“Everyone you will ever meet knows something that you don't.”
If we think back at times when we felt energized and inspired at a networking event, or some other kind of gathering, when we walked away feeling great, that we connected with someone, we experienced what a good conversation looks like. Why can't all of our interactions be like that?
For that to happen, we don't need to talk more, we need to talk better.
Can we save conversation?
When high school teacher Pam Barwell set out to teach students how to speak on a specific topic without relying on notes he was in a for a surprise. He says:
“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 is the process of exchanging ideas, to relate to topics, stories, and each other. Whether it's about negotiating a complex deal or simply meaning, it's not just about what each party gets out of it, though that matters. It's about the experience of having the conversation.
Speaking in public is not the same as elaborating thought in our heads, or editing an email we're preparing to send. It requires a whole different set of skills and lots, lots of practice.
What does that look like? For starters, we should aim to enter conversation with the thought that we'll learn something, so engaging with curiosity is helpful. Which also means we should be open to be surprised. There are many good reasons why disagreement is central to progress, it gets us out of our comfort zone. Innovation is all about stepping outside complacency, or the way we've always looked at something.
The interview is a great format to try―providing we are flexible and keep an open mind to follow the conversation where it goes. When we're interviewing someone, the idea is to draw information, knowledge, and stories out, not to prove we're smarter. The fact we're part of the conversation is invitation enough.
Practicing better conversation
Radio host Celeste Headlee has worked in public radio since 1999, as a reporter, host and correspondent. Like Terry Gross of Fresh Air, she has practiced her skills through listening and asking questions. Headlee also holds multiple degrees in music and still performs as a professional opera singer.
She's also the author of Heard Mentality: An A-Z Guide to Take Your Podcast or Radio Show from Idea to Hit. Her advice is to stick with ten basic rules:
1. No multitasking ― “Don't think about your argument you had with your boss. Don't think about what you're going to have for dinner.”
Be present and in the moment, or use the law of two feet and walk away if you feel you can't contribute or don't want to be there. This one is hard because research shows the delta between speaking speed and thought speed means when we listen to the average speaker, we're using only 25% of our mental capacity. We still have 75% to do something else with.
2. No pontificating ― “If you want to state your opinion without any opportunity for response or argument or push back or growth, write a blog.”
A point well taken and worth thinking about as we comment on and share information online. Here we could practice keeping something in draft format, then reading it as if we were on the receiving end of it. There's tremendous upside when we put ourselves on hold.
Headlee says, “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. Again, assume that you have something to learn.”
3. Use open-ended questions ― “Start your questions with who, what, when, where, why or how.”
A good rule of thumb is also to ask simple questions, especially in the beginning of a conversation. It helps both parties ease into it. For example, when we talk to customers, or colleagues, we want them to be more descriptive. Which means staying away from questions that elicit only a yes/no response.
“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.”
4. Go with the flow ―“That means thoughts will come into your mind and you need to let them go out of your mind.”
This also needs practice. Because we can all think of times when we've been talking with someone, they're telling us about something that happened to them, and we want to jump in and add our story to theirs... often before they're even done. It's harder to do when we're on the phone, or on a podcast or radio program, and we don't have visibility into body language to learn if they were done.
5. Admit when we don't know ―“people on the radio, especially on NPR, are much more aware that they're going on the record, and so they're more careful about what they claim to be an expert in and what they claim to know for sure.”
What would happen to our conversations if we thought they were being recorded and we were on record? Talk doesn't have to be cheap. And in that vein, when so much of our talk is in the form of text and online commentary... well, it's worth putting some care into it.
6. No equating your experience with theirs ―“It's not the same. It is never the same. All experiences are individual.”
We're all guilty of this. When a topic touches on experiences we've also had, we want to jump in. Say a death in the family, or a rough situation at work.
Says Headlee, “You don't need to take that moment to prove how amazing you are or how much you've suffered. Somebody asked Stephen Hawking once what his IQ was, and he said, I have no idea. People who brag about their IQs are losers.”
7. Try not to repeat yourself ―“It's condescending, and it's really boring, and we tend to do it a lot.”
Instead, we might want to practice saying things better next time, if we have the impression our point is not coming across. Fair enough?
8. 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 don't care. What they care about is you.”
Context matters. We should be mindful of the circumstances in which we have the conversation It's an acquired skill for those of us who love diving into the details of things. But there is a time for every purpose, and that is where we have the opportunity to get better at being appropriate to the task at hand.
We could be starting with things we have in common, for example.
9. Listen ―“This is not the last one, but it is the most important one.”
Although most of us acknowledge the importance of listening to improve our understanding, learn new things, and enjoy new experiences, when it comes to the actual doing, we fall short. This is probably because nobody teaches us how to listen explicitly. Here are some ideas on how to listen, for a change.
We can start practicing by shifting our focus on being interested rather than being interesting.
10. Be brief―we should aim to be organize our writing and thoughts so they are complete, but on the safe side of fluff.
Anyone with a podcast or radio show would do well to check out Celeste Headlee's Heard Mentality.