We Need To Talk: How To Have Conversations That Matter
Celeste Headlee

We are not at the top of the food chain, of course [Because we’re omnivores, not carnivores, JH]. On a scale of 1 to 5 [where one is pure carnivore and 5 is pure herbivore, JH], we score 2.21 [According to Joseph Stromberg writing in Where Do Humans Really Rank On The Food Chain? for Smithsonian, 2 December 2013, endnote]. That puts us on a par with anchovies. And yet, despite all of our physical weakness, we are the dominant species. It is perhaps because of our comparatively fragile forms that humans have had to find other ways to compete, and talking was one of our most powerful tools. p. 4-5

You may tell yourself [that the reason you don’t engage with a cubicle neighbor] is 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. p. 44

You first have to know what you want before you can express those expectations to someone else. And that is what makes this strategy so useful. It forces you to think about the objectives of the conversation in advance and articulate what you want to the other person. When you’re confiding in a friend, are simply looking for a shoulder to cry on do you want advice? Tell the other person, so they don’t feel the need to solve your problem. When you’re irritated with your partner because of a specific grievance, do you need to express your frustration, or do you need to have a conversation about how to avoid a repeat offense? p. 55

Through my experience and research, I’ve identified fie key strategies that facilitate a productive dialogue. They are: be curious, check your bias, show respect, stay the course and end well. p. 63

BE CURIOUS: “Everybody believes they are the good guy. The only real way to disarm your enemy is to listen to them. If you hearthem out, if you’re brave enough to really listen to their story, you can see that more often than not, you have have made some of the same choices if you’d lived their life instead of yours.” —CIA clandestine service officer Amaryllis Fox. p. 63-4

CHECK YOUR BIAS: Listening to someone doesn’t mean agreeing with them. the purpose of listening is to understand, not endorse. p. 64

SHOW RESPECT: In order to show respect, you’ll have to view the other person as a human being, deserving of respect. And you’ll need to find a way to empathize with them., in spite of your disagreements. One way to do this is to assume that everyone is trying to bring about some kind of positive result in their lives. p. 69

You can practice your empathy skills by watching a video of a public figure you don’t agree with. [I picked Jim Renacci] Watch a speech given by that person or an interview they’ve done, and focus on seeing that person as someone trying to accomplish something they believe to be good. From their point of view, their end goal is positive and constructive. Try to imagine what that end goal is. Focus on their positive intentions. p. 70

STAY THE COURSE: If you’re talking to someone and a taboo topic comes up—whether it’s death, divorce or race—don’t try to change the subject. Don’t make a joke or go off on a tangent. Conversations on tough issues are often uncomfortable, especially when you don’t know what to say. But try to avoid getting frustrated and walking away. Silence is preferable to flight. p. 71

END WELL: You don’t need to have the last word. Let go of that impulse if you want to maintain friendly relations with the other person. Also, take a moment to thank them for sharing their thoughts. It can be scary to talk about politics or religion with someone else, so express your gratitude for their time and their openness. If you end the conversation in a friendly and gracious way, you set the groundwork and the tone for future conversations. p. 72

It only takes one good conversation to change your understanding of someone else’s world, you world and the world at large. p. 73

Three things happen when you apologize sincerely. First, you acknowledge someone’s anger or sadness. You validate that they have reason to be angry or that their anger is real. This often disarms them. p. 78

When you’re successful, their brain prepares to forgive. p. 78

An apology can also confer upon the person offering it tremendous positive effects. In order to apologize to someone, you must first understand why they’re upset. That requires that you put yourself in their shoes for just a moment, and we know that such an exercise increases empathy. p. 78

One study by a Harvard neuroscientist showed it might even increase gray matter in the frontal cortex, the area of the brain that’s associated with memory and executive decision-making. In that study, benefits were measured in a magnetic resonance imaging scan after meditating forty minutes a day for eight weeks. p.m 98

Sociologist Charles Derber describes this tendency to insert oneself into a conversation as conversational narcissism. it’s the desire to take over a conversation, to do most of the talking, and to turn the focus of the exchange to yourself. It is often subtle and unconscious.” p. 105


Shift: I’m so busy right now—Me too, I’m totally overwhelmed. vs.
Support: I’m so busy right nowWhy? What do you have to get done?

Shift: I need new shoes.—Me too, These things are falling apart. vs.
Support: I need new shoes.—Oh yeah? What kind are you thinking about? p. 106

While many people believe education can increase empathy, that may not be entirely true either. In [Sara] Konrath’s extensive research, people with only a high school diploma scored 7 percent higher that those with a college degree. p. 115

I spent some time examining my own thoughts before that show [about the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia]. I knew there was no way that defender of the flag could possibly understand my emotional reaction to it. they couldn’t know my family history or understand my personal experience. In turn I had to acknowledge that I couldn’t know their history or understand their experience. p. 124

While we assume that smarts and education make us more open-minded than people less educated or intelligent, the truth is that the research shows that the smarter you are, the more susceptible you are to bias. p. 126

Don’t avoid a conversation because you’re afraid of an argument. If the argument is coming, face it and try to make it as productive as possible. There are some simple ways to do this:

1. Don’t make it personal. Don’t talk abou their personal flaws or use phrases like “This is what you always do” or “Here’s your problem.”

