Conversational Competency

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We recently discovered a Ted Talk called “10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation” by Celeste Headlee. At a time where we are more polarized than ever, this talk is a must-see.

Celeste brings an interesting perspective to the table regarding the lack of balance between talking and listening in conversations as simple as small talk.

For some people, small talk can feel like pulling teeth. We were taught that the weather and health are the hallmark topics of small talk, but as Celeste mentions, with climate change and anti-vaxers, even those topics are off-limits.

This brings us back to our state of polarization. Research has shown that our country is more polarized now than we’ve ever been. We make decisions in our lives based on ideas/views that we already believe in and are rarely willing to listen to a perspective that differs from our own (who’s guilty? I am!). Want to understand the science behind it? Your brain has “emotional filters.” This is like the age-old concept, “you hear what you want to hear and ignore what you don’t.” When someone opposes our most deeply rooted prejudices, our brains become overstimulated. As you listen you are mentally preparing a rebuttal to what you heard rather than hearing what is being said.

Some of this can be blamed on the digital age. We have “conversations” via Facebook, Twitter, comments on blogs or videos, and most of the time, the only communication partner is you. We very easily spew our opinion at someone, delete them as a friend, unfollow them, or block them and be on our way without even hearing what they have to share.

The famed therapist M. Scott Peck said, “True listening requires a setting aside of oneself. And sometimes that means setting aside your personal opinion. 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.” Similar to the above quote by Bill Nye, assume that you have something to learn from each person you communicate with, even the little ones! 

The lack of expertise in listening skills is not only due to the digital age, but also the lack of direct education surrounding listening skills.

Teachers may use admonitions like “pay attention” or “use your listening ears,” but there is an extreme lack of formal methods that teach students how to listen. This is based on the following false assumptions. The first is that listening depends on intelligence. While low intelligence can be related to the inability to listen, an unintelligent person is not necessarily a poor listener and vice versa. The second is that learning to read automatically teaches one to listen. If you do a quick google search of how to teach children to listen, you’ll find blog after blog that says read to your child to enhance listening skills. But… how are you to know what is going on in your child’s head? Maybe they are thinking about a bully from school, or a booger they picked earlier that looked like a dinosaur (yuck!). Concentration while listening is more difficult than any other form of communication because we think faster than we can speak. This gap is mostly misused with unrelated thoughts, judgments, or personal opinions when we could be using it to our advantage.

So how can we become the best listeners? How can we model and teach adequate listening skills to our children? Celeste mentions 10 rules to have coherent, confident, and effective conversations.

  1. Don’t multitask. Stay in the present moment.
  2. Don’t pontificate. Assume you always have something to learn.
  3. Ask open-ended questions. This is where our who, what, when, where, why questions pop in. Imagine asking someone after a complicated surgery, “Were you scared?” They reply to you, “Yes.” Boom. Conversation ended. But what if you asked them, “How do you feel?” or “What was it like?” Most likely you’d have a deeper conversation and have an opportunity to learn something from another’s experience.
  4. Go with the flow. We all remember what it was like in grade school when you had a burning question but your teacher gave you the ‘wait until I’m finished’ look. You sat there repeating your question over and over again in your mind. But, while trying to remember your question you completely missed valuable information from your teacher. Let the questions go. Let thoughts come in, then go out. Otherwise, you’ve stopped listening.
  5. If you don’t know, say that you don’t know. It’s always best to err on the side of caution.
  6. Don’t equate your experience with theirs. This one is tough because most of the time people have the best intentions when they bring up a similar experience. They want to make the other person feel less alone or are acting based on empathy (see Brene Brown on Empathy) which we are taught is a good thing. As someone with a disability, I know first-hand how this can get you in trouble. There are many days where my pain is debilitating. The last thing I want to hear from a communication partner is, “I’m old and have arthritis so I know how you feel.” While I’m sorry that that person is in pain, they’ve done nothing but shifted the conversation to their own problems and missed a chance to help someone feel validated. Another way this can go awry is when we begin a response with, “At least…” For example, assume I tell my friend I sprained my ankle. They may respond with, “Well at least you didn’t break it. I broke my ankle when I was ten and it was excruciating.” I’m left feeling invalidated and annoyed. Food for thought, what might you say instead? Note, compassion can be offered without personal comparison.
  7. Try not to repeat yourself. We’ve all heard the phrase, “stop beating a dead horse.” I’m sure we can all think of a conversation in which we zoned out completely because the speaker said the same thing in 20 different ways. We lose interest and stop listening.
  8. Stay out of the weeds. You know that tip of the tongue sensation where you can’t quite remember the date of an event or the name of an old friend (it’s called anomia!). You spend a solid 2 minutes in silence just trying to dig it out from your brain’s attic and while doing so you’ve completely lost the interest of your communication partner. People don’t care about dates, names, or details that you can’t remember.
  9. Listen. Celeste mentions that although this is not the last rule, it is the most important. Most people would rather talk than listen because it gives them control over what’s being discussed. A lot of times, we stop listening because we get distracted. As Celeste mentioned, “it takes effort and energy to actually pay attention to someone, but if you can’t do that, you’re not in a conversation. You’re just two people shouting out barely related sentences in the same place.” Stephen Covey sums that up with the quote, “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand, we listen with the intent to reply.”
  10. Be brief. Celeste shares a quote from her sister, “A good conversation is like a miniskirt; short enough to retain interest, but long enough to cover the subject.” It’s all about balance.

Lastly, Celeste mentions that in order to have conversational competency, you have to be interested in what other people have to say. Otherwise… what’s the point? Try to look at each conversation as a chance to be amazed, an opportunity to learn something new, or an opportunity to share what you’ve learned.

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