In Sight

10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation

Writer and radio host Celeste Headlee on ways to have a meaningful dialogue.

© iStockphoto / Peopleimages

All right, I want to see a show of hands: How many of you have unfriended someone on Facebook because they said something offensive about politics or religion, childcare, food?

And how many of you know at least one person that you avoid because you just don’t want to talk to them?

You know, it used to be that in order to have a polite conversation, we just had to follow the advice of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady: Stick to the weather and your health. But these days, those subjects are not safe either. So in a world in which every conversation has the potential to devolve into an argument—where our politicians can’t speak to one another and where even the most trivial issues have someone fighting both passionately for it and against it—it’s not normal.

Pew Research did a study of 10,000 American adults, and they found that at this moment, we are more polarized, we are more divided, than we ever have been in history. We’re less likely to compromise, which means we’re not listening to one another. And we make decisions about where to live, who to marry and even who our friends are going to be, based on what we already believe. Again, that means we’re not listening to one another. A conversation requires a balance between talking and listening, and somewhere along the way, we lost that balance.

There’s this great piece in The Atlantic. It was written by a high school teacher named Paul Barnwell. He gave his kids a communication project. He wanted to teach them how to speak on a specific subject without using notes. And he said this: “I came to realize that conversational competence might be the single most overlooked skill we fail to teach. Kids spend hours each day engaging with ideas and each other through screens, but rarely do they have an opportunity to hone their interpersonal communications skills. It might sound like a funny question, but we have to ask ourselves: Is there any 21st-century skill more important than being able to sustain coherent, confident conversation?

A conversation requires a balance between talking and listening, and somewhere along the way, we lost that balance.

So I have 10 basic rules. I’m going to walk you through all of them, but honestly, if you just choose one of them and master it, you’ll already enjoy better conversations.

Number one: Don’t multitask. And I don’t mean just set down your cell phone or your tablet or your car keys or whatever is in your hand. I mean, be present. Be in that moment.

Number two: Don’t pontificate. You need to enter every conversation assuming that you have something to learn. The famed therapist M. Scott Peck said that true listening requires a setting aside of oneself. And sometimes that means setting aside your personal opinion. He said that sensing this acceptance, the speaker will become less and less vulnerable, and more and more likely to open up the inner recesses of his or her mind to the listener.

Number three: Use open-ended questions. If you put in a complicated question, you’re going to get a simple answer out. If I ask you, “Were you terrified?” you’re going to respond to the most powerful word in that sentence, which is “terrified,” and the answer is “Yes, I was” or “No, I wasn’t.” “Were you angry?” “Yes, I was very angry.” Let them describe it. They’re the ones who know. Try asking them things like, “What was that like?” “How did that feel?” Because then they might have to stop for a moment and think about it, and you’re going to get a much more interesting response.

Number four: Go with the flow. That means thoughts will come into your mind, and you need to let them go out of your mind. We’re sitting there having a conversation with someone, and then we remember that time that we met Hugh Jackman in a coffee shop. And we stop listening. Stories and ideas are going to come to you. You need to let them come and let them go.

Number five: If you don’t know, say that you don’t know. Talk should not be cheap.

Number six: Don’t equate your experience with theirs. It’s not the same. All experiences are individual. And, more important, it is not about you. You don’t need to take that moment to prove how amazing you are or how much you’ve suffered. Conversations are not a promotional opportunity.

Number seven: Try not to repeat yourself. It’s condescending, and it’s really boring, and we tend to do it a lot.

Number eight: Stay out of the weeds. Frankly, people don’t care about the years, the names, the dates, all those details that you’re struggling to come up with in your mind. They care about what you’re like, what you have in common.

Number nine: This is not the last one, but it is the most important one. Listen. I cannot tell you how many really important people have said that listening is perhaps the No. 1 most important skill that you could develop. Calvin Coolidge said, “No man ever listened his way out of a job.”

Number 10: One more rule, and it’s this one: Be brief.

Stephen Covey said it very beautifully. He said: “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand. We listen with the intent to reply.”

All of this boils down to the same basic concept, and it is this one: Be interested in other people.

The full version of this talk can be found on