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Listening is really hard. I'm not saying that to make you feel better, although I hope it does make you feel better.
It's not hard because of our smartphones. It's not hard because we're distracted. It's hard because human beings, the species, Homo sapiens, does not listen well evolutionarily. We don't really need to.
Hello and welcome. I'm Shane Parrish, and this is another episode of the Knowledge Project, a podcast exploring the ideas, methods and mental models that help you learn from the best of what other people have already figured out. You can learn more slipped date at F-stop blogs. Podcasts on the show today is Celeste Headlee, who is a journalist, opera singer and writer, is well known for Ted. Talks about the need to improve the face to face conversation.
Celeste has worked in public radio for nearly two decades as reporter and host.
She's known for her ability to have great conversations and this is no let down. This interview is all about the art of conversation. It's time to listen and learn.
Before we get started, here's a quick word from our sponsor. Farnam Street is sponsored by Medlab for a decade, Medlab has helped some of the world's top companies and entrepreneurs build products that millions of people use every day. You probably didn't realize that at the time, but odds are you've used an app that they've helped design or build apps like Slack, Coinbase, Facebook Messenger, Oculus, Lonely Planet and so many more. Medlab wants to bring the unique design philosophy to your project.
Let them take your brainstorm and turn it into the next billion dollar app from ideas sketched on the back of a napkin to a final ship product. Check them out at Medlab Dutko. That's Medlab Dutko. And when you get in touch, tell them chainsawing you. Celeste, welcome to the Knowledge Project. It's my pleasure, thanks for having me. I'm super excited to talk to you today. I'm also a little nervous.
I mean, you are a professional conversations, and this is kind of disconcerting.
Well, on the other hand, you know, it's going to go well. I hope so.
You your grandfather was a famous conductor, William Grant, still.
And you had a lot of music kind of growing up in that house. Was there a moment when you stopped sort of hearing music and started listening and understanding it? And what was that?
Yeah, I mean, you know, my whole life I was hearing music. I mean, that's literally what I was doing. It was like background noise for a large part of my my childhood. And so I think that my default was to hear music. But there there there comes a point when you can really listen to music at a at a deeper level. And for me, I mean, I'm sure that probably happened the number of times when I had a relationship with music I hadn't had before.
But notably, I remember thinking that when I first got involved in opera that I was really listening to music and it was moving me on a completely different level.
And that for me, a lot of that for opera at least didn't happen until I was in college because I started studying it.
Before that, I'd heard opera. People don't realize how often they hear opera, you know, way more opera than you think. It's in a ton of movies. It's in commercials. It's in Bugs Bunny cartoons. That's where a lot of people know the music from Wagner's ring cycle, for example.
You've heard a lot of it.
But then I got to college and I had to sing it, which which made I really had to listen. Right.
And when I really began to listen and heard the relationship with the voice to the orchestra and and all of the complexities of that music, in addition to what the lyrics meant, it was a different level of of listening. And I have both of my degrees are in music. And I often think that that's what set me up for what I do now. Because if you think about it, musicians are one of the only professions who are actually trained to listen.
You cannot succeed as a musician unless you're a very careful listener and not very many profession. Lots of people get training in public speaking.
Very few people actually get training in listening, which is training and listening specifically to music. Like how does that take shape?
Well, I mean, they even have classes where listening is in the class title. And and, you know, in order to listen, some of it is unspoken. In other words, if you're playing in an orchestra, you can't just watch the conductor. Right, who's keeping the beat. You have to actually listen to everyone around you for tuning. You have to be very careful about shifts in tuning because both choirs and instrumental groups, the tuning shifts, they can go sharp over the period of a piece or go flat.
And you have to listen for that so that you remain in tune. They also can speed up. They can slow down. You have to be able to listen to that. And even more subtly, you have to be listening to the tone so you can be playing a piece of music. And the I guess the mood of the group of people you're with affects the tone of of the piece.
It could make it warmer. It could make it shriller. And if you're not paying attention when you come in with your part, you're not going to fit. You have to be paying attention. Are people feeling, I guess, sad?
Are they feeling mournful? How does that make the music sound? And that you have to be listening very carefully for that to make sure that you're fitting in with the people around you? I mean, I sang in choir since I was I honestly can't even remember what it it feels like. By the time I got to first grade, I'd already been seeing a choir for a while. So the training and in listening to the people around you and learning to match pitch, match tone, there's I still can't think of other of other professions that are trained in how to do that.
How did the this understanding of music affect your relationship with your grandfather once you started to see it in a different way?
Oddly enough, it really it made me appreciate him more. I mean, I've always thought he was the greatest composer. Right, of course I did, because I loved him, but when I really began to listen, that's when I began to realize how good he was, that's when I was able to listen to a piece and say, holy cow, I don't know that there's America has produced any better orchestrator than William Grant still, you know, literally over the course of its entire history.
Then in order to hear that, in order to hear orchestration, you have to be able to sit down and hear a piece and hear the way the oboe solo bleeds into the trumpet solo to hear the way he chose to have the trumpets use a mute, for example, as opposed to just an an open bell. In order to hear orchestration, you have to hear vertically, not horizontally.
What does that mean?
Well, horizontal most times when you're listening to, like, say, pop music or something, you're listening horizontally. You're you're listening to the course of the the song. If I were to ask you how Jingle Bells goes, you would say Jingle Bells jingle. You would just do that. The one line. It's like people can get Jingle Bells, the one line. Right. But to listen vertically, you're it's like all of the the parts the voices in the orchestra are sort of spanning out like a deck of cards.
It's like all these little voices that expand out in your hearing to where at the same time that you're hearing some piccolo solo resonating over the top. You can also hear the timpani roll in the back or you can hear the bass, the bases picking up. The the ostinato part you can of vertical listening is where you're hearing all kinds of different voices joining together to make one overall sound. That's a very complicated kind of listening. It requires an amount of focus and attention that is, frankly, has been disappearing over the past few decades.
