Having a better conversation

07 Mar 2016 | Research & Business Knowledge

If you haven’t watched Celeste Headlee’s TED talk, you should.  Entertaining and highly relevant to MR, Celeste is a radio host and interviews people professionally.  She talks about the art of conversation, and gives tips that, even if we follow just one of them, should lead to us having better conversations. 

Whilst some of her comments are general (what else is MR if not a conversation with participants?), this is about helping our clients understand their (potential) customers – and the ability to conduct fruitful conversations is key to that.

Celeste starts by reviewing what we all know about 'active listening' – mirroring body language, nodding, making eye contact and using summaries to show we have understood something.  She then advises us to forget all of this – there is no need to learn to show you are paying attention if, you are in fact, paying attention!  She then goes on to explain her top ten tips for interviewing people, giving entertaining examples along the way;

  • Don't multi task – this is not just about texting or typing whilst pretending to be listening, but is about mentally being focused.  Be 'present', be in that moment, don’t think about other things (what you had for breakfast or what your next question is – we are all guilty of that).  Rather, listen to what is being said at that moment in time without distraction
  • Don't pontificate – this is a conversation, if you want to give an opinion, write a blog.  This is about assuming that you have something to learn from the other person.  Bill Nye said "everyone you will ever meet knows something you don't" – true listening requires setting aside of ones 'self'
  • Use open questions and encourage/ allow the person to describe the event, their thoughts or feelings without making assumptions
  • Go with the flow – thoughts will enter your mind but you need to let them go otherwise you will stop listening (and start thinking about the story you want to tell or the question you want to ask)
  • If you don't know, say you don’t know (too many people are reluctant to do this)
  • Don't equate your experience with theirs – for example, how much you hate your job will be different from how much they hate theirs.  All experiences are individual, and it is not about you (what are you trying to prove?) – conversations are not a promotional opportunity
  • Try not to repeat yourself – making the same point several times using different words is just boring
  • 'Stay out of the weeds' – people don’t care about the details (the names, dates, places) so don't let this interrupt you – people care about you and what you have in common
  • Listen – and remember (paraphrasing Buddha) that 'if your mouth is open you are not learning'.  Calvin Coolidge said 'no man ever listened his way out of a job'.  It is natural that we would rather talk – we are in control and we are the centre of attention but we need to try and supress this – Stephen Covey said that "most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand, we listen with the intent to reply".   Apparently the average person talks at 225 words per minute, but we listen at 500 words per minute – so we tend to fill in the other 275 words and this means we easily get distracted.  It takes effort to pay attention – otherwise we simply end up as two people shouting out barely related sentences in the same place
  • And finally, be brief – "A good conversation is like a miniskirt – short enough to retain interest but long enough to cover the subject"

Celeste finishes with words of advice – be interested in other people, keep your mouth shut as much as possible and your mind open.

I really enjoyed this TED talk and it made me rethink/ reassess the conversations that I have both at work, and in life generally.  Watch Celeste here.