6 Questions With Master Conversationalist Celeste Headlee

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.
celeste headlee

“We need to talk.”

Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt personally victimized by this text message. Now consider the fact that texting is probably ruining our ability to have important conversations face to face.

“Technology as intimacy destroyer” is a familiar trope, but Celeste Headlee has developed some of her own theories about why we’re so bad at having conversations with each other these days. For one, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to place all the blame on smartphones. We’ve also lost our ability to really listen (versus plan what we’re going to say next), and the disembodied conversations we’re increasingly having through technology actually make us more prone to subconsciously discredit people who disagree with us.

Headlee also thinks that learning another language can be one of the best cures for our conversational maladies, even if we think we’re not proficient enough to talk to native speakers yet.

Having spent the last two decades in public radio interviewing countless people from all walks of life, Celeste Headlee has distilled her sage conversational wisdom into a wildly popular TED Talk. That it was one of the most-watched in 2016 merely underscores the point that people are hungrier for real connection than ever. Some of her best tips include the following: assume you have something to learn from everyone you talk to; don’t equate your experience with theirs; and most of all, be genuinely interested in other people.

Celeste Headlee is the host of On Second Thought at Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta, and she’s been a host and correspondent for NPR and PRI since 2006. She’s also the author of We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations that Matter, and she’s appeared on CNN, the BBC, PBS and MSNBC.

1. 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 didn’t 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. I started researching how to become a better interviewer, which is basically how to have a better conversation with people. The best interview sounds like a conversation. I think what really got me into it was the fact that the existing advice on having better conversations was generally bad. By that, I mean it didn’t actually work, so I had to sort of start from scratch. 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.

[The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People author] Stephen Covey says that we just wait until the other person stops talking, so that we can reply. That’s a big problem, because 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.

2. 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. 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 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.

There’s lots of things that are better. It’s way easier to stay in touch with people. 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. 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.

And it’s unfortunate for a lot of different reasons: 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 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.

3. 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 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.

4. Most of your work, especially recently, 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. And part of the reason for that is we use references all the time that people don’t understand, like, “Beam me up, Scotty.” We’re constantly using stuff that’s 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 about just 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 the proprietary talk, or exclusionary terms that we use. And it never even occurs to us.

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?”

5. 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. And slowing down is always a really, really good thing in anybody’s communication. But I think that the best way to learn a language is just by having those conversations. I’m not saying it’s missing from the curriculum, but a lot of times, students don’t take advantage of it. Even if you’re using an online app, 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.” 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.

And 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, by allowing yourself to make the mistakes, and having someone correct you.

6. 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’ve 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?” When I go into other countries and 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. It was fantastic. People are generous about it. It’s nice when someone cares enough to try to speak your language. And people are more willing to help you struggle through theirs than you might think.

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. 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.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Click here to read the full transcript.

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