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You have to stop thinking of listening as something you're doing for the other person. The truth of the matter is, is that, yes, listening is useful for everybody when people feel heard. But listening is so good for you. It's so good for you on so many levels. It's one of the few ways you have to really effectively raise your empathy. It's cognitively good for you. There's even a recent study that shows the less you talk, the more you enjoy the conversation.
Welcome to Political. I'm Ron Suslow for most of 2020. I spent a couple hours a week talking to people across the country on virtual town halls with tens of thousands of live attendees. We answered hundreds of questions and our staff went through thousands more. And the question that came up again and again more than any other was how do I talk to my family and coworkers and friends and loved ones when we disagree on who our next president should be? When we launched politically, we had been talking about how what we think of as political problems are really social problems and also how important it is that we begin to heal the deep wounds in our country.
Fundamental to that work is developing the capacity to have real conversations with others, and especially when we don't agree on everything. So I wanted to bring in someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about this. Her name is Celeste Headlee and she's actually a professional at having conversations. Celeste is an award winning journalist, professional speaker and best selling author of We Need to Talk How to Have Conversations That Matter.
In her 20 year career in public radio, Celeste has been the executive producer of On Second Thought at Georgia Public Radio and has anchored programs including Tell Me More Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition. Her TED talk sharing 10 ways to have a better conversation has over 23 million total views. And she's also an advisory board member for Broken Leg and the Listener First Project. Celeste, I am delighted you could join us today. I'm glad to be here.
I thought that we would begin by just having you talk about why you decided to spend so much of your time thinking very intentionally about having real conversations. And then, you know, what ultimately motivated you to share that information versus a TED talk?
And then as a book, I personally was motivated to get better at conversations when I got my first full time national radio hosting gig. And I just wanted to get better at interviews. And, you know, you don't have to tell you an interview is a formal conversation, right? I mean, it's basically at heart a conversation. And so I started reading all the advice, the look, I've worked for NPR for 20 years. When we have a problem, we hit the books.
So I started doing all this research on the best advice I could get in conversation. And then I would go into my studio and I test it out. And, you know, a radio studio, especially for an NPR show, is a perfect laboratory because we're talking to every possible kind of person from presidents all the way down to, you know, maintenance people.
And the advice didn't work. That advice we've been getting for so long, it actually made most conversations worse and more awkward.
And so I thought, well, what the heck? So I had to start from scratch. And that began my personal journey of sort of finding out what really works and marry that to the fact that I realized as a journalist that our political conversations especially were falling apart. Right. You know, I have been in journalism long enough to know that there used to be debate in this on the Senate floor and then senators would go home and go. Their kids would play together and they'd go have dinner together and they would converse.
And we have reached this point in our history which in which those conversations seem to be impossible, where politicians are actually punished for speaking to someone from the other party as though they're a human being. And that's what brought my sort of my message to the broader public was like, look, we're we're doing this wrong.
So what were a couple of the things that you came across, you know, when you were looking for advice that ultimately didn't work in practice, didn't work in the studio?
Yeah, all of them maintain eye contact, which we're on Zoom.
But let me just talk to you like this and maintain eye contact with you, OK? Again, it's uncomfortable, right, Saleha? Yeah. Nod your head all the time. Sum up what you just heard pretty much everything.
Mirror your body language to what the other person is doing. You know, the thing of it is. And it all. Comes down to the same problem, so if you are focusing on those things, you're not listening anymore, like you can't do both. The human brain can't multitask.
You can either focus on saying aha and nodding your head and maintaining eye contact and measuring body language.
Or you can listen to what the person is saying. And because listening is so hard anyway, you really you need to focus on that.
And that alone, you're sort of either acting or you're doing the thing that you're supposed to be doing. Right.
You're we have been teaching people how to pretend to listen for generations instead of just teaching them how to listen. You know, the research shows that the vast majority of both academics and business leaders say that listening is one of the most important skills you can have. And yet, if you look at business journals, listening is a subject of one point five percent of them. We know it's important, but we will not teach each other or learn how to do it.
OK, so we're going to have to get into why that is how we arrived at this place. But why don't we start with one of the things that really stuck out to me about conversation is the distinction you make between conversation and communication. And in the book, you tell this story about a conversation you had with your son's teacher. Could you help us understand that distinction? So communicating is can be a one way thing, right? I give a TED talk.
I'm communicating to you, but we're not having a conversation. A conversation is a mutual exchange of ideas. It means that I am focused on listening with the same intensity that I am on talking. And with my my son's teacher, he was having trouble in class and ended up that he was being bullied was was the problem. And we were throwing these emails back and forth. And it's almost like my life absolutely mirrored the research. We know through research that email leads to miscommunication, that it escalates conflict.
And that is exactly what happened. The emails got increasingly irritated and insulting and angry until we reached a point where I demanded an in-person meeting and I made the mistake.
And I think I admit this in the book, it was a mistake to bring the principal in. It was a it was a mistake to have her boss there. But we had this moment where we were talking back and forth and talking over one another. And I I looked at her and I was like, this woman really cares about teaching. Like she got into this to help kids. And I reached across and I put my hand on her forearm and I said, I know we want the same.
I know you want the best for my kid. And I know that's what we're both trying to do. And we can figure out how to do this. And it was an absolute breakthrough. But all those emails back and forth going over weeks, they just just made it so much worse.
It sounds like almost the tension just sort of softened. Like when you when you when you did that, what was her reaction? Yeah, it was pretty much the same with her, I mean, I, I remember us both sort of taking a breath and there was silence, which looking back, it seems like the silence lasted forever. But I'm sure it was only a couple of seconds.
And we just both sort of re tooled our speaking because after that, you know, when I articulated the shared goal. Right. Which is so important that we're both here for the same thing, it just sort of brought us in alignment of it became not proving who was right and who was wrong, but it was like, OK, we need to problem solve them.
And you're both working on the same problem at the same time, almost sitting next to each other at the table as opposed to across from each other, right. Yeah.
