How to Talk and How to Listen

July 2, 2017

Celeste Headlee (from a TED Talk, see here which includes a transcript)

There are quite a few posts on my blog that orient around the role and importance of face-to-face conversations. Some of these focus on actual events that promote and stimulate (group) conversations, such as the Knowledge Cafes pioneered by David Gurteen (for example, see here). Another aspect that interests me are the conversational skills we all have and, importantly, how these can be developed further.

This was brought home to me in a vivid manner a few years ago when I heard a talk on ‘how to have better conversations’ and approached the speaker afterwards with some queries. He then duly broke most of the advice he had just given out eg didn’t listen, didn’t ask questions, ignored my body language etc. Apart from being wryly amusing (not to mention disappointing), it provided a good example of the common disparity between theory and practice! That being said, I expect we’ve all done this at some time or other, or maybe we’ve simply been trained and educated to act this way?

In many organisations there are opportunities for developing communication skills (say through formal training) although these rarely seem to cover conversation. Conversation seems to be thought of as an ad hoc skill which you just ‘have’.

Anyway, this leads on to the funny and insightful TED talk (above) by Celeste Headlee (which has had over 3 million views). As she says, even if you master just one of the ways she recommends you’re doing great!

Interesting quote from the video: “Conversational competence might be the single most overlooked skill we fail to teach.”

After listening to this video, and as a trial, I’ve tried to ‘listen’ more and it really does work. I catch myself bursting to say something and then just say ‘let it go’ and it’s quite amazing how the conversation develops (the other person realises you really are paying attention to what they’re saying and are quite often surprised!). I’m now going to try a few of the other suggestions (see list below; mainly being briefer, staying out of the weeds and less repeating).

Another illuminating activity is to just listen to people having conversations and figure out what works and what doesn’t and then try to incorporate the better points. In TV interviews, repetition, unnecessary details and rambling really do stand out like a sore thumb.

Why not give one or two of the topics a go yourself, you may be (pleasantly) surprised at the results!

As a list, the ten points are (however, best to just watch the 12 minute video):

  1. Don’t multitask.
  2. Don’t pontificate.
  3. Use open-ended questions.
  4. Go with the flow.
  5. If you don’t know, say that you don’t know.
  6. Don’t equate your experience with theirs.
  7. Try not to repeat yourself.
  8. Stay out of the weeds.
  9. Listen.
  10. Be brief.