And it's something that musicians are literally trained to do in order to do their jobs. Do you think music music's changing based on that?
Like our are listening in focus is going away? Is opera changing? Is classical music in the way that it's played by orchestras changing to try to morph with the times?
I guess with the caveat that I don't actually know. I mean, I don't really know that I'm sure there are researchers and scholars and people who pay attention to the stuff and look into it and know.
My gut feeling is that it's it's probably not changing classical music too much.
And I, I, I mean, popular music has always been intended to be to require less focus and attention than classical. I'm not making casting aspersions that I don't think that makes popular music any less important, significant or difficult than classical. It's just a different kind of entertainment. Right. So I don't know that I don't know that it is changing that, except that I, I do know that, you know, we our attention spans are kind of shrinking and maybe that's contributing to ticket sales going down as each generation flows into the next in concert halls.
Maybe people just don't have the attention span anymore to listen to a Mahler work.
If they ever did, frankly, he needed an editor.
But maybe maybe people just don't want to sit for that entire time.
Right? I mean, even though people loved the Lord of the Rings movies, lots of people complain about how long they are right.
And you end up with sort of like super fans who go through these these works and then they like them better because there's some sort of like suffering involved in watching this.
Right, exactly. You have to suffer to truly appreciate Mahler. That's literally true. Yeah.
The same thing I was going to say with watching the entire ring cycle. Right. It's something you survive.
How did you end up going from music to journalism?
So it was it was by chance. I took a job as a classical music host at Arizona Public Radio, which is based up in Flagstaff, Arizona. And finding classical music hosts, as it turns out, is quite difficult because they have to have all the skills of any other radio host. But then they also have to have very specialized knowledge that allows them to pronounce all those names and works properly. That allows them to know the difference, but say between an attitude and a sonata and and also add in, you know, interesting stories about stuff.
So you can, you know, ad lib about the love triangle between Broms and the Schuman's and you can contextualize it for people.
Exactly, exactly. You want to give them something to listen for, which means you need to know that music. So then I was working as a classical music host, and it turns out that they didn't really have anyone who was qualified to do arts reporting, the arts reporting that they were doing sounded amateur. They were asking questions of great musicians that should not have been asked. So they you know, the editor in the NPR branch editor who was located there asked me if I wanted to get trained in reporting just so I could take over their arts reporting.
And I said, sure. And so she trained me to do that. Within a month, I'd sold my first story to NPR, which was about a performance of a sacred dance on the on the edge of the Grand Canyon by a Native American tribe. So it just kind of went from there. It just ended up being something I was really good at. And I just kept getting evermore increasingly prestigious jobs in the field.
And I continued to get more training because it's not what I was trained for. So I sort of had to do the training while I was on the job, if you know what I mean, through trial and error. Yeah, I mean, I had to go here.
I was at this job and realizing all of my deficiencies and all the things I didn't know and all the things that I was terrible at. And so I was just I was crazy about trading. I got every fellowship and workshop and every possible trading opportunity I did or turned down one.
And you know, it, you know, whatever it was, it worked between that and the training of the great city, Karpe and from NPR, I ended up doing really well in the field and it just kind of all went from there.
What part of that training sticks out in your mind today is something you remembered as being useful?
It's one of the hardest was learning how to write for the ear because all of us are trained basically the same way, not just Americans, but all of us were trained to write for the eyeballs. Right. We're all trained to write for someone who's reading a book or a newspaper article. But that that's not the way we absorb information when we're hearing it. So when you're when you're writing for the ear, things have to be much cleaner and crisper and you have to edit out your genius all the time.
No, no support. Don't have that problem.
Just so you know, no subordinate clauses, no complicated sentence structures, etc., etc.. One thought presentence, you're trying to create you're trying to sculpt information so that it can be easily understood and absorbed by the brain. Because, look, here's the thing. If you're for doing a report and I say and during the over the course of this report, I say something that someone doesn't understand. The person who's listening is their brain is going to stop and go, wait, what was that?
And they're going to spend at least a few seconds trying to figure out what it was. I just said, well, in that time, I'm still talking, right. Support is still going. So they just missed a big chunk of their five seconds.
Or ten or 15. So you really have to be extremely clear, simple, precise in your language in order for people to understand it without any visual help.
Do you think that also plays because we read to her, like when we're reading, we also read in our heads. Maybe I mean, a lot of it is that when you're reading, if you don't understand something, you'll go back and reread it. And we do this so naturally, we often don't even realize that we've done it. You can slow down when you're reading. You can speed up and skip over something, you know, but when you're listening, you can't skip over stuff, mainly because, I mean, even if you do if you stop listening for a few seconds, you don't know when to come back in, if you know what I mean.
Like you said, it's unlikely you skipped the right amount of material, and especially in radio where everything is show so truncated, where I'm trying to tell a very complicated story, say, about the Iran nuclear deal, for example.
And I've got three minutes. That's you have a very short amount of time to tell some sometimes very complicated stories. So every word counts. I think that I think of radio. I think of radio as poetry, because those are two particular art forms that are quite limited. There's so many rules and so much going on that you that in a way, you're you're it's quite limited in what you can and can't do. But but if you master the form, it rises above.
Right. What are those rules or above?
Well, you know, poetry has its own and it depends on whether you're falling rhythm and and rhyming schemes, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. But it in in radio, they have all these particular. Yes. And no's. Right. No subordinate clauses. Like I said, you want to get rid of the word that as much as you possibly can. No, only one thought per phrase. And sometimes, for example, sometimes someone's title is so complicated that that's a thought.
So if I said James Smith, the undersecretary of Veterans Affairs at the Health and Human Services, ba ba ba ba ba. That's a thought.
