How to Be a Good Conversationalist

How can our generation save the world? Maybe it’s as simple as learning how to talk to one another.

Okay, okay. So there’s no quick fix to correcting the extreme political polarization the U.S. is experiencing right now. But changing how we talk, and how we listen, is a meaningful step in the right direction, says journalist and conversation expert Celeste Headlee.

Good Conversationalist pbs rewire
Source: Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language by Robin Dunbar

Headlee hosts “On Second Thought,” a daily news program on Georgia Public Broadcasting radio. She’s made a career out of talking to all kinds people.

Along the way, she found the traditional interview techniques she was taught weren’t worth much in practice. So she started from scratch—delving into research on the science of conversations and recently publishing a book on the topic, “We Need to Talk: Having Conversations That Matter.

Headlee’s TED talk, in which she shared 10 tips for being a better conversationalist, has been viewed almost 9 million times.

Why talking matters

Why do we need to talk to each other? Well, since 2000, empathy in college-age adults has dropped 40 percent by some counts. But empathy is what we need to bridge the growing political divide, Headlee said. And listening to someone talk from their perspective is the best way to learn empathy.

In Headlee’s experience, we’ve largely stopped doing this, and it’s hurting our relationships, as well as our future.

“If you listen to the political discourse… it has become easy to talk about people as if they’re a completely different species,” she said. “We’re going to have to start hearing each other and listening to each other like human beings do.”

Texting is fine, but it’s not talking

To improve the conversations we have, we first need to start having them.

Of all the generations, millennials are more likely to believe that texting is equivalent to conversation, Headlee said. Now, before you roll your eyes, that’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with texting. It is a way to communicate, for sure, but it is not a replacement for face-to-face conversations, she said.

When we talk to one another face to face, there is more going on than just the words we say. When you’re in a conversation, the part of your brain that processes music is picking up on the tone of voice of the other person.

“There’s a layer of meaning in all of our communication that requires melody,” Headlee said, and when you text, “you’re missing a huge amount of meaning.”

Because tone of voice is absent in text and email communication, there’s a heightened risk of miscommunication. We’re more likely to escalate conflict via email, Headlee pointed out. And “your closest friends and family members are no more accurate in detecting sarcasm in your emails than a complete stranger off the street,” she said.

“Break yourself of the illusion that texting is the same as conversation,” Headlee said. “It is very much not.”

Turn off and put away

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Source: London School of Economics

Her No. 1 tip to becoming a better conversationalist is related to your phone, too. When you’re talking to someone, don’t just silence or turn off your phone, put it away. Research shows that merely having a smartphone in sight is hugely distracting.

Not only are you being distracted by your visible phone, even when you’re not using it, so is the person you’re talking to.

Headlee referenced a study in which some pairs of people had conversations with a smartphone—not belonging to either person in the conversation—sitting on the table between them. Those folks were more likely to report that their conversation partner was unfriendly and untrustworthy than the people who had conversations with no phone sitting on the table.

On top of that, turn off your notifications, Headlee suggested. Especially when you’re in a situation where you’ll be engaging with people, there’s no need to know immediately that someone retweeted you or liked your Insta post, she said. Those little alerts popping up might not seem like a big deal, but they’re pulling some of your brain power away from the task at hand and making you less engaged.

Cellphones are an integral part of life today, Headlee acknowledged, but people need to start recognizing how overuse is damaging in-person connections.

Putting these “healthy limits” on your smartphone habits “would be the number one easiest thing you can do” to improve your conversation skills, Headlee said. “Don’t let your smartphone change your brain.”

Be mindful of how you respond

Another thing to keep in mind the next time you’re talking with someone: “Stop offering up your own stories in response” to someone else’s story, Headlee said.

When you hear a story you relate to, it’s a perfectly normal human response to draw connections to your own experiences, she said. When you’re having a conversation with someone, restrict those connections to internal monologue. While you might think your friend whose dad just went through surgery will want to hear about the surgery you went through last year, “when someone is struggling they don’t need to hear from you, they need you to hear them.”

You likely have kind and empathetic intentions when you pipe up with your own experience, but it can come off as “conversational narcissism,” Headlee said. Be mindful of the way you listen and engage with others’ stories.

“We all have a tendency of offering up our experiences, (but) it just switches the attention of the conversation from the other person to ourselves,” she said.

Share, don’t educate

For lots of people, holiday get-togethers with family are rife with awkward political discussions and, often, disagreements. For a long time, we’ve been taught it’s impolite to engage in conversation about certain topics because they carry a higher risk of offending someone, Headlee said.

But today, charged conversations are almost impossible to avoid. Nor should avoidance be the goal, she said.

“That has literally been our strategy for generations—it is not working,” Headlee said. “Have the conversation, just learn how to do it without arguing.”

How do you disagree without an argument? Simply “don’t let it get heated,” she said. This has everything to do with your goal going into the conversation.

“You can have a conversation without arguing about it if your intent is not to change their mind or educate them,” Headlee said. “If that’s your goal, you’re going to be frustrated every time.

“But if your goal is to learn something from that person—if that’s your goal, not only can you accomplish that every single time— … that means you have an open mind” and they’re more likely to open up to you.

That’s how empathy grows on both sides and bridges divisive differences between people and groups.

Obviously, the only person in the conversation you can control is yourself. There are certain people, Headlee acknowledged, that can’t disagree with someone without getting hostile or forcing their opinion on the other person.

“If it does become an argument, walk away,” she said.

But in most cases, conversation is an invaluable skill to employ.

“If we could improve our conversations, we will probably improve our world, and make the future a little bit less dire,” Headlee said.

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s web editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz and on Instagram @yepilikeit.