So I wonder what you think we can learn from that interaction, flipping from email to social media posts, given how family members Facebook posts create tension, how do we better engage online with the lessons just from that vignette?
That's a great question. There's there are some at this point, fairly immutable truths about social media, OK?
Social media is not horrible. It's just mostly horrible.
It's it's very, very good at a few things. Right.
Social media is extremely good at information dissemination. Right. It's extremely good at making connections. Right.
So people talk a lot about how they found their high school friends or maybe a disability community will find others who are working through the same issues, which is awesome. But in order to actually make that connection truly. Impactful in terms of your biology and your neurology, you have to take it offline, right? You have to use the social media as the connection point only and a method by which you create actual social interaction. We when we're on social media, you take all that stuff I said about email and the fact that it's it leads to miscommunication, that we're less persuasive an email, that it escalates conflict.
And then in social media, you add on what we know about social media, which is that it also polarizes us. It it strengthens confirmation bias. And this creates a terrible environment in which to actually have a conversation. So you have to ask yourself what your goal is right before you write that angry post snapping back at your Uncle Ralph or whatever. What is your goal? Is your goal just to rant and get it off your chest? Then go ahead, feel free.
But if your goal is to create dialog, nope, wrong can happen.
Wrong place. Yeah, I like the distinction that that you make between it's social media really is not about relationships. At least I don't, I don't think it is a network is different from a set of relationships. Correct. It's it's like the flimsiest version of are almost like a 2D representation of what ultimately is a three or four the thing that it's trying to emulate. Right, exactly.
Just before you move on. Yeah. It's what you said in terms of three and forty. It's a really important distinction to make, because the way that I describe it often is that social media is horizontal relationships, right? They are surface and they're broad, real relationships that actually have an impact on your well-being and your cognitive development and all that. They're vertical.
They're deep. Yeah. Yeah. I was just thinking about this yesterday, actually, about how one of the the happy byproducts of the way socializing has become more distant and more one on one, at least for me, is deeper relationships with the people that I really care about as opposed to, you know, group gatherings that were, you know, you don't have it takes a lot more intention to cultivate real deep friendships when you're hurried and rushing to the next event.
And we you know, we have less of that now. OK, so I want to talk about Xernona Clayton and Calvin Craig, so many of our listeners ask about how to have difficult conversations with their loved ones, and especially when they disagree on hot button issues. And you give this great example in the book about the relationship between civil rights leaders are known as Clayton and KKK, Grand Dragon, Calvin Craig. So I'd love for you to talk about that relationship and the lessons we can learn from those types of conversations.
So Xernona was a friend of the kings, Dr. King and his wife. She had been working in civil rights for a very long time. She was also a journalist.
And I think one of the very first black women to ever anchor a show in Atlanta. She got put in charge of this neighborhood project by the mayor of Atlanta. And he came to her and said, Xernona, I just need to let you know that one of your neighborhood captains who she was supervising is a grand dragon of the KKK. And she's like, I don't care. As long as it gets done, what I need to get done, I don't care.
So she just went ahead with her work. If you've ever met Xernona, she is she is fierce.
She is this tiny woman.
She knows who she is and she is all business when she's working in any case. So they began to work together. And every once while, Calvin would have to come into her office and talk with her about whatever was going on in her neighborhood, and she would sit and be very polite and very welcoming. And he started coming more often and he started coming more often. And then he'd come like every week and he'd sometimes he'd come more than once a week.
And she's at one point she's like, why do you keep coming in here? Like, I know you don't like me. He's like, I just like talking to you.
Huh? And this went on for a long time. And eventually he calls a press conference.
This is after Dr. King had been assassinated and he announces he's leaving the KKK. And he says it's not because of Dr. King's association. It's because of this woman, Xernona Clayton.
I began to realize I can't hate her. She's like one of the best people I've ever met. Wow. And interestingly enough, later on in life, Calvin's one of his daughters found her. She'd been trying to get back in touch with him. Not a very long time. She finally did. And she burst into tears and said, you saved our family.
You saved oh, you saved us. I mean, this is a daughter who Calvin had been bringing her to KKK rallies dressed in tiny little robes. And I think you're asking me what we take away from this. There's a couple of things we take away. The most important one is that you don't have to like the other person.
Xernona didn't like him, she clearly didn't endorse any of his beliefs. Listening is not endorsement. We think that we can't allow other people to speak like on principle if they're saying awful things, but you're doing nothing for them by allowing them to speak, except possibly creating this empathic bond that has the possibility of creating change.
Or there's two things here. The the not liking something like not having to like someone feels like a major, major idea to wrap your head around when you're talking about having conversations across deep divide. And before we move on, I wonder how we put ourselves in the right mindset to engage in meaningful conversations without debating, especially when, you know, there's going to be fierce disagreement going into it or or maybe you have no expectation of any agreement whatsoever. Why do it in the first place?
And how do you put yourself in that mindset?
So this is exactly what I would want to talk about. I have a new book coming out in the fall called Speaking of Race, which is literally just about it's not educating anybody on racial issues.
It's just like here's how you get through the conversation regardless of your skin color.
And there's a whole section on exactly this. How do you prepare yourself and get into this mindset? Right. Yeah, some of it is what we've heard a lot about is that reminding yourself that you need to be in a growth mindset and not a fixed mindset. So reminding yourself that this the goal of the conversation is not to change their mind. Why? Because you cannot change their mind. It's not going to happen. And so, therefore, if you're going to have the conversation anyway and you know you're not going to change their mind, then what is your goal?
And that leaves you only with. Well. I'm going to learn something from them. I'm going to speak my own truth and my own peace in a in a civil and respectful way, and I'm going to grow from this.
And if you can even repeat that as an affirmation in your head, you know, affirmations get a bad rap, you know.
Yeah, I really get a bad rap. There is so much great science out there showing how powerful affirmations are at changing your own mind. And so you can create this as a sort of a this is my little paragraph before I go in to this. The the other thing is that you have to stop thinking of of listening as something you're doing for the other person. Truth of the matter is, is that, yes, listening is useful for everybody when people feel heard.
