Six takeaways from Celeste Headlee’s new book ‘We Need to Talk’

This was posted on Friday, September 22, 2017 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk 

In a world where people are more apt to text than talk to each other, conversation is a dying art.

That’s perhaps why when the main Ted Talk website highlighted Georgia Public Broadcasting host Celeste Headlee’s 2015 talk about 10 ways to make conversations better, it went viral. More than 5 million people have viewed it on the Ted site and YouTube.

Soon, book publishers came calling and she signed a deal with Harper Wave, an imprint of Harper Collins.

The result is basically a 234-page version of that Ted Talk with more insights, more research and more recommendations called “We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter.”

“I’m very serious when I say I think if people listened to each other, we can make ourselves a better place,” said Headlee during a recent lunch. “Many of our political and social problems stem from a lack of respectful and civil conversations in the world.”

“This book,” she said, “is a plea to return to humanity. Biologically, our special skill is face-to-face communication. We are evolutionarily designed to read people’s faces, pick up changes in people’s voices and sense the mood of a room. You’ll know instantly if you’re at a party or a funeral.”

She said she wanted to make it clear that she is not fashioning herself as a conversation guru, that she is just fascinated by the subject. “I try to back up how severe the problem is, explain how we got there, then offer solutions,” she said. “I put in how many mistakes I’ve made. The reason I’m an expert trying to figure out what I was doing wrong.”

Headlee brings up ways to reduce the chances a conversation on a controversial subject doesn’t de-volve into an argument because by then, nobody is listening to each other any more.

Here are six take-aways from the book:

  1. Less conversation, less empathy. The less we talk to each other, the worse our ability to connect and understand other people’s feelings and thoughts.
  2. Multi-tasking is fake news. You may think you’re great at multi-tasking but the brain isn’t really able to concentrate on two things at once. Instead, you just end up doing two things poorly. So listening to someone while perusing Facebook is not a good combination.
  3. Smartphones kill conversation. It makes sense that smartphones shrink attention span. It also makes people more apt to ignore each other at the dinner table. What’s amazing is even the presence of a smartphone on the table hurts the quality of a conversation because it reminds people of what they’re missing and takes away from their ability to focus on the person in front of them. “It’s supposed to make us more efficient,” she said, “but it wastes our time and makes us less human.”
  4. Create expectations before a serious conversation. Headlee will often set up what she needs and wants with her subject before a talk with someone on her show “On Second Thought” (9 a.m. daily on 88.5 WRAS-FM). That helps make that person more comfortable and typically improves the conversation.
  5. Being smarter doesn’t make you a better conversationalist. Smarter folks think they can have better conversations but that isn’t always the case. Supposed “smart” folks often are more likely to use erroneous assumptions and think they’re right when they aren’t.
  6. Enough about you, more about me! People get dopamine hits from talking themselves, comparable sometimes to having sex or eating chocolate. But focusing on yourself all the time doesn’t allow for the proper give and take for a truly good conversation. Sadly, humans are not terribly attuned to listening. That takes intentional, hard work.


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