And you need to he's just his title is your entire sentence, you know what I'm saying? And then you need you need the breath. So there's all these, I mean rules. You can break them here and there.
But for the most part, there there is these basics of of writing for radio that when you first start doing it, they can feel very limiting. They can feel constricting.
But I find them actually quite freeing in a way, because once you learned them, once you have learned how to write, I guess despite of or because of the limitations, you'll find that you can create beautiful prose, just gorgeous, gorgeous writing that it's simple and clear and all the more beautiful for simplicity.
I want to talk about this complexity in a second in terms of simplifying and distilling a message which you worked at NPR for, I think 11 years. You started in nineteen ninety nine is like approximately.
Right. Is that were you honed this ability to sort of work within the medium? Yes, absolutely.
No, I want to be really clear. This is a really common source of confusion. I didn't work for NPR until through 2006. So NPR's National Public Radio. Right. That's one network in in public radio. There are other networks. There is American public media, though, which puts out marketplace. There is PRI, Public Radio International that puts out shows like The Takeaway. So we have a bunch of networks just like you have CBS, NBC, et cetera, and those networks sell shows, OK, they say say these are the shows we're making, Fresh Air, Morning Edition, whatever.
And then you have the consumers. The consumers are the local public radio stations, which are, for the most part, independent bodies.
So the vast majority of public radio employees do not work for NPR, they work for a local station, WGBH or WQXR, whatever it may be in your local area or region, and those local public radio stations by programming from one of the networks.
Yeah, so that makes a lot more sense. Yeah. So NPR doesn't have a huge number of employees.
There's just a huge number of public radio people who work for their local public radio station. So to go back to your original question. Yes, I started working at Arizona Public Radio in nineteen ninety nine and and and that's where I began a lot of this training and I just I just kept working on it. Frankly, it's only been recently that I stopped doing tons of training and workshops. I did a number, I think three separate workshops, some of them quite long a week or more, with a guy named David Kandell, who was originally worked for the CBC.
Yes. Go Canada. Yeah, go Canada.
He was from Newfoundland. And he he was so instrumental in the crafting of the NPR sound. He trained and mentored so many of NPR's anchors and hosts that we used to call him the host whisperer.
We just yeah, we used to we just lost him a few years ago. But I did a lot of training with David Kando. He was a major influence for me, not just on my writing, but on my on air presence as as well.
What sort of feedback would you get after you did an interview or a show from him that you would go back and would make you better there?
I mean, there's there's a lot let me think about some of the ones that were really important.
I mean, he was the ones he was the one that started getting me thinking about sentence structure and whether or not the brain would follow it. So he had all these yellow and then red flags. Most of them were yellow and they were the things just to kind of watch out for as opposed to don't do these things. So he would be always looking for the word that he would be looking for too many commas. But, you know, he a couple of things that I remember from him.
One is that in his office in the CBC, he used to have this big sign that said we are here today to make a radio, an audio signal excuse me.
And the purpose of that is to constantly remind you that it's all about sound.
It's all about sound. And he would say things like, you know, use colors. Colors are really powerful to the ear. Don't tell us she was wearing a heavy jacket. Say she was wearing a heavy, heavy fuchsia jack down jacket. Right. With with green and purple and pink. Those are really loud when you hear them. He would say, don't tell us that this guy's busy. Why do you think he was busy? Why did you get the impression that he was busy?
Was his phone ringing constantly? Was his desk piled high with papers? Explain what you saw and let us decide if he was busy or not. It's things like that that sort of really stuck with me. I mean, he used to always say radio is people talking to people about people. And it doesn't matter if it's a story about Wall Street or the military or whatever it is. In the end, it is people talking to other people about.
Yet other people want to kind of come back to this notion of compressing a story into a short period of time, distilling this complexity. Um, why why do we have that? Like, why is that the way that journalism should be?
Um, I mean, there's only so much time in the day. And that's not even necessarily about our attention spans.
It's that you're not expected to be an expert in nuclear issues because there's a plant going up in your state. So I need to tell you just enough context so you can understand why this matters to you and so that you can take action if you need to, without trying to give you a lesson in how nuclear plants work and how they're funded, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
My great editor at NPR used to always tell me. To make it a fairy tale, right, once upon a time blank and then every day blank until at one point this happened and because of this, this happened and this happened and this time happened until finally this and ever since then, blah, like there's almost no news report. You can't put into that framework that you can't put into the fairy tale framework that there is some guy, a guy named Brian McDonald, I think his name was, who even wrote the entire Godfather series in that framework.
Just make it a story with a beginning and a middle and an end. And she used to say that a story is like a shark. It has to keep moving forward or it dies. Right. Or you can imagine it as a trapeze where the listener you have to provide that next rung for the listener. There can't be any gaps or they fall.
Is there a point where that becomes a line between almost outsourcing my thinking and making up my own mind versus being led down this narrative by you mean by the storytelling?
Yeah, I mean, you can use storytelling if you want to be biased, you can use storytelling to be biased. But no, you the way that you take out bias is by removing removing any of the, uh, the, I guess the, the objectives that might otherwise.
For example, I'll give you an example. Someone would say something like the city council finally approved the you know, the whatever the sale of the stadium. Right. Like, if I had a someone turn in a script that said that I would mark out finally, because that's opinion, right. It implies it took them too long. Right.
But then all you're left with is the city council approve the sale of the stadium ground or whatever it is, which is the story press release best.
Right. But it's still it's simple. It's clear you're going to fit into this story. Once upon a time, there was the stadium that wasn't being used anymore because the baseball team left for another city.
And every day the stadium started falling apart more and more and more until it was at the point where it couldn't be rehabbed. And because of that, the city council decided to sell it. And you know what I'm saying like that, that doesn't necessarily make it biased. It just makes it simple.
