended up going to dinner with this couple because they were trying to give me directions, then they kept trying to tell me in English, because a lot of people in Germany speak better English than many Americans I know.

I was like, “No, no, no. Help me out. Help me say it in German.” And they were so generous and so fun, that we ended up spending the evening together. We had a great time, and we spent the whole evening together in German. They let me speak German the whole time. Yeah, it was fantastic. People are generous about it. It’s nice when someone cares enough to try to speak your language.

BABBEL: Yeah. And even kind of nicer when they’re patient enough to kind of help you struggle through theirs, right?

HEADLEE: Exactly. Which I found, more people are willing to do that than you might think.

BABBEL: Yes. Great. That does wrap up most of the questions that I sort of had, off-hand, but is there anything else that you wanted to add?

HEADLEE: I would just say that learning another language … A question I do get all the time is, “How do I become a better listener?” Because we have so many lessons in public speaking and almost none in listening. And yet, naturally, human beings are speakers and not listeners.


HEADLEE: Learning another language is one of the best ways to practice listening. There’s not a whole lot that’s more effective than trying to learn another language because you’re really listening hard. Right?

BABBEL: That’s true. I never thought about it that way, but you’re totally right.

HEADLEE: Yeah, and that’s all I would add.

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