But listening is so good for you. It's so good for you on so many levels, it's one of the few ways you have to really effectively raise your empathy, it's cognitively very, very good for you. There's even a recent study that shows that the less you talk, the more you enjoy the conversation. As much as we want to talk, we enjoy it more when we speak less.
That is so true. It's so true for me. Yeah. Yeah.
The last thing I was going to say is that make sure you're OK before you start the conversation. I mean, you have to accept that these conversations are difficult. They're cognitively difficult and emotionally they can be a lot. So don't have this don't have this conversation. If someone says something awful and you want to counter it and it's 5:00 PM and you're ready to cut off work and you've had a horrible day, disengage, do not have the conversation.
Make sure you're OK.
I have a question to ask you about that later on. We'll get to that because I think it's really important. And I and I want to know how you arrived at that and how you put that in practice. But first, there's a couple of threads to pull in here. So you mentioned the growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. And I think this is essential, really, really essential. And for our listeners who aren't familiar with that distinction and that psychological construct, can you summarize that?
There's this really great book that I just finished. Carol Dweck. Yes, Carol Dweck. Absolutely. I don't remember the title, but it's a it's a terrific primer on on the growth mindset versus the fixed mindset. So maybe you can summarize it and then explain why it's so important to getting in the right mindset for this.
Right. So, Carol, Dweck's book is called Mindset, and it was actually from the early aughts, I think, but she just had a new edition of it. Fixed versus growth mindset has been a psychological concept for a very long time. And essentially someone with a fixed mindset is someone who believes you are what you are. Right.
This person smart. And so this person isn't. And so if you're a parent and you're in the fixed mindset and you think one kid's smart, one isn't, you won't send that that supposedly dumb kid to college. Right. You believe people have innate talents. You believe that people are what they are, to quote Popeye, and it can cause all kinds of problems. It means failures are particularly difficult for people to handle when they're in fixed mindsets. Feedback is obviously very, very difficult to handle because it becomes it gets wrapped up in their identity.
Yeah, yeah. Something you can't change. Right. Right. It can also become a problem when we are fixed in positive things. And I'll give you an example, arrived to me recently, which is like let's assume that you think of yourself as like a good partner or good husband. Right. If that's your idea. I am a good husband. This is my identity.
Then every time you're your spouse or partner comes to you and says, hey, you're falling down. It becomes a catastrophe and you can't grow because they're not saying, hey, you did this one thing wrong, they're saying you're not a good husband.
Growth mindset, on the other hand, says every mistake is just getting me further up growth. It's an evolution. I'm a work in progress. And so every conversation also even the ones that end up in arguments becomes an opportunity to get better. And to be clear, nobody has almost no one is one or the other. We all are fixed in some ways and growth in some ways. Right. And you have to sort of be honest with yourself about where you're stuck.
Yeah, it's I just I see this is so important to being able to have conversations that are where where you actually have to be vulnerable, but without the risk of losing your identity. If it doesn't go the way that you're or taking a massive hit to your identity, if it doesn't go the way you hope it does.
And also especially when we're talking about things like politics or race or any hot button issue, you have to make it OK for people to make mistakes. It has to be OK. I'm not talking about abuse. I'm not talking about hate language. I'm talking about mistakes that people make and will make because we live in a racist and sexist society. It's the waters we swim in. So they're going to screw up.
You're going to screw up and that has to be OK. Yeah.
So since you mentioned the the upcoming book, which I wasn't aware of, I wonder if, you know, especially with the vignette of Xernona and and Calvin Craig as a backdrop, how are you thinking about the conversations we are or aren't having about race as a country, given everything that's happened in twenty twenty and and the way twenty, twenty one seems to be shaping up? Yeah, I mean, the reason I felt it necessary to write this book specifically is because our conversations about race in particular.
In politics, because race and politics are inextricably intertwined, are incredibly unproductive, ineffective and unhelpful. They're making it worse and I would love to do something about that. What we end up having is some group of people in there very often BIPAC people, black, indigenous people of color, who feel it necessary to educate if if they're not exhausted and are like, I don't want to talk about this. If they do engage, they feel the pressure to educate.
And then on the other side, you have mostly white people who become defensive and and that's you have one side angry and one side defensive. That's sort of where we are. And, you know, this even happens with, you know, what you would call a white ally who, again, has this idea of themselves as an ally. That's part of their identity. They're kind of fixed in that. And so any correction becomes a threat to that identity as white ally.
And so, again, you get defensiveness. The thing about this is, is that neurologically speaking, if when you get unsolicited advice, when you get. Critical feedback, the brain treats that the same way as a physical attack, right, we're a verbal society now. We don't go at each other with clubs for the most part. So attacks in our society are almost always verbal, and that's how our brain responds. Once that happens, the conversation is over.
Yeah. And it's because of our lizard brains that are still in there firing away. Do you want to I mean, I know that you have studied this, but maybe you could explain the you know, the the evolutionary biology reasons for this. Yeah. The amygdala. Yeah. Yeah. Right on top of your spine. At the very tip top of your spine, there's this little tiny portion of your brain that is your your lizard brain, your monkey brain.
It's the oldest evolutionary part of your brain and it's response to everything is either fight, flight or freeze. That's its response. There's a lot of things going on right now.
There's so much stress. You know, a second book was called Do Nothing, which is about how we're all sort of completely overwhelmed because of our toxic productivity culture. So you can add that in politics seems so high stakes, right? Like every political decision is like people are going to die.
I'm not trying to mock it. I'm just saying, like, this is adding to our stress.
Now, when you're stressed out like that, your amygdala takes over, your amygdala is only has those three responses. You just got three colors.
Deduce from that that this is not what you want driving the car. It's not what you want making nuanced, complicated decisions. This is the two year old that has the plastic hammer.
But because we're so surrounded by stress right now and steeped in it, we're basically the amygdala is driving all the time.