Is is there a point where that simplicity becomes problematic, where you as a reporter, are you you're knowingly trading off complexity and nuance and perhaps detail to get simplicity with the assumption that that simple story is going to make more people interested and they'll dig in or like, where does that how does that work?
So I don't I'm not I don't it's not my it's not my job to worry about whether they're interested. Right. Right. Like, that's the job of whomever is putting it on the web or, you know what I mean. Like, that's before I even get the story approved, you have to make the case that people are going to be interested in it and it matters. Right. And then the editor approves it or whomever. You get your approval and then you move forward.
So at that point, when my story has been approved, I stopped worrying about if people are interested or not. My goal is to make them understand. That's all. Here's this topic.
You're assuming they're interested in you. Yeah. Here's this topic.
It's important to you. I'm going to explain why it's important to you and I'm going to give you enough information so that you're going to get it by the end of this. If if that person listening can't turn to their spouse or whatever friend next to them and explain what the story is, then I failed. I like that.
That's a good sort of way to gauge your success. And how did you get feedback on whether you succeeded or failed in that, would you?
Oh, I would send stuff out all the time and have people listen to it. I mean, we had I had editors and news directors and stuff that would give feedback on stories. And, you know, all the time, you know, NPR's public radio is full of navel gazers.
We are constantly examining success and failure and, you know, staring inside of our our belly buttons.
So that part, the analyzation and the consideration, that was never a problem.
You've done thousands of interviews over all of this time. What are the stories that stand out in your mind from the interviews that you've done?
Well, it depends on it depends on whether you're talking about kind of a story that stands out because it was negative or a story that stands out.
Because it was unusual or a story that stands out because it was great, right, so the person I have interviewed more than any other in over the course of my career is Salman Rushdie. And I remember I did one long interview with him the very first I ever did, which I think was about a production of Midnight's Children that was happening in Ann Arbor. And after that, he came back to the area a couple times and his press people said I was the only person that was allowed to have an interview.
Why? Because I actually read the book. I guess I didn't realize what that sets me apart.
So Salman Rushdie, since it does in the world of podcasting to it's odd.
You know, I did this interview with John Irving and John Irving is kind of notorious for being cranky, like he doesn't particularly like the whole press tour PR campaign that authors have to go through and. His press person, you know, just gave a caution, you know, he doesn't particularly like this ba ba ba ba ba ba.
But yeah, and I had a great interview and I got to the end of it and he says, wow, you really read the book. And I always thought to myself, oh, sits down to interview John Irving and doesn't read the book.
Right. I mean that is ridiculous.
So there's those you know, I did an interview with Toni Morrison and she is another woman whose I didn't know this at the time I was doing the interview.
But I later on, I found out that she's also notorious for walking out on interviews and cutting them really short and hating the whole process. And I got to nearly an hour with her, which was fantastic. Wow. Yeah. And then I did I went and did this Getty Fellowship and the organizer of the program comes out to me, says, hey, we're going to have you talk to the whole group tomorrow. I was like, OK, great.
But about she goes, yeah, I want you to tell us how you got Toni Morrison to talk.
And I said, well, I, I, I read her stuff and then ask sincere questions about.
Exactly, exactly. So those kind of those kind of stick out for me. Or, you know, of course we interviewed Barney Frank many times and he's hung up on me at least two or three times. He's not a congressman anymore. But those stick out also because he was always hanging up and then calling back. He'd get mad, hang up and they call back. Did you learn anything?
I mean, what can we do with a single question in a limited amount of time with these interviews? I mean, sometimes you you are time constrained to five or ten minutes, and sometimes you don't have a chance to sort of walk through a guest in terms of establishing sort of some sort of rapport. You just have to kind of us really deep penetrating questions. What can what can people take away from that?
Well, I would say don't waste any time. So a lot of times I hear people wasting time with a windup. They feel like they need to start. This is going to sound contradictory to what I just said about fairy tales, but I'll explain. So a lot of people feel like they have to start all the way back at once upon a time. So what is this whole issue about anyway? They start way back at the beginning, but that's not what you want from your interview.
That's fine for the intro as quickly as possible. And three or four sentence say boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. This is what had led us up to this moment. But when you start that interview, that first question needs to be a good one.
It needs to get to the meat of it. It can be a provocative question. It can be a question that that reveals how well you know the material. But for the most part, that needs to be getting to the heart of the story. It can't you can't be still doing the intro when you started the interview.
And then you can get stuff done pretty quickly in just a few minutes. I mean, most people don't realize that even the intros on like Morning Edition that Steve Inskeep does this are maybe four minutes long, right.
You wrote a book at the end of all of this called We Need to Talk, which was a culmination of sort of these lessons not only in journalism and interviewing people, but the decoding sort of like the art of conversation. What's the difference between an interview and a conversation and then what makes for a good conversation?
So an interview is a formalized, structured conversation. An interview is different from it's it's similar from a conversation in all ways, except one person is in control and that would be the interviewer or should be in control.
Not in this case, but.
Well, there's all kinds of ways in which I hear people being interviewed. And I'm sure you've heard it, too, being run over by the person they're interviewing. That's relatively common. So it's not always the case. But the interviewer is supposed to be in control, their time limited.
And the if if the interviewer is good, they're asking questions in a way that allows the other person to shine. So it's not a mutual exchange of information in an interview. It's really way more one sided than that, because the interviewer, again, is supposed to shine the light on their guest and get the expertise from the guest. If I'm interviewing Neil deGrasse Tyson, he doesn't give a good goddamn how much I know about astrophysics. Right? Right.
That the audience doesn't care either. They're here. They're they're just so I can ask the questions that allow Neil deGrasse Tyson to say interesting things. So that's different from a conversation which should be more balanced and more mutual every other way. And interview is the same as a conversation.
