We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter
September 18, 2017
Public radio host Celeste Headlee offers "an informative, timely, and practical guide to the lost—and essential—art of conversation."
"The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place." —George Bernard Shaw
I love that quote for so many reasons, but especially for the statement it makes upon our modern communication habits. George Bernard Shaw never sent a text message, or read an email, but he understood how often our communication is the equivalent of two ships passing in the night—something that has been exacerbated by our preference for quick and efficient communication technologies.
We have been so consumed with our desire for efficiency that we have failed to stop and ask important questions about the efficacy of our communication. The questions I find most intriguing, one that Celeste Headlee tackles in her new book, We Need to Talk, is:
[W]e have improved the tools for communication exponentially. But have we improved the communication itself? …
In a word: no.
There is substantial evidence, in fact, that it's getting worse. Headlee points to research from the McKinsey Global Institute:
A 2012 study concluded that using e-mail more selectively could increase productivity by 25 to 30 percent. … It's not that the phone helps you work faster, says Ross McCammon of Entrepreneur. "This is about how the phone makes you work better. Because unlike e-mail, the phone forces you to be more emphatic, more accurate, more honest."
Of course, as we all know, it's not just an unwillingness to pick up the phone that hurts communication at work, and it translates into a huge loss of potential, both economic and human. Headlee breaks it down:
First, business: poor communication costs us about $37 billion a year, according to a study from training provider Cognisco. That boils down to a tally, per worker, of more than $26,000 annually. And that calculation only includes companies with more than one hundred employees.
Celeste Headlee is host of the Georgia Public Broadcasting show On Second Thought, so she knows a thing or two about having conversations. She also knows enough to know she's not perfect, and has turned her studio into a "kind of conversational laboratory" where she can experiment with different techniques to improve her conversational skills. She has found that most of the advice and techniques she has found simply doesn't work, and for a simple reason: when you're focusing attention on what you're doing in a conversation, you're not focusing on what's most important, what the other person is saying.
Of course, before we can do that, we have to believe it's worth talking to them in the first place, which is, unfortunately, not always the case:
I've been told many times in recent years that there are some people you "Just can't talk to." One person told me she can't speak to anyone who doesn't acknowledge the existence of institutional racism. Another said that if someone he knew supported a particular presidential candidate, then "we have nothing in common and nothing to say to each other." These days, it seems there are more and more deal breakers than ever when it comes to who we're willing to talk to. And yet, the need to have difficult conversations has never been greater.
Difficult conversations are the most important ones to have. They clarify our own thinking, broaden our understanding. Headlee explains how Steve Jobs encouraged argument at Apple as a way to hone ideas. In fact, in the book I reviewed last week in my Editor's Choice column, Creating Great Choices, the authors argue that being able to hold opposing models and ideas in our head at the same time is essential to making good decisions.
"Don't worry," Headlee writes, "your beliefs will still be there when you're done." Chances are, you're not going to change the beliefs of the person you're speaking to, either—and that's not the point:
The goal of an honest, respectful dialogue is to open minds, not to change them.
It all comes down to the question we ask more than any other: how do we come up with new and better solutions to the challenges we face? And while it seems we all search for a quick technological fix for everything these days, the answer to what ails us is not more technology:
We can't solve problems at home or work or in government without discussion … That means, in order for us to advance as a species, we need to reconnect with that which helps make us distinctively human. Technology will only take us so far; conversation can get us the rest of the way.
Celeste Headlee's new book, We Need to Talk, helps show us how to have those conversations—at home, at work, and everywhere else.
We have 20 copies available.