And, you know, I'll just want to give a shout out to the prefrontal cortex.
I just want to but support my sister up in the front, right behind my forehead. That's the outer layer of the brain. It's the much more recent evolution. It's the part that does executive to think decision making. And it thinks, again, it's the part that pauses before hitting tweet.
Oh, my gosh, yes, we need more of that. But in order to bring the prefrontal cortex into play, we need to be we can't feel as though we're under threat. We can't feel stressed.
So you're making me think of this clinical psychologist. I think she's a clinical psychologist. Susan David, are you familiar with her?
OK, so she also gave a TED talk some number of years ago. And one thing I think it was a typo. I might have heard about a podcast, but one thing she said that has stuck with me for years, you know, one of those pieces of wisdom that you just receive and you're like, I'm integrating this immediately. Right? It was one of those emotions are data, not directives. And and we're going to get into this, you know, active listening in a minute.
But but I think she went on to explain how emotions are data that their information actually that point you in the direction of the things that you value. And so when someone lies and that makes you angry, that's actually a signal to yourself that you strongly value truth. And so, first of all, I wonder what you think about Susan's logic there and and how how someone can make use of that in in a conversation. And then I want to talk about active listening.
So Susan is absolutely correct. Funnily enough, this is something that we have known for a long time.
Buddha said it centuries ago and he basically said, you are not your feelings and your feelings are things that you feel, but that's not who you are. You can feel angry, but that doesn't make you an angry person. Right.
So in in I'm a Buddhist. So in mindfulness meditation, when you feel something, you say, oh, look, I feel like and then you let that pass through you and you move on.
It's all part of like sort of presence. Yeah, but it's thoughts. I'll expand it even further and say you're also not your thoughts. We have self-control. You know, if you if you meet one of the things I talk about in the new book is I'm like, if you meet your friend after not seeing them for three years and they've gained 100 pounds, the what's the first thought that's going to come into your brain? I don't have to articulate it.
You know what it is.
But you don't say it, but mean most people don't. Some people do. Maybe, but I mean, most of us don't say.
Right, but you can't control whether that. It comes into your head, it just arises and you're going to have so many of those thoughts that come into your head, but that's not who you are the same way with your feelings. And but it's important to be aware she is correct, that it can point to your values, but they're not the same as your values. Matt thought came into my head of my friend is fat, right. And probably in a mean way.
And then I thought, wait a second, I have no idea what's been going on in this friend's life. I better find out what's happened. What's going on. That's my value. Yeah, my my who I am is what I choose to do.
It's not the feeling I feel or the thought that I have.
OK, so this is a this is a really good Segway, I think, to listening to understand and not necessarily agreeing. So you make this point that is really helpful when you talk about listening because all of these things are going to arise if you're actually listening, right? Yeah. You right.
Listening to someone doesn't mean agreeing with them. The purpose of listening is to understand. So how important is it in these difficult conversations to intentionally frame for yourself listening in that way? Like, how do you get into that headspace of listening to understand during those difficult conversations and how much mindfulness does it take?
You know, oftentimes when you're reading reading, people will tell you that the best way to take in a book is to imagine that you have to teach the subject matter in 48 hours. Read this because you're going to have to teach it in a class. I find that very helpful for listening also. Oh, let's imagine you're a translator at the U.N. and you are listening because you have to turn around and tell a huge group of people what this person just said.
Listen, that way a translator doesn't judge. They don't decide whether what that person is saying is correct or wrong. They are translating it for another audience. Now, it turns out that audience is you. You're the one you're translating for, but that's how you should be listening to them and listen all the way to the end.
The other thing I would say is that you have to listen for ideas. This is an act again to go back to the translator model. A translator is not translating every single word. For the most part, it goes by too quickly.
Somebody says, you know, I bought a new car and I need to get a license plate. They may not get every single word, but the information that we get across is that there's a new car and it needs a license. Yeah, yeah. And it's the same thing when you're listening to other people. Listen for the underlying ideas, what are they really saying?
And oftentimes when you do that, you realize you don't know. Most of us are not as articulate as we'd want to be when we're talking. So we may not express ourselves clearly. And you'll have to say, I don't understand you said this, but then you said this. That seems to contradict and those follow up questions, those are the indications that you're actually listening. So this makes me think of a and an experience I had in dialog where one of the exercises with this small group of people was 12 people.
This, I think, applies especially when you're listening to understand someone else's experience, what they've been through, not necessarily an argument, but to see things from the perspective of another and listening to someone else's experience through something traumatic, difficult that they went through and and essentially holding their story with the expectation that you're going to have to represent that story to someone else. And then having that original person hear you describe their story to someone else is an extremely powerful thing, because you and I had this.
I did both write, I listened, and then I translated that or as much as I could remember of it, to an authentic representation of what this person told me. And also had it done with my own story. And hearing someone describe my story to a room of other people was extremely vulnerable is very, very scary thing. And so I wonder if that's like that's the type of listening that leads to more productive conversations. This is the same type of of of listening as if you're going to have to teach it, right?
Absolutely. And I do a very, very similar exercise with business teams when I'm doing my work. And I was DTI Diversity, Equity and inclusion. So when I'm there to solve a discrimination problem, this is one of the things I'll do. I'll have a BIPAC person tell privately, tell a white person their story, and then the white person has to relay that story to the group. Wow. It's transformative. Bet the amount of the deep listening that has to occur and then trusting the other person to tell that story creates an empathic bond that simply cannot be replicated.
But, you know, here's the thing. This is what we are evolved to do. I mean, if you look through our three hundred thousands, it's funny.
I can't remember. I read it now, but somebody was saying that in our three hundred thousand years and change that Homo sapiens has been on the planet. If you if you think of that three hundred thousand years, twenty four hours of a day, almost all the interesting stuff happened in the last minute we just got here.
But our biology was our reactions and our behavior was shaped by the rest of that day. Right, we're trying to behave as though it's only the minute that counts, but you cannot ignore that. That's where we grew up.