What makes for a good conversation, a mutual exchange of information if people walk away from a conversation and have learned. Nothing from the other person then it wasn't a successful conversation, if you know a good conversation and I say this in the book also the the best model for a good conversation is a friendly game of catch. And there's a number of reasons for that.
The most obvious is that in a game of catch, you can't throw more than you catch. It's a perfectly even balance between throwing and catching, just as a conversation should be an even balance between talking and listening.
But another really important part, me called another really important reason for the game of catch is that when you're playing catch with someone, if it's a friendly game, you're thinking about the other person's success.
You're trying to throw the ball in a way where they can catch it and throw it back to you. You're not pegging it down the field because it's not fun anymore if you do that. So in a game of catch, you are literally not only thinking about how well you throw, but you're setting the other person up for success as well. And that's what a conversation should do. Also, you should be thinking not just about what you're saying, but the other person, what they're saying.
Are you asking them questions? Are you keeping them engaged? Is it interactive? You should be thinking about the other person. And very often we're not. You know, I find it interesting that we have children and they watch Sesame Street or whatever is on Yo Gabba Gabba, whatever. My son's twenty.
It's been a while since I've watched kids programming and these kids programs keep the kids engaged by making interactive right.
They'll ask them questions.
What number comes after nine, right. What color is the truck? Or they'll say, OK, let's get up and dance. So let's say, OK, we got to run. Run to the bus station, run with me. Run with me. Right. And we see our kids running along and we snicker and say, oh, isn't that cute? That's how children learn. No, that's how human beings learn. That's how you keep humans engaged is through interactivity.
That's why we're all addicted to our smartphones, because they're so good at playing on our need to be engaged and involved. We I don't know why we think that suddenly we become adults and we don't need to be interactive anymore. But that is how you keep people engaged. So when you're in a conversation, a good conversation is interactive for both people. It doesn't even allow the other person to tune out because there's so much back and forth and.
Right. You're not thinking about your and like your present. Right. One of the things you said in your book was that you're not thinking about what you're going to say next year. More letter like you don't have an agenda for the conversation, right?
I mean, if you have an agenda, you might as well be a politician with talking points. I mean, that's what makes pundits so boring, right? Because we know what they're going to say.
And at some point it just sounds like blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. That's that's someone who has an agenda.
Right. You bring on a Republican pundit, you know what they're going to say? You bring on a liberal pundit. You know what they're going to say. That's not interesting.
It used to be that those people would spend a lot of time with one another regardless of what they said. But now we're getting increasingly into isolation.
How does that affect conversations when we're in echo chambers of surrounded by people either through Facebook or through our social network of people who think and act a lot like us? Like we tend to walk away from difficult conversations.
We do. You've just asked a lot there. Sorry, we try to split apart what you've you've said. So I mean, human beings are by nature tribal. We already have a tendency to split into tribes. They have found over decades of research that it doesn't take very long of two perfect strangers sitting in a room together for them to to become a common tribe. Our our need to belong exceeds our our need to be moral.
Like we they have been able to convince people to break the law and steal after, say, a ten or fifteen minute period of time spent with a stranger. That's how quickly we form these tribes, that the difference is that now are our social media and our tech especially is allowing us to isolate ourselves to just a dizzying extent. And into that, you add the tendency of people on on social media to become polarized and how it.
Makes us the worst version of ourselves. I mean, for example, email in email, you're less likely to negotiate, you're less likely to cooperate, you're more likely to escalate conflict.
Right. Which is all to say that your digital persona is not as nice as you are. It's just not your bigger jerk on in the digital space than anywhere else. So if we already have a tendency to want to surround ourselves with people who agree with us, too, with people who belong. Right. And then we have this tech that's with us constantly that allows us to do that to an unprecedented extent. It's kind of a recipe for disaster because and look, this is everything that I'm saying right here is backed up by decades of research.
But just to simplify it, the truth of the matter is, is that diversity and and in this case, I mean, cognitive diversity is extremely good for us. It's when human beings do their best thinking agreement is is not a great goal.
If what you're trying to do is be innovative or creative in your problem solving, cognitive diversity is extremely helpful. That's when you'll get your best ideas. That's when you will come up with the best plans, et cetera, et cetera. But we don't enjoy it. It's not comfortable.
Not only that, I mean, we're taught almost in organizations to seek consensus and get buy in from people and make tradeoffs so that everybody can agree.
Yeah, a consensus is the enemy of innovation. You just have to you don't have to do the Steve Jobs thing of having a scream at each other. But I recommend you don't do that. But you need to just accept that everybody's not going to agree and be OK with that and make it the goal not to reach consensus, but to find the best of the different ideas. And we don't enjoy it. We don't enjoy conflict at all. And and like I said, it takes us a very short amount of time to coalesce into a group that that does all the same things and follows together and makes the same decisions.
Is there a point where a conversation turns into an argument and do we handle arguments differently than we handle conversations? Always will.
An argument isn't a conversation anymore. It's it's that simple. Like a conversation, like I said, is a mutual exchange of ideas. An argument does not allow for an exchange of ideas. They've done MRI scans in which they discovered that when when you start to feel defensive, that that word is quite literally descriptive. In other words, you start to feel challenged, you start to feel defensive, and your brain begins actually instigating the same process it would if you were being attacked like it puts up its defenses.
It starts getting ready to fight back with. Soon as you begin to feel the defensive, the conversation is over. I recommend at that point, you just walk away, come back.
Why do we get defensive? Is that because it's attachment to our opinions?
Well, yeah, we're very attached to our own opinions. It's mostly because we see we tend to see a lot of disagreement as an attack, as a personal attack. And if someone says you're not using the best laundry soap, people often will interpret that, even if it's subconsciously as a criticism of what you've chosen to do and then you don't know what you're doing or whatever it may be.
