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 Avoid the outdated advice of the 1970’s “active listening” model, in which people simply repeat back exactly what they’ve just heard, since this often causes the listener to miss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.