Yeah, and we bring all that momentum, the evolutionary momentum into every interaction.
We are animals. We are verbal social animals with big brains. And that's how we behave. And so we have to be cognizant of who we are as a species and who we are as a species is a social species. I asked one scientist if it was possible at some point that written text could replace or be equal to verbal communication at some point. And she said maybe in five to ten thousand years. Wow. Yeah. Wow.
So by 70, 20, someone is going to listen to this up and so be like it happens.
It's not going to happen. Right. We just don't evolve that quickly. So. Understand that this is what we do best. You even mentioned the development of basically our ability to speak right. There are vocal cords and our and our. This was actually came at significant survival risk for the species. Can you tell that story?
Yeah. I mean, we know if you watch the divergent divergence of, say, gorillas and and human beings. Right. In order for the human being to be able to speak, a few things had to happen in our heads, in our necks.
Our our vocal chair, the chamber inside your mouth got longer. Your your lips became more flexible. But one important thing is that our larynx had to drop down our throat. It used to be right up at the top of the throat. And if you look at a gorilla's throat, that's where it is, which causes a problem when it drops down the throat, because, of course, it means that food can get passed and go down the windpipe.
So literally, we guerrilla's do not choke to death. Human beings do. That's what we risk in order to be able to speak to one another. But. I mean, we literally risk death and yet for the ability to communicate with one. Yes, but it is our superpower like it's worth it. It's the reason we're the only human species left standing. It's the reason we beat out Neanderthal like Geico gives Neanderthal a terrible name.
What Neanderthals were strong and resilient and smart. They had a they had a primitive form of dentistry. Their brains were bigger than ours were.
The reason we we beat them out is because when you're messing with one Homo sapiens, you're almost always messing with more. We work together.
OK, that's an entirely different episode, but I'm here for it. Like, that's a that's a whole thing that I really want to come back to. But I want to talk more about talking to people you disagree with. So in the book, you mentioned how you devoted an hour of your radio show in Georgia to talking about the debate around the Confederate battle flag after the shooting in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and inviting guests who believed that the Confederate flag is a symbol of Southern pride.
Yes. So I think what I want to understand is, first of all, how you made that decision, but also how you were feeling during those conversations and what you did with those feelings. Yeah, I mean, keep it in mind.
I'm I'm black and Jewish and I'm only two generations removed from slavery. My great grandmother was born as a product of a slave in a plantation owner. So it feels. Fresh to me, yeah, still pretty raw. Yeah, well, the reason I made the decision to to bring them on was a we worked very carefully to make sure that none of the people we brought on were going to be spouting conspiracy theories or unfounded facts.
Everybody was there who was there was respectful, able to have a respectful discussion and was not going to include hate language. That was number one. Ground rules, the other thing is that at the beginning of every one of those shows that we did and we ended up revisiting it several times, I would say, listen, I'm obviously have a point of view on this, but I'll be fair. You know, I'm opinionated. I have an opinion, but I will be fair.
And if I'm not, send us an email. Right.
But the main thing is, is that you're not going to get movement on that issue until you can bring people in. You know what's interesting and let me go a little deeper into this, so and some of this comes from the work in diversity and equity. There's a sort of a broad understanding of how these conversations go when it comes to race. At least they break out people into three groups. And mostly it's like a 60, a 20 and 20.
So on the one end, you've got the 20 percent who are all in. They understand they're willing to help. They're ready to go. Right. Then at the other hand, you have the stuck 20. They are the ones who you're not going to change their mind. They don't see the problem. Everything is fine, and not only will they resist efforts for reform and change, but they will sometimes undermine those efforts. You're not going to change those people in the middle.
You have pretty much kind of the most important group. That's your 60 percent who could go either way. They could be convinced either way, so if you're talking to the stuck 20, you're not talking to them, they're not your audience. Your audience is the 60 percent in the middle who are listening. That's who you have to keep in mind. So if I'm talking to someone who absolutely believes the Confederate flag is not hurting anybody, it does not represent hate, maybe they still believe the false narrative that the the civil war was not about slavery.
It was I'm not I'm speaking to them. But the people who I was imagining listening to me are those people in the middle who could be convinced.
One of the things you talk about is the backfire effect, which which is which is especially in the context of those conversations that you had on the show, I think is particularly important that that that our listeners understand it. So why don't you begin by explaining the the backfire effect? And then I want to spend a little bit of time thinking about our own susceptibility to it and ah and our conversation partner susceptibility to to it and how to manage that in a conversation, because this dovetails with both the story you just told and also the biology that we just discussed.
So so the backfire effect is is basically a variation, a one flavor of confirmation bias. And I should mention that only human beings suffer from confirmation bias. We're the only ones. And confirmation bias is basically this phenomenon, this tendency when you get new information to either seek out new information or evaluate the information you're getting in light of what you already believe. So we will seek out information that confirms what we believe and we will decide whether new information is true or not based on what we already believe.
We're only looking to confirm our existing biases. The backfire effect is this phenomenon in which a few researchers were able to present that would ask someone their opinion and then they would show them the evidence that it was just objectively false and that made them believe it harder. Regardless, in some ways, regardless of how how they whether they trusted the source of the information or not. Right. It didn't matter.
Now, there are obviously cracks in the backfire effect. To a certain extent. It matters whether this is a deeply held belief or not. You can tell me that Domino's has the best pizza. And my initial reaction is going to be like, you're high.
But I could change that opinion if you brought me a fantastic Domino's Pizza. Right.
Depends on how strongly feel about pizza in the first place, I guess. I don't think that's not one of my deeply held beliefs. No, Mexican food is different, but pizza, it's fine. So the this comes up in conversation all the time. And the reason it comes up in conversation all the time is because we're doing it wrong. We think evidence and data and statistics can change people's mind. If you're using evidence and data and facts and all this stuff at your disposal, you're going to sometimes encounter the backfire effect.