So we do interpret those as attacks. You know, it's interesting, they they've studied the benefits, especially the neurological benefits and emotional benefits of conversation. And in every single circumstance, conversation is good for you. It doesn't matter if it's a simple chat with somebody with your Uber driver. It doesn't matter if it's somebody you know really well or someone you don't know at all. It's it's it's beneficial for you neurologically, emotionally, physiologically, in every situation, except to only in two instances does conversation have negative impacts, emotional impacts.
And they are one, as you can imagine, I something that has a negative tone, someone criticizing you, attacking you, etc.. Right. The only other instance in which it didn't have a negative emotional impact is if someone's offering you help.
Oh, that's interesting. Yeah. Like unsolicited advice or training. We don't like it. We don't like to be told what to do.
We do not like to get unsolicited advice, which is pretty much always a bad idea. That's the time in which we're going to come away, even if we have learned something valuable. Come away not feeling great about it so far. We've talked about conversations and a very one on one sort of way. How does conversations happen in so many different levels?
There's one on three conversations, those sort of household conversations where you have four or five members of the family, there's local conversations.
Maybe it's your street or your neighborhood, and then you have city sort of conversations.
And politicians are always talking about the national conversation, which is bogus.
How does how does that change through all of these levels or does it change? How do we have a national conversation?
We don't really I mean, I haven't seen any any actual evidence of a productive national conversation.
What does that even mean? Right. Yeah.
I mean, generally, it just means somebody's going to someone's going to about to repeat some platitudes. But they're, you know, very often, especially when politicians are talking about it, it it means they're about to say stuff which discourages conversation instead of encourages it. Right. They're about to start to go over a bunch of talking points and have zero productive conversation. So, yeah, national conversation, national conversation about race, national conversation about guns, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
That doesn't mean they want a national conversation. It means they want to tell you something. They want you to listen to them. That's what that usually means.
It's a conversation as long as you agree with me. Right? Exactly. The conversation is I'm going to tell you what's right. I'm about to tell you what we need to do. And it's going to be a national conversation.
No, you know, I generally and when I'm talking about conversation, I'm almost always referring to one person talking to another. And the reason for that is that it's really hard to sustain that level of attention and focus once you get more people involved. I think you could do it with three or four, but it's really difficult after that. Right? We can hear someone else talk and pay attention to them for that amount of time. That's why Ted talks are so popular.
Your TED talk has like 11 million views right now. It's actually more than 16 million that Ted has both its own website and then they have their own channel on YouTube.
So if you add them together, as my PR reps are want to do, then it's it's more than 16 million.
But yeah, we can listen to someone else talk if they're engaging. But in terms of a conversation, for the most part, you need to keep it fairly intimate. Look, here's the here's the thing. Listening is really hard. I'm not saying that to make you feel better, although I hope it does make you feel better. It's not hard because of our smartphones. It's not hard because we're distracted. It's hard because human beings, the species, Homo sapiens, does not listen well evolutionarily.
We don't really need to. So there are some species that that come out of the womb or egg or whatever they come from. And and listening is a survival skill for human beings. Your survival depends on how successful you are at being loud to get the attention of an adult who will help you. We are born to scream, to make noise, not to listen. And and we struggle to really listen. You know, the father of listening, Ralph Nichols, who who made listening his field of research for at least half a century at the at the end of all of that, decade after decade of study and experimentation and writing, his take away basically was human beings are terrible listeners.
And that has not the fault of your technology.
It's just hard how we're wired.
What does it mean to have listened to somebody? You have to have learned something from them. Look, you can look at it this way, you already know everything you're going to say, right? I mean, nothing you're not going to surprise yourself by something that comes out of your mouth. You already know it all. So if you get surprising information, that means you've heard it from someone else. And so therefore, if you're not if you've learned nothing from someone, that's the the bare minimum of listening is to at least learn something from them to to listen well is not just though to hear what they're saying, but to consider it.
And that's something that we rarely do. You know, we get just a few seconds into a conversation before we begin trying to decide whether we agree with that person or not. We're listening not to actually absorb what they're saying, but to evaluate it, evaluate if we agree, evaluate if they're right.
And that changes the rest of the conversation in our ears.
Yeah, that's not real listening.
Is this weighing in, considering something that you can do on the spot, or is that something that most of us have to reflect upon or take time to think about?
I mean, it seems challenging in the moment to kind of reflect because then there would seem to be pause, almost unnatural pauses in a conversation.
No, I think we're afraid of silence or pauses in conversation. And there's really no need to be. You know, I think I wrote this in the book that they did this global survey of how much time we spent. We leave in between one person ending a sentence and the other person responding, and it comes out to less than half a second, which means we're just not actually listening to the end of what somebody says. And covid wrote in Seven Habits of highly effective people that we're always listening not to understand, but to reply.
You can absolutely do that in the moment. You just sometimes you're going to have to ask questions, right. First of all, you've got to listen all the way to the end of what someone saying. And we so rarely do that. We get distracted by what we're thinking. We're thinking about what we're going to say next. That's all we're occupying our mind with. And so we're wasting all that time trying to remember, keep in our minds what it is that we're going to say.
And we don't hear a word they're saying. Yes, you absolutely are capable of responding in the moment he calls used to write.
And this is that I'm I remember 2007, 2008, he made this distinction between what he called transformative listening and then evaluative listening. So evaluative listening is when someone responds immediately to somebody's suggestion with their judgment. Is this correct or is this incorrect? Right. Interpretive listening is when there's an active interpretation, it's a feedback. They're not evaluating what's said, but they're offering interpretation. Sometimes they're asking for clarification. They're interpreting and understanding what they hear. And actually, the the the third kind of listening was the most open.
And that was transformative listening. And that's what that included this willingness to actually change your mind to to consider other points of view, to think another opinion might be as valid as your own, even if you don't accept it. So you have these sort of three layers of of listening. There's the evaluative listening where you're just deciding whether the person's right or wrong, what they're saying is true or false.
