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Celeste Headlee: We Need To Talk, A Book Review

Following her TedxCreativeCoast talk in 2015, ted.com featured her presentation, “10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation,” which has been viewed more than 11 million times. CNBC voted Celeste as having one of the most watched TED talks in 2016 and Glassdoor named Celeste as having the #1 must-watch TED talk for every recruiter and hiring manager.  Now, Headlee speaks to groups across the globe about the art of conversation and focused listening. [Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash]

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Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply - Stephen Covey

It’s something we all do, every day. We are not always aware that we do it. We stop in the middle of a mall and do it, we do it with cashiers, and even with or crazy unavoidable aunt we all have and try to avoid during holidays. We all do it. What is it? Talking. Communication is a central component of being human.

However, the fact of the matter is, we don’t do it well. American culture seems to vilify anger to the point that many have been taught to just restrain any expression of it. We see this in the movie Anger Management (with Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson). In the movie, Sandler’s character is a passive-aggressive man who with a “little help” from Jack Nicholson’s character (a trained psychologist) is shown that he too suffers from this ongoing epidemic in society – the inability to communicate with ourselves and others.

For many, this is the source of their frustration, the inability to express emotional states and/or read other’s emotional cues. In a social landscape where we now have more methods to communicate, the skill to actually communicate in a clear concise manner has all but disappeared.

Celeste Headlee’s suitably appropriate newest book entitled “We Need To Talk” explores the strategies on how to have better conversation and then breaks down real-time relevant tips on how to enhance our communication skills. With so many objects competing for our attention today, from our phones to PC’s, from Game of Thrones binge-watching to the SnapChat filter, we are not good at multi-tasking.

She examines research from neuroscience and psychological research to demonstrate that our ability to sustain effective conversation is impossible while focusing on something else. “We can’t accomplish two tasks at once and that’s especially true if those two things use the same part of the brain. That means we can’t actually type an email and talk on the phone at the same time.” The current political landscape along with the expansion of the technological terrain has given us the false illusion that we should somehow be equipped to deal with dense topics while taking on our everyday tasks. This naturally will evoke feelings of anxiety, inadequacy and self-doubt.

However, in the face of research, many will still be determined to continue to try to be physically present but not be mentally aware, which is the typical method of having conversation for most. This is indicative of our socio-cultural environment that romanticizes the need to be consumed with preventative planning. That somehow we need to be present but only in the future, by thinking about what happens next, and being present there rather than here.

Headlee offers tips on how to become better as a conversationalist, practical ones, which is refreshing, because when talking about a subject like talking, abstraction is anticipated. This is not the case here. One method to get better at being present, she shares, is: meditation. “It is possibly to train your mind to be less easily distracted.

Meditation is one very effective method. It teaches you to observe your thoughts and release them rather than hold on to them.” Science has caught up with thousands of years of age-old religious views on the health-related benefits of meditation. It lowers stress-levels. It increases our ability to be more aware of ourselves, others and our mind. It can help lower cortisol levels which arises out of stress, or trying to do more than one thing at a time. Meditation assists us in being more mindful of our words in a conversation. Headlee dives deep into the importance and wealth of development in this area and its cognitive benefits.

One important aspect that is constantly neglected in conversation is listening.

Headlee shares a great quote in her highly successful Ted Talk by Stephen Covey, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” This explains how listening has diminished in its value in conversations. That when we spend time engaging with our friends or families, we are doing so to share our experiences, rather than gaining something of value from theirs. Listening is a skill that is reinforced by doing just that, listening. It also says a lot about how we value the other person, but also it says something about the values we have been taught or conditioned to value in others. Listening is an art that must be cultivated in conversation, it’s the context where we flex that muscle and in listening we also discover important things about ourselves by paying attention to the valuable words of another.

This book is necessary. Mainly, because we live in an unsettled political climate where many want to talk and not many want to listen. Where defriending is simply another way of not listening to someone else’s opinion we might not want to hear because we disagree with. Of course, this is not a conversation, this is simply us wanting to state our opinion and walk away. Headlee’s treatise on creating space for valuable mutual reciprocity is one that should become a handbook in any school, business or even a doctor’s office where the everyday person visits. The truth is, we all need to get better at communication.

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