It's going to make the other person more stubbornly set in what they believe. But the fact of the matter is, is that rather than worrying about how to get around the backfire effect, stop using data and statistics and facts because it will change nothing. That's not how we change. So how do you apply that in a conversation which, you know, especially in political conversations, they tend to hinge on who has the better set of information, the better facts, the better data.
Is climate change real? Well, here's a whole bunch of scientists who say it is. That's not necessarily going to persuade someone who has their heels dug in there on the. They're on the stuck 20. Right. Right. What do you do? How do you manage the backfire effect in conversations like that? So most of us aren't having those those conversations on the Senate floor, if the Senate wanted to bring me in to help them fix their conversation, I'm all for it.
I'm going to charge you through the nose.
But yes, I can help you fix your problems. I would love to do that.
I would be all in might even do it for free. You know, Senator Doug Jones was just on the show a couple of weeks ago, so maybe he can talk to his former colleagues about that, all for fixing the way they talk to each other.
Most of us are not having the conversations. We know through research that most of the time when you're having these conversations with people, you know, friends and family, it's not even with strangers. We don't like talking to strangers about sports or the weather. We don't like striking up conversation with strangers, period. So you're not going to get into a conversation about your deeply held values most of the time, but then. So the way that you manage that, the disagreement here is that you have to make it personal, and I know that goes against that's possibly counterintuitive from all the people who are saying this isn't personal, don't make it personal, don't get emotional.
Right. That's bullshit.
You can say it's bullshit because no one you have never in your life had a conversation that didn't involve emotions and you never will. Human beings are not logical creatures. We're not rational. We are emotional and social, period.
So Jonathan Haidt did some wonderful work on this with the Righteous Mind. It's. Oh, absolutely.
It's it. And IMO, your emotions are not a weakness. They are an asset. So make it as personal as possible. Don't tell me about some statistics you just saw in The New York Times. Tell me what happened to you and why this matters to you. Don't create this as a we need to help this other group of people that I've never met because I live in rural Nebraska say here's this problem we have and help me solve it. Here's my idea for how to solve it.
What is your idea for how to solve it, if you can? Again, it goes back to what we were talking about earlier with the shared goal and collaborative problem solving. And this also brings in the biology, because, again, I cannot say enough that human beings are best when we work together. We are not individual lone wolves. Lone wolves, by the way, die of mange. We are hive minds. That's how we do our best work.
And so bring them in to the problem solving with you. You can say, I don't it really doesn't matter to me what you believe.
We can set all of that aside. But here's the problem, PED's. And in this part of Detroit, our are developing asthma at higher rates. OK, that's the problem. Simply stated, let's figure out how to solve that.
And everyone can agree on that. Yeah. Yeah, because it is what it is. You talk about the importance of energy and focus for good conversation and that no one should feel guilty for stopping a conversation when you don't have the energy or focus to have it in the first place. And, you know, I've had similar insights as a, I think, product of my own meditation practice and sort of being able to tune into my own energy. How did you get comfortable with this and how do you stop or I guess not start sometimes those conversations artfully without offending the other person?
You know, I am a passionate person. I had no idea.
And so and what I think of as regular conversation to other people who are not as forward facing as I am, can see I can be a lot. My son says I'm extra extra. So I have discovered that one of my problems is making sure I'm not just blitzing somebody to the ground with all of my energy.
So my my understanding of this came from the other end, not low energy. I can't do this, but more like I'm too much sometimes. So I need to pay attention to the other person's energy. Are they able to have this? And I need to ask them. It looks like you want me to die. Do you. Are you. Is this OK? Your eyes are rolling back so far. They are going to get stuck. Do we can we do this another time?
Yeah. But, you know, can I take everybody on it? Can I do a real quick exercise for everyone. I just want everyone is listening to just close your eyes and just imagine you're in an MRI machine and I want you to scan down your body and just you're not judging anything. You don't want to think about what has to be fixed. You're just checking in. What parts of your body feel good, what parts of your body feel good or don't feel up to scratch, like you're going to scan down, down through your jaw and down to your neck and the scanner machine is just going over your shoulders.
It's going to go down your arms and at the same time, it's just scanning through your torso. And your belly. What feels good? Where is there an issue, where is there tension in your body, it's moving down your thighs. And it's going through your knees. And your shins. And then it just scans all the way through your foot, arch your foot and out through your toes. And so you just you have a picture in your head, you've just done a scan.
What does that MRI scan say? How are you feeling? Are you tense? Are you tired? If you can do this a few times each day, because it really it only takes 15 seconds. You start to get a better awareness of. What times of the day you're at your best? Do you need to eat first? Do you need coffee first or does coffee make it worse? When are you at your high energy?
When your low as as you begin to make this sort of part of your practice, just that quick scan, you'll start to get a better understanding of yourself and it will make you a more aware of your own state of mind.
Can I have this conversation or is it likely I'm going to say something I don't mean because I'm on the edge, and that's the energy that you bring into every conversation.
Yeah, yeah, that's so useful. OK, covid, covid, covid and its impact on conversation, and there's two things I want to get at here, ones really General. And you know, we're coming up on a full year of a lot of people really trying to limit their social interaction because of the pandemic. And and so sort of in general terms, I'm just wondering how you think that could impact our conversation skills and and because they maybe haven't been used very much.
And and then as we start to be able to have more social interactions, how can we approach them with more intention and then separately related to cover? I want to talk a little bit about trauma.
OK, that's a lot. So let me try to pick it apart and then you can help me out if I miss anything. The first thing is that, yes, social interactions and and they require a certain amount of skill.
And when you're not having authentic social interactions face to face or on the phone, you you know, you can lose a little bit of your ability. I have good news on this front.
OK, everyone can relax because you're OK. You know how to do this. And I'm not saying this because I'm trying to pump you up. I'm saying this because we have extensive research showing that when people are talking with others, very often the most most common thing people describe that interaction is as that they felt awkward, that they thought they were awkward, that they screwed up. And yet when we ask the other person, how was the other person, they'll be like, they're fine.
