For two decades, Celeste Headlee has honed her conversational skills as a radio host interviewing everyone from politicians to everyday people. But at one point, Headlee, host of Georgia Public Broadcasting’s morning show On Second Thought, realized she was doing something wrong.
In her work and personal life she could recall many moments when she had failed to listen, failed to say things she should have said or failed at making herself understood. She was accomplished, she was smart, she was a host on talk radio for goodness’ sake — so what was preventing her from having conversations that mattered?
“The reason I started this whole thing is because I knew I was doing things wrong. It was my search for an answer to the question,” said Headlee.
Headlee, who moved to Atlanta in 2014, would soon become an expert in conversation, gaining widespread recognition with a 2015 TEDx talk in Savannah on how to have better conversations. That video ultimately went viral and currently has more than 12 million views across various platforms.
Headlee follows that success with the release of a new book Sept. 19, “We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter,” (Harper Wave, $27 now for pre-sale at Amazon.com.)
It has been an unexpected turn in her career, but one which Headlee has passionately embraced, even if she isn’t fully convinced of her own standing.
“When (people) meet me, they expect their conversation with me to be life changing. I say, ‘I am really sorry…but I am not about to blow your mind,'” she said. “I am very much invested in my work as a journalist. I didn’t expect to be in the position of telling everyone to put down your smart phone and listen to everyone else, but I just can’t take it anymore,” Headlee said.
To her mind, we have reached the peak of poor conversation. “Where we are right now is the worst it has ever been,” Headlee said. And the most guilty among us includes the leaders of our country.
“There is no sign in Washington that anyone, regardless of party, gets it or is willing to admit they are endangering the country by refusing to talk to other people. If I didn’t believe this, I wouldn’t have written this book,” she said.
It is hard to measure the quality of a conversation, said Headlee, but she does remember a time when it wasn’t so challenging for us to communicate with one another.
“We don’t really have a scientific measure to say this is a good conversation and this isn’t,” Headlee said. Memories of her parents or grandparents hosting visitors at their homes who would say things they didn’t agree with but were still invited back again and again, leave her convinced that things were once better than they are now.
As much as the current social climate demands good, meaningful conversations, we all seem to have clammed up. Part of that, Headlee learned, is the impact of social media and the Internet.
“We thought that would improve conversation, but in fact what is happening is because (cyber) bullying has gotten so bad and the stakes for making a mistake are so high…it makes people afraid,” she said.
In the book, Headlee cites a study from the Pew Research Center which found that if someone thinks their opinion is unpopular online, it discourages them from voicing that opinion in real life. “The internet is doing the opposite of what we thought it should do,” Headlee said.
That was just one of several eye-opening discoveries about how we communicate with one another. What really got Headlee going was a 2013 study in which Harvard scientists hooked participants up to a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine and asked them to talk about themselves and their own opinions and then other people and other people’s opinions.
When the participants talked about themselves, it stimulated the brain in the same manner as sex, cocaine or sugar. This occurred, even though the speakers had no idea if anyone was listening to them talk about themselves or not.
“The implications are vast but it explains a lot about why we are not listening to one another,” Headlee said.
So in part two of “We Need to Talk,” Headlee gives readers 10 strategies for improving the conversations they have every day.
Some of us need help being present in the conversation, some of us have to learn to let go of our own biases to really have a productive talk. There are steps we can take to learn how to become better listeners and we can also learn how to admit we don’t know something rather than subject others to our uninformed opinions.
Despite years of practicing these very techniques, Headlee said she has to continue to work at it daily. Improving the state of our conversations is work we must all do to ensure the future of our success as a nation and as a people, she said.
“I don’t want to ring the doom bell quite yet, but I will say that what we have right now is a short window of opportunity,” Headlee said.
“I think we can all see where this goes and how quickly it goes that way if we don’t stop behaving badly and start listening to one another and speaking to one another with authenticity,” she said. “There is a group of people now who are beginning to realize the situation is dire and it is time.”