2. Think about solutions instead of focusing only on what you don’t like or what made you angry. A productive argument isn’t just a chance to complain.

3. Be willing to let the other person win. Finding a resolution that helps you both doesn’t always mean declaring a victor or affirming that you are right. p. 123-3

Anytime you enter a conversation, and especially when you are about to talk with someone who holds different beliefs from your own, ask yourself: What do you hope to get out of the exchange? What would you like to have happen at the end and how would you like to walk away from the other person? Angry, frustrated, and no smarter than when you started? You probably cannot change their mind, so perhaps the goal should be your own enlightenment. You can’t control what they take away from the conversation, but you can can control what you get out of it. p. 133

No matter how strong your opinions are, dive into every topic thinking, “What if the other person is right? Why do they think the way they do?” p. 134

If you can find it within yourself to stop using conversations as a way to convince people that you’re right, you will be stunned at what you’ve been missing. p. 137

“People have a tendency to tell others everything they know.” —Alan Weiss, The Real Reason So Many People Are Such Bad Communicators. Instead of considering what is necessary and what isn’t. Take a moment to consider what you need to accomplish in a conversation before you utter your first word. Once you’ve conveyed your message, resist the temptation to keep talking. In a conversation, as in so many things, quality trumps quantity. p. 143

We’ve all had moments when we realized we were blathering. We’ve all become aware that we’re talking about nonsense and seen the light go out of our friend’s eyes while we continue to jabber. While the length of a conversation depends on the context and will vary widely, the type of conversation you’re having should be determined mutually. What I mean is: you must be sensitive to the signals you’re getting from the other person. p. 143-4

Repetition is the conversational equivalent of marching in place. It’s not interesting and it doesn’t move anything forward. p. 153

[Being aware of a habit when you’re trying to break it] is like when you go on a diet and start keeping a food journal. At first you can’t imagine how writing down everything you eat could help because you think you have a pretty good handle on what you consume. But when you tally every cookie, every handful of M&M’s, every soda, you realize that you weren’t actually aware of what was going into your mouth. The Same is true of repetition. p. 157-8

The genius of open-ended questions is that they can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. The most uncomplicated questions often elicit a complicated response, just as a detailed question can result in a one-word answer. p. 161

“In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers —Fred Rogers, The World According To Mister Rogers.

[Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion] as to suggestions for winning over a person who dislikes you: give honest compliments and ask for advice. Ask questions! p. 165

“I was gratified to be able to answer promptly. I said, I don’t know.” —Mark Twain. 169

When you pretend to know more that you do, you will eventually give someone bad advice or prevent them from seeking the guidance of a real bona fide expert. p. 172

The business psychiatrist Mark Goulston says we only have about forty seconds to speak during a conversation before we run the risk of dominating the exchange. He describes the first twenty seconds as the green light, when the other person likes you and is enjoying what you have to say. The next twenty seconds are the yellow light, when “the other person is beginning to lose interest or think you’re long-winded.” At forty seconds, Goulston says, the light turns red and it’s time to stop talking. p. 182

Let me go a step further and suggest that you eliminate the phrase Well, actually… from your lexicon. I don’t usually give advice about specific words or phrases to use or avoid, but I’ll make an exception here. If you really need to correct someone because something bad will happen if they don’t have the accurate information, find another way or wait until they’ve finished their story. p. 188

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand. They listen to with the intent to reply.” —Steven Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring The Character Ethic. We talk to someone because we want to say something not because we want to hear. [Hence texting/voice mails, JH] p. 217

It’s not easy to break the habit of simply waiting for someone to take a breath so that you can speak again, but it can be done.

First, listen for ideas. While the other person is talking, think about the deeper meaning of their words and their thoughts. Watch their facial expressions and gestures. What are they really trying to say? You can ask questions like:,Does that mean that…? or Are you saying that…? Perhaps they’re hinting at something. What is it? Why are they telling that story at this moment? What’s the big idea?

Second, evaluate the evidence instead of jumping to conclusions. That means listen to the words they’re actually saying instead of listening for certain words or names and making assumptions about what they mean. p.

Third, try to summarize what you’re hearing, but do it in your head. This is another way to put the extra words in your mind to good use. Review what the other person has says and rephrase it. You will immediately notice if you missed something or if you’re no clear on a specific point. p. 217-9

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