I totally enjoyed the conversation. I was awkward, but the other person was fine. Like you imagine two conversations of both people being hard on themselves and thinking they're awkward, but they think the other person is OK. So you're fine. We know that when you can get out of your head and stop being self-conscious about it, human beings naturally take turns and move their bodies and say, aha, they do all that without thinking at all.
We do what we were evolved to do. Exactly.
This is your superpower. You know how to do this. Maybe, Rusty, when you first get back on that bike, but you haven't forgotten how to ride a bike. The other thing, though, is that one of the reasons our social interactions are deteriorating is because of zoom. Zoom is very specifically and uniquely exhausting to the brain and to the body and to the emotions. And so we really have to stop over using Zoom say more about that.
Why is it so why why zoom in? Why this format in particular, which I mean, just to be clear, it would be wonderful if we were sitting in the studio together. Yeah, but but I think probably to your point, it would change the conversation, I think, for the better. Right.
Great. Well, we think that having that video there is going to make the conversation better, but that's not necessarily true. There's a few things going on inside your cranium that are making Zoome exhausting. The first one is something we all know with is that Zoom is very intrusive. Right? You're not looking at my office. You're looking at an actual building, a room in my house. There's also a higher level of stress because I'm worried about whether there's going to be a truck going by.
I'm worried about if someone's going to come ring my doorbell. I'm afraid someone's going to someone in my family is going to run through in their underwear or my dog is going to start barking. There's, like constantly that sort of rumbling under layer of stress about the fact that you're in my house.
It's a little bit of fear. There is fear. Yeah. There's also the fact that you're I I there's more focus on my face and my hair. So I'm very worried about my appearance. Obviously, you're looking at me right now. I'm not that worried about it. I've given up on that. But for most people, there's this extra worry about how they look because it's like we're looking on a TV screen. Yeah, but going on inside your head, we all have this.
Your brain makes millions upon millions of calculations each day based on reward versus cost.
It's deciding what to do, whether based on whether the reward at least equals the cost to our systems and we choose for ourselves so we don't wear ourselves out what to do. Zoome, neurologically speaking, has a higher cost than reward. Meaning it. It's very cognitively demanding. I'm not making eye contact with you. In order to appear that I'm making eye contact, I have to look up into the camera and then you're in my peripheral vision and my brain is trying to make that work.
If there's a lag in the Internet, my brain is trying to fix that for me.
If the more people that you have on the screen, the harder it is to tell who you're looking at, where the focus is and your brain, which is. Three hundred thousand years of in-person interaction is trying to make that all function, it's trying to fix it for you.
And yet you're not getting the biofeedback that makes a conversation very good for you, I'm I'm not getting the interaction. I can't tell what your real facial expressions are. You're stuck at a desk. I don't know what your body is doing. I'm not getting that stuff that actually gives me those flashes of serotonin and oxytocin that really make me feel refreshed. And so the cost is so much higher than than the reward that when you're done with a Zune call, you're going to be exhausted.
It's all makes sense now. It's extremely inefficient from an energy usage standpoint, right? It's very inefficient.
Yeah. I mean, haven't you ever gotten off one of these where you're looking at someone and you just want. Yeah, yeah.
I'm glad we did that because that's like going to be so useful to so many people, just having a reason for why they're so exhausted after a 90 minute meeting.
Yeah, it's too much. You have to let people keep their cameras off. I mean, just for everyone out there listening and don't make them tell you a reason. Yeah. Yeah. That's makes so much sense. OK, empathy.
Yeah. Here we go.
Early in the book, you talk about this meta analysis from the University of Michigan back in 2010 w where where where they found that there was a 40 point decline in empathy among college students over 40 years, with most of the decline happening after 2000.
So first of all, what role does good conversation play in building empathy? And how important can that be in trying to heal our current social problems? And this is, I think, where I want to segway into the opportunities for conversation around trauma and as a result of the multiple traumas that we've sort of experienced as a country over the last year.
But Mary Trump did this really nicely a few weeks ago where she described that, you know, we've had we've had multiple waves of different types of trauma hit the entire population all at once. And so I sort of want to use empathy as a way to to talk about trauma and conversations that we can have respecting recognizing that trauma in others and just how you're thinking about that in general.
OK, so let me take this step by step. Sure. First, it's important we understand that empathy is not some soft skill that you can tune out of when people start talking about it, because it's not the real world experience we need to succeed.
Empathy is the most important skill for human beings, period. It has always been a survival skill. It is the only way we know how to relate to one another and survive. So, for example, if there's a tiger near your village, you're not that is not going to come to your village and drag someone else out every single night. Eventually, the human beings are going to get together and they're going to kill the tiger. Right.
Empathy simply means that I'm going to help you even if there's nothing in it for me, because I don't feel for you.
I feel with you. I can imagine what it is like to be you. And this goes back to the deepest part of the human brain, which is the theory of mind, which we think is unique to human beings, which is the idea that I can imagine your thoughts that are separate from my own. It is like the core of who we are as creatures. So empathy. Incredibly important. Yes, it has fallen in recent years. Yes, I think we can't draw a straight line, but my opinion is, is that we can put a lot of the blame on that, on our technology.
And the reason I say that is because there's just great I don't know if you've ever spoke with Nicholas Epley, know, who's a fantastic researcher up in Chicago and has a wonderful book called Mind Wise. But he and and colleagues like Juliana Schroeder, who's fantastic at Berkeley, did a number of research, which implies that it is the human voice in particular that allows us to recognize one another as human beings. So in one particular study, they had people read a dissenting opinion and then they would hear the exact same opinion read in someone's own voice.
When you read that opinion in any format book, newspaper, online, we're more likely, significantly more likely to think that person disagrees because they're stupid and they don't understand the core concepts.
If you hear them say it in their own voice, you think they don't understand because they have a different perspective and different life experiences, which means there is something inside of us that when we hear that voice. Our brain goes, oh, human one of ours. Part of my tribe. Now, Mary, this to the research that's been going on at Princeton and other places into the phenomenon of neural coupling, so essentially researchers at Princeton wanted to figure out what it looks like.
