Savannah Book Festival: A (Good) Conversation with Celeste Headlee

WHEN’S THE last time you had a really great conversation?

They’re getting harder to come by in today’s divisive environment, but Celeste Headlee is here to help promote more good talks.

At 2015’s TEDxCreative Coast, Headlee shared ten ways to have a better conversation. To her surprise, the talk went viral, amassing over ten million views.

The popularity of the talk encouraged Headlee, host of Georgia Public Broadcasting’s “On Second Thought,” to write a book. We Need To Talk was published in 2017 by Harper Collins Press and offers strategies for improving our conversations.

Headlee will speak at Trinity UMC at 12:30 p.m. on Sat., Feb. 17.

We spoke with Headlee last week.

What was the impetus behind We Need to Talk? What made you decide you needed to write it? 

I never expected my TEDx talk to go viral. I thought I was one of a very small number of people concerned about the current state of conversation.

When I saw the number of views climbing into the millions, from all over the world, I realized that lots of people seem to realize that something is wrong, that something isn’t working.

And I had a lot more to say than could be included in a short speech, so I wrote a book. 

What are some ways being a better conversationalist can help you in everyday life? 

There aren’t many aspects of life that aren’t improved by better conversational skills. Good listening will certainly help you at work, but it’s also crucial to a healthy relationship with your family and friends. 

Why do you think our age is so disconnected? Is it just technology or something more? 

Smartphones can be used to make phone calls, but we choose not to email or text instead. In fact, the average American adult spends about half an hour texting every day and only 6 minutes on the phone. Since we are making this choice, we can't blame it all technology.

It’s true that smartphones are very addictive, but we also choose not to chat with people in waiting rooms or elevators or cab rides. We seem to crave isolation, even though it’s very unhealthy for you, both mentally and physically.

How has your career as a journalist helped you become a better conversationalist? 

My job requires that I speak to all kinds of people, from all walks of life, all races and income levels. It also requires that I speak, on a regular basis, with people whose opinions are different from my own. So I get a lot of practice in setting aside my biases and showing respect to others, regardless of whether we agree or disagree. 

Tell me about the book itself. How is it structured? 

In the first part of the book, I make my case. I explain why I think conversation is a survival skill and why it’s probably a big reason why the human species has thrived. I also give evidence of a decline in conversational skills and illustrate why that’s so dangerous for us, individually and as a society. The last section devotes a chapter to each of my ten tips.

One tip you offer is to check your bias. How could someone who isn’t aware of their bias work on this?

Sometimes the best thing to do is to read the research. Every human being is biased in some way. Both liberals and conservatives are equally prone to confirmation bias. So, if everyone has biases, then no one is an exception. If you enter every conversation expecting to learn something, even from those who hold very different beliefs, then you will eventually learn some unexpected things.

You will eventually hear things you didn’t know, that surprise you. After that happens a few times, you’ll get better and better at listening to what people tell you and trying to learn from them. 

CS

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