And then there's interpretive where you're you're trying to understand and there's transformative where you could be changed by the conversation. When's the last time you walked away, changed by a conversation and what happened? Actually, it happens to me fairly frequently. Um, let me think about the most recent time that happened. So I had a taxi ride to the airport in California, and my taxi driver was a Russian immigrant who was very, extremely racist.
And I asked him to explain his racism. I asked him to explain all the ways that he thought what he thought. And it was actually really enlightening to me. I mean, I feel like I got a better idea of not just where he came from, how incredibly white Russia is, but also what America looked like to him and how that can be scary. You know, from his point of view, the way that he explained it, our racial distinctions in the United States are cautionary tales in a way like he had to avoid.
You know, we separate our neighborhoods into good neighbors. Roads are bad neighborhoods. And and and that's to us. We don't think we're saying something racial, but we are. And to an immigrant, that message is really clear. This is a bad neighborhood. It's filled with blacks and Latinos. Right. So that was it was transformative for me hearing him explain that. I'm not excusing look, I'm a mixed race resident. Don't get me wrong.
I'm not in any way, shape or form excusing his ideas or racism or dog whistle or any of that stuff. I'm just saying it was helpful to me to understand that that basically awful mindset. One of the things that strikes me about that and that came up in your book was your ability to acknowledge what somebody has said without agreeing with it and how important that is to be in the moment in the conversation.
So you're not turning your brain of is that a skill you've practiced and developed or is that something that came natural to you? Oh, no, that's part of journalistic training. Right. Like, you can't you're trying to encourage people to talk, but you cannot give your own opinion. It would be very easy for me to get people to give their opinion by pretending I was on their side. But you can't do that. You can't give your opinion.
I'm in a registered as an independent. I'm not allowed to tell you what I think. I'm not allowed to march in protest marches. I'm extremely limited as to how often I can express my own thoughts and opinions. And so therefore I had to learn how to interview people, sometimes for very long periods of time without either agreeing or disagreeing with anything that they said, just encouraging them to continue talking with my simple, clear, direct underpinning the questions.
So yeah, that was a very conscious training.
It strikes me that in everyday life, when you're not interviewing somebody, the ability to see the world through their eyes, the the empathy that sort of creates between you is a necessary component to having a really good conversation, even if you don't agree with what the world looks like through their eyes because you can't see it that way. Oh, absolutely.
And you can't you cannot truly see something through someone else's eyes. You need them to explain their own experience. Right. We make a lot of mistakes by making assumptions about what we would be like if we were in that situation. I remember after September 11th here in the US and Mark Wahlberg, that actor. Yeah. Was was talking about how if he'd been on that plane, he would have taken him down. It would have been a totally different outcome.
And I was like, see, we all think that we look at what other people are going through and we make decisions about what we would have done. I would have been different for us. No, you can't. But you're talking about an empathic bond. And the best way to increase your empathy is by listening to someone else's perspectives and viewpoints. You know, it's quite interesting because just late last year, Nicholas Epley in Chicago and his colleagues released the study in which they were looking at people and how they absorb opinions they don't agree with.
And they found out that when you read an opinion you don't agree with in any format, newspaper, book, online, wherever, you're more likely to think that person doesn't agree with you because they're stupid and they don't understand the core concepts. If you hear someone saying that same opinion in the in their own voice, you're more like. I think they disagree with you because they have different perspectives and experiences, which tells me that one of the best ways to create that understanding and that empathic bond is to hear someone's voice.
In other words, human beings are such sophisticated communicators. There is so much information being transmitted just to the sound of somebody's voice that it is the voice itself, the sound of the voice that allows me to recognize you as a human being and part of my tribe. And so, therefore, if you think about this, how little we actually hear people now, how often we reject phone calls and text instead, how often we've replaced phone calls with emails, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
It makes perfect sense to me that if the voice is what allows us to humanize one another and we're not hearing each other's voices anymore, of course we hate each other.
There was an interesting moment that what you said you brought up in my head, which is Kathryn Schulz did a TED talk on sort of like the stages we walk through when somebody disagrees with us.
And the first thing is, like, we think they're ignorant. If we just give them more facts, then they'll they'll see the world through our eyes. But then we do that and then all of a sudden, well, they're idiots because they can't see the world the same way that we do. They have all the information and they just can't connect the dots. And if we think they can connect the dots and they still disagree with us like they know the truth, then we think they're sort of like deliberately distorting it for their own purposes.
Yes, Kathryn Schulz is no dummy.
I want to talk about something that I've done at least twice during this interview so that everybody intentionally, probably more unintentionally, but so that everybody could get a feel for it, which was conversational narcissism, which is when you talked about yourself, I sort of brought it back to me. Talk to me about what that means. Can you expand on that?
So conversational narcissism is something that was written about by the sociologist Charles Gerber. He wrote this great book called The Pursuit of Attention. And Conversational narcissism is sometimes quite blatant. It's sometimes quite subtle, but it's a tendency to turn the conversation back to ourselves and we do it all the time. Charles Jr. used to talk about the shift response versus the support response. So you would say to me, I need to get new shoes. And I'd say, oh, my God, me too.
I have these kids, but I've had them for like four years and the rubber's coming off expecta, et cetera, et cetera. I just pretty blatantly turned the conversation to myself. I think Dawber used to call that active conversational narcissism. The other kind of of it is when it's more subtle. So I'll withhold attention from you. So you'll say so I need I need to buy a new front door. I would say, oh, I need to be like, yeah, mine has a huge scratching it from a dog or whatever, and it's like just needs to be replaced.
I'd say. Oh wow. So I just withhold attention. And a lot of times if you try this out, which I have, people eventually ask me about myself if I withhold attention long enough to say so how are you doing? Hey, how's that, how's that book coming or whatever it may be. So that's another way to turn attention to yourself. This is different as opposed to support response. So you say I need new shoes and I say, oh, what kind of shoes are you looking for or what's wrong with these?
