10 rules for a better conversation

Despite going to school for a long time, I have considerable gaps in my education: how to resolve conflicts, to manage personal finances, to deal with difficult emotions, to be happy.

A recent TED talk on how to be part of a good conversation by an public radio interviewer, Celeste Headlee, seemed like it could fill one of those gaps. She caught my attention when she said this:

“Many of you have already heard a lot of advice on this, things like look the person in the eye, think of interesting topics to discuss in advance, look, nod and smile to show that you're paying attention, repeat back what you just heard or summarize it. So I want you to forget all of that. It is crap.

There is no reason to learn how to show you're paying attention if you are in fact paying attention.”

Here are her 10 rules. All the text is excerpted from her talk.

I’m embarrassed to say I’m guilty of breaking rule #6, and I could get much better at rules #3 and #9. What about you?

#1: Don't multitask.

And I don't mean just set down your cell phone or your tablet or your car keys or whatever is in your hand. I mean, be present. Be in that moment. Don't think about your argument you had with your boss. Don't think about what you're going to have for dinner. If you want to get out of the conversation, get out of the conversation, but don't be half in it and half out of it.

#2: Don't pontificate.

If you want to state your opinion without any opportunity for response or argument or pushback or growth, write a blog. [Comment: I winced at this point!]

The famed therapist M. Scott Peck said that true listening requires a setting aside of oneself. And sometimes that means setting aside your personal opinion. He said that sensing this acceptance, the speaker will become less and less vulnerable and more and more likely to open up the inner recesses of his or her mind to the listener…assume that you have something to learn.

#3: Use open-ended questions.

In this case, take a cue from journalists. Start your questions with who, what, when, where, why or how. If you put in a complicated question, you're going to get a simple answer out. If I ask you, "Were you terrified?" you're going to respond to the most powerful word in that sentence, which is "terrified," and the answer is "Yes, I was" or "No, I wasn't." "Were you angry?" "Yes, I was very angry." Let them describe it. They're the ones that know. Try asking them things like, "What was that like?" "How did that feel?" Because then they might have to stop for a moment and think about it, and you're going to get a much more interesting response.

#4: Go with the flow.

That means thoughts will come into your mind and you need to let them go out of your mind…And we stop listening. Stories and ideas are going to come to you. You need to let them come and let them go.

#5: If you don't know, say that you don't know.

Now, people on the radio, especially on NPR, are much more aware that they're going on the record, and so they're more careful about what they claim to be an expert in and what they claim to know for sure. Do that. Err on the side of caution. Talk should not be cheap.

#6: Don't equate your experience with theirs.

If they're talking about having lost a family member, don't start talking about the time you lost a family member. If they're talking about the trouble they're having at work, don't tell them about how much you hate your job. It's not the same. It is never the same. All experiences are individual. And, more importantly, it is not about you. You don't need to take that moment to prove how amazing you are or how much you've suffered.

Conversations are not a promotional opportunity.

#7: Try not to repeat yourself.

It's condescending, and it's really boring, and we tend to do it a lot. Especially in work conversations or in conversations with our kids, we have a point to make, so we just keep rephrasing it over and over. Don't do that.

#8: Stay out of the weeds.

Frankly, people don't care about the years, the names, the dates, all those details that you're struggling to come up with in your mind. They don't care. What they care about is you. They care about what you're like, what you have in common. So forget the details. Leave them out.

#9: Listen.

I cannot tell you how many really important people have said that listening is perhaps the most, the number one most important skill that you could develop. Buddha said, and I'm paraphrasing, "If your mouth is open, you're not learning." And Calvin Coolidge said, "No man ever listened his way out of a job."

Why do we not listen to each other? Number one, we'd rather talk. When I'm talking, I'm in control. I don't have to hear anything I'm not interested in. I'm the center of attention. I can bolster my own identity. But there's another reason: We get distracted. The average person talks at about 225 word per minute, but we can listen at up to 500 words per minute. So our minds are filling in those other 275 words. And look, I know, it takes effort and energy to actually pay attention to someone, but if you can't do that, you're not in a conversation. You're just two people shouting out barely related sentences in the same place.

You have to listen to one another. Stephen Covey said it very beautifully. He said, "Most of us don't listen with the intent to understand. We listen with the intent to reply."

#10: Be brief.

[Here she showed an image of a quote from her sister.]

A good conversation is like a miniskirt; short enough to retain interest, but long enough to cover the subject.

A conversation?