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Conversation: A Modern-Day Struggle


A TED Talk on Talking

One of my closest friends, Dr. Mark Cohen, is a retired OB/GYN, our current Medical Director, and the best conversationalist I’ve ever known. Always willing to help others grow, he told me about a certain TED Talk on the topic of having better conversations. Of course, I knew it had to be worth my time.  

It was.

The TED Talk in question has over 5 million views, and it’s called “10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation,” given by Celeste Headlee. The powerful message is full of thoughtful points, and her presentation style is humorous and engaging. Not to mention, she does it all in 11 minutes.

Conversation in America

Celeste acknowledges how polarized we are in America, especially in the realm of conversation. It is indeed a struggle for us, and here’s two main reasons why:

  1. Technology. Due to the strong direction technology has taken, more individuals people prefer texting and emailing over talking.
  2. We can’t agree. It is especially difficult for us to have great conversations with those who hold different opinions than us. From my experience, I could make the case that the amount of people who fundamentally agree with us on most subjects is maybe 50%. That means we are destined to have conversations and lots of them in which we disagree.

So, unless we take in a few ideas on how to improve our conversation and make it productive, we are destined to learn less and waste time.

Listen, Learn, Talk – In That Order.

I’m not here to give you all of Celeste’s 10 ways because it’s much more effective if you watch it yourself, but I’d love to give you my biggest takeaways.

  1. The mind doesn’t work unless it’s open.
  2. Listen in order to question, not to answer.
  3. Don’t pontificate.

If we go into any dialogue holding strongly to our biases with the goal of sharing them, that is not an open mind. An open mind means suspending our biases and genuinely trying to understand the essence of the other person and their ideas, concepts, and beliefs. We don’t always have to agree with someone in order to learn from them, like them, or even enjoy talking to them.

Celeste drives home a powerful point: true listening requires setting aside one’s self. Similarly, Linda Richardson put it like this: “Listen to question, not to answer.” When in conversation, we must actively listen. With no mental interruptions, we should be present and strive to not only hear, but to seek understanding behind the words. I once read in Listening Made Easy by Robert Montgomery that most of us only use about 25% of our ability to listen. We can double that if we focus on understanding, rather than just waiting our turns to share our views.

Lastly, if we want to be a great conversationalist, we must not “pontificate,” which means to express one’s views in a pompous or dogmatic way. Being kind and using softer, less harsh verbiage will make the other person feel comfortable to open up.

Your Takeaway for Better Talking

I encourage us all to work together in recapturing the art of conversation competence, which would mean a little less texting, a little more talking, and way more listening.

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