I start asking you questions. I'm supporting whatever it is that you've said. And, you know, interestingly enough, that's what improv teaches. Have you ever taken improv classes? No. So literally, in order to succeed at improv, you have to learn how to support someone starts an improv script and they're going to give you a situation and you have to go with that. Did you ever watch the TV show The Office? Yeah. So there's this one episode where Michael is that improv class and he is the ultimate narcissist.
So every single time someone presents a situation, he ends up with a gun rights of they'd be they'd be like, stop, say that there's a gun. Right. So then the other person say, oh, what a lovely day at the beach. And he'd be like, put your hands up. I have a gun.
Right, no matter what. So the good improv is that when someone says, hey, I'm at the beach, you don't then change it. You don't then say not only do you not contradict it and say, this is the beach, this is the Air Force base, you also don't turn it to yourself by saying yes. And I it as of today, I'm the queen of the world. Right, that would be a really bad way to do that, so improv is a really great way to not only make you aware of your tendency to do that, to shift it, but it also is a way to train yourself out of it.
When I'm doing workshops, I do the improv exercise of yes. And and basically it's a very simple exercise. Basically, one person says a sentence and after that first sentence, every other sentence begins with the words yes. And it's going to sound awkward because not everything can start with those. But it doesn't matter. Everything needs to begin. Yes. And and the purpose for that is because we have this tendency to say yes, but.
Mhm. So the yes.
And is supposed to be saying, OK, I'm going to accept what you just said to me with no questions, with no arguments. The first thing I do will be accept what you just said and then I'll move on and it can be very difficult for people.
We did that exercise that one of our workshops as well. But I think people ended up on Mars like eating ants and it just got like crazy.
I yeah, I would say I didn't realize they were ants on Mars, but yeah, it's OK. I'll accept what was given to me in your book.
We need to talk. You cover some other I wouldn't call them rules but sort of guidelines to have better conversations.
What are the ones that stick out the most to you as the ones that we can walk away with? Well, I'll tell you the one.
And it's related to conversational narcissism, the one that people are the most likely to argue with me over.
And that is the one about not offering up your similar experiences, not equating your experiences with someone else's, which I just had.
So that's OK. We tend to someone that's a little different.
What I'm usually talking about in this is when someone comes to you with something which is a struggle or a source of pain for them, and we then tell them about a time when we went through what we say was the same thing. I know just how you feel, we say, which is the worst possible thing you could say. So let me start there with I know just how you feel. You never say that. And there's a few reasons for it.
But for me, the most powerful is that you don't it doesn't matter if they're talking about their dog dying and your dog died of the exact same thing. You still don't know how they feel. The fact of the matter is, is that when we experience in any kind of pain and or travail, your brain immediately gets to work on softening that memory literally right after it happened. And that's a that's a really good reason, because if we actually remembered pain to its full extent, exactly the way it was when we first felt it, we would be dysfunctional.
We would not be able to function in life if we remembered the actual pain of the leg break, for example. So your brain actually makes softens that memory. It puts Vaseline on the lens, if you will. So you literally don't remember what it was like to lose your dog or lose your job or whatever it is that you're talking about.
You need them to tell you because you don't know how they feel. The other thing is that I believe one of the reasons we do this so much is because, A, it feels like we're expressing empathy. We tell ourselves that what we're doing is saying you're not alone. I've been through this, too. You're going to survive. And I guess it doesn't really matter. Or maybe we don't realize that that is not what we're expressing, that maybe what we think that we're expressing.
But it's not actually. And I think the other reason is that when someone is telling us about their own pain, it can feel awkward and we feel uncomfortable.
Sometimes we don't know what to say. And so we default to the subject that we're most comfortable with, and that's ourselves.
You may not know what to tell someone who just whose husband just died, but you're totally comfortable talking about a time when when you had it tough, when someone you knew died. That's way more comfortable. And so that's what we default to. And I, I, I bring up this particular point, this guideline, just because this one's the hardest one for people, it's really hard because it feels like you're being kind. And this I connect back to other research which in twenty fourteen Harvard released the study in which they discovered that talking about yourself activates the same pleasure center in the brain as sex and heroin.
Wow. It's very pleasurable to talk about yourself. You get good feelings from it. If you spent ten minutes talking about yourself, you'd feel really good at the end of the ten minutes, but.
The problem, of course, is, is that that's not shared, the other person doesn't feel that you're the one getting the dopamine shot, they are not. And so when someone says, I'm getting a divorce and you say, oh, I know just how you feel, and then you begin talking about your own experience with divorce, you will feel better, but they will not.
Yeah. Celeste, I want to thank you for your time.
I want to end with the question I actually should have started with in hindsight, which is what's the best lesson your mother ever taught you?
So my mother and I don't get along at all. We've been estranged since about 2003. So the best lesson my mom ever taught me is how not to have conversations about how not to do it.
Frankly, I spent so much of my younger life trying to figure out how to have a conversation with my mom without getting into an argument that, you know, I, I guess I do owe a certain amount of my now insight to her just because that was an impossible task. But I kept I kept working at it. Maybe that's one of the reasons I ended up writing writing a book on it. Yeah. I don't know how helpful that is as an answer, but yeah, I did learn how to not dominate and shut down other people's other ideas.
I don't know quite what to say to that.
I think that I want to thank you so much for your time today.
I really appreciate it. Oh, it's my pleasure.
Thank you so much for having me on and for you. Good questions.
Hey, guys, this is Shane again, just a few more things before we wrap up. You can find show notes at Farnam Street blog, dotcom slash podcast. That's fair. And S-T REIT blog, dotcom slash podcast. You can also find information there on how to get a transcript.
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