It’s not a secret:  the best conversationalists are rarely the ones with their mouths open.

Your wittiest friends likely have great powers of observation, and those people you most admire because they always seem to know the perfect thing to say probably really said very little in those sparkling conversations you are recalling so vividly in your mind.

Celeste Headlee recently delivered a lively and straightforward TED talk offering tips for having a great conversation.  I liked her reminders because they draw on her background as an interviewer, and the skills she’s naturally developed in that area and plumbed for her talk are the sort that are invaluable for anyone taking on a writing project, from a three-minute speech or presentation to a full-length novel or memoir.  Check it out here:

Many of her tips revolve around the art of listening well—in fact, this is the skill she herself deems most important. And of course, she’s right.  We learn nothing when we are speaking, or interrupting, or mindlessly parroting back the exact words we think we just heard.  Active listening involves not just hearing, but seeing, and interpreting as well.  Excellent listeners tend to…

  1. Clarify what they hear the other person say, often by paraphrasing in their own words, after a response like, “let me be sure I understood you correctly.…”
  2. Interpret what they hear, and respond with an explanation of the implications of the information they’ve just gathered.
  3. Avoid the outdated advice of the 1970’s “active listening” model, in which people simply repeat back exactly what they’ve just heard, since this often causes the listener to miss the true point of the speaker.
  4. Validate what they hear. They receive the input with respect and enthusiasm, even if they don’t necessarily agree with it, maintaining the speaker’s dignity by demonstrating that they are engaged and attentive to what’s being said.
  5. Resist the temptation to interrupt. It’s human nature to want to put yourself and your ideas into the equation, by relating your own similar experiences. Don’t do it.  It’s not as important as you think, and will stop the flow of the speaker’s train of thought. Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, is convinced that, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
  6. Master body language cues—both given and received! Empathetic listeners will often mimic a speaker’s body language to demonstrate that they’ve tuned in to the spoken message by furrowing a brow, lowering their eyes, or tilting their head in concert with the speaker. They also give the speaker direct eye contact during the majority of the conversation, and lean forward to show they are engaged and interested.  They tend to turn their bodies toward the speaker, and nod their heads, as the message unfolds. Interestingly, women apparently nod their heads whether or not they agree with the speaker’s message, so some men may assume that a woman agrees with them when she actually doesn’t if she overdoes the nodding!
  7. Ask open-ended questions. You don’t want to pose questions that can be simply answered by a yes or no if your goal is to encourage deeper communication. Questions that require some interpretation, such as “what do you think was meant by that?” or “How did that affect your thinking?” are great for probing deeper. Your objective should always be to get the speaker to talk as much as possible.

The art of conversation lies in listening.” Malcolm Forbes said that.  I’ll bet Celeste Headlee would agree.  I know I do.

Where I live, February is the cruelest month.  It’s a good thing it’s also the shortest, because it’s certainly the most depressing.  Even if there’s not a lot of snow, the skies are often grey and overcast;  going about your daily life is a bit of a hassle, since you never know what elements you’ll be contending with….. wet snow, blizzard, rain, slush, freezing temperatures and icy roads or what have you.  Going out for milk requires major decisions:  scarf, hat or earmuffs?  High boots/low boots/no boots?  Short jacket/long coat/how many layers? All important since you run the risk of being too cold or overheated. ( Full disclosure:  as I write this, it is miraculously 50 degrees and sunny !–whoops, cancel that.  It just clouded over.)

All of which is to say, creativity often doesn’t just lunge up and grab you by the throat as you gaze morosely out the window, waiting for spring. So the timing was perfect for me to come upon Shonda Rhimes’ newly-delivered TED talk, given at the recent TED conference in Vancouver (where the crocuses and daffodils are already coming up, darn it!) She called her talk,  “My Year of Saying Yes to Everything” and I confess, though I was mesmerized and impressed by this self-described titan of network television, her message was certainly not new.  Check it out here:

Shonda’s most life-changing yes was to her children, specifically to her toddler.  She began to say yes (almost) every time her little one asked her to play, no matter if she was on her way out the door, or had other pressing things to do–like scripts to write, or story concepts to create. When she is firing on all cylinders, ideas are bopping around in her head and her brain is pleasantly a-buzz, she calls it “the hum. ” Her message is that removing yourself from your prescribed task and directing your energies elsewhere for a short time will help to keep your creative juices flowing.

This is not news, folks.  Experienced moms know that taking ten minutes to satisfy your child’s longing for some interaction usually prevents their continuing to ask for it over and over for the rest of the day. And Mom’s gain is a forced difference in perspective, concentration and focus–which may make a seemingly elusive solution to a problem suddenly swim easily to the surface of your brain.

In Stephen Covey’s landmark The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he uses a story to illustrate the simple need for his seventh habit, which he calls “Sharpening the Saw.”  He calls it the habit that makes all the others possible, and his story goes like this:

Suppose you were to come upon someone in the woods working feverishly to saw down a tree.

“What are you doing?” you ask.

“Can’t you see?” comes the impatient reply.  “I’m sawing down this tree.

“You look exhausted!” you exclaim. “How long have you been at it?”

“Over five hours,” he returns, “and I’m beat!  This is hard work.”

“Well, wy don’t you take a break for a few minutes and sharpen that saw?” you inquire. “I’m sure it would go a lot faster.”

“I don’t have time to sharpen the saw,” the man says emphatically.  “I’m too busy sawing.”

There are certainly many benefits to stopping to smell the roses or be “in the moment.”  I suggest that reinvigorated creativity may be one of them. Maybe roses aren’t your thing.  Maybe doing something you’re afraid to tackle is. Perhaps it’s as simple as taking a walk somewhere you’ve never strolled before.   It’s worth exploring just what behaviour you can initiate that will refill your well.

Even if it’s February.  And the well is frozen!