We've done a lot of this research into a person talking right, but very little into two people talking to each other so they would have someone come in and relate a personal story. In one of these early experiments, it was a girl describing her complete disastrous senior prom. And then they had a bunch of other people come in and listen to her telling her story. And everyone's hooked up to an fMRI. And what they discovered was that when the participants began to listen to her in an engaged way, their brain waves synched up exactly with hers.
OK, synched up exactly how. Right. Wow, that's some magic, that is magic, that is as close as science can come to describing magic, we don't entirely know how that works. We don't know why that's incredible.
But it is mind meld on a level that occurs when you have an empathic bond between people based on the human voice.
OK, I mean, we could just stop right there, because that's my job.
So obviously when we are living in a society where we're actively avoiding hearing other human voices and it is the human voices both what helps us recognize others as human beings and not other them.
And it is also what creates this.
Other worldly bond between people, of course, we're going to stop caring whether other people live or die.
Oh, wow. Yeah, we simply do not recognize the power of the voice, we don't understand it, we think we don't understand the brain. We also have no idea of the power of this human voice when it is when that it is taken in by your ears. And I try to describe it this way. Have you ever called a friend up? And all they've said is hello? And you say, what's wrong?
Oh, yeah. I'm also the type of person who just calls people instead of texts because. Which is awesome. Because I just prefer to do that. Yeah, but yes, you can always tell. Yeah. I mean, think about that.
That's less than half a second. And the the complicated and nuanced information. Right. Right. You have just gotten. Yeah. Data just data packets going back and forth. That's faster than any, any piece of technology then. Yeah.
There is no email that is more effective and efficient than that. And that's what we try to replace with emojis, that jazz.
OK, so take us to trauma now and and how conversations that were with with that as a backdrop with the the the this magical connection that happens, the the depth of conversations when we're all sort of reeling from multiple traumatic events and sort of I know I guess what I'm really curious about is how are you thinking about conversations in in a time when sociologically we're we're going through something that we've never really that the group of human beings who are alive right now on this planet, on this planet Earth have never experienced together.
At the same time, what role do conversations play in providing some kind of healing to to trauma and and anything else you want to add to that? Here's the beautiful thing about our species healing us is actually pretty simple when it comes to emotions, and I'm not in any way, shape or form trying to diminish some of the more complicated issues. But when we're talking about the trauma that we're experiencing as a society, you can lower your cortisol levels by taking a five minute walk outside.
Right. Which sometimes we try to complicate these things and say, oh, I don't have time.
I, I probably should create a home meditation course for myself. I know I'll sign up for a yoga class and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. You can in fact lower your heart rate lawyer cortisol levels and and slow your breathing by taking five minutes, by going outside and looking at a tree. That's how simple it can be. In fact, some doctors have said it's not a replacement for antidepressants, but it's a pretty good antidepressant.
The same is true of conversation. And I want to be careful here because oftentimes our our reaction when people come to us with their trauma is to either try to fix it or try to compare. We then offer our similar experience. This has been so hard for me, you say? Yep, it's been hard for me, too. And I want you to resist both of those impulses. First, because if someone is coming to you with trauma, they only need a witness, they don't need solutions, they don't need you to draw focus to yourself by saying, me, too.
They need you to witness. What they're going through, they need you to hear what they've been through. You know, I'm a volunteer for the crisis text line. And as you can imagine, over the past year, it's been very, very busy. But when you become a volunteer for the tax line, the first thing they teach you is do not suggest anything. Ask them questions and let them solve their problem because they always know the answer.
Right, and that is the same thing I would do when somebody is coming to you with trauma. The other thing I might mention is that if you are traumatized and you are listening to someone else's trauma, it actually relieves yours as well.
This is one of the things I talked about in the book, Do Nothing, was that we forget how incentivized we are to be kind to other people when they take cancer patients who are going through chemo. And they have one group of patients who are actually also volunteering and helping other people get through life threatening illnesses. It increases their immune system. It lowers their stress levels. They heal faster.
It's not going to cure cancer. It just makes you stronger.
It increases your wellbeing. They had one study in which they gave people small wounds on their arm.
Yeah, it's weird what people are willing to go through. And the people who had actually just a regular normal on stressful relationship with a significant other, their wound healed faster. Wow.
There was a longitudinal study in the U.K. in which they followed men for a very long period of time. That's what longitudinal means. And they found that eventually, based on how many authentic, like important social interactions those men had, they could predict who would still be alive in 10 years with a fair degree of accuracy. So when you're talking about healing your own trauma, sometimes the best thing to do is, is to get out of yourself and immerse yourself in someone else's experience.
Sometimes the best thing to do is to solve someone else's issue by being there for them being that witness, it has just a cascade of effects that we don't even can't fully track or measure at this point. So conversation, when we talk about how important conversation is to healing trauma, it is crucial.
Crucial. Celeste, before I let you go, is there anything that we missed in this conversation that that you wish we had covered or a question that I didn't ask you, that you wish I had asked you?
Here's the only thing I would say. It's it's weird because one of the questions that comes up a lot is a conversation is so good for us. Why do we avoid it?
Mm hmm. And this is a super important question. And and it's one that researchers are trying to figure out right now because it doesn't make any sense. But I will tell you this. We have a beginning answer, and it's exactly what you think it is. It's our fear. Even if someone has no experience of a conversation that's gone really badly, we avoid conversations because it might happen.
We create a narrative in our heads about how that conversation might go. We tell ourselves stories and those stories are mostly false. Wow.
So to go back to when we were talking about your not your thoughts or feelings, you are not your fear. That story you're telling yourself is not your story.
It's OK. It's OK. The conversation is probably going to go way better than you expected. And if you're the one in a million where it doesn't, you're still get up the next morning and everything will be all right. The stakes are low.
Well, this conversation went better than I expected, so I got terrific.
Thank you. Thank you so much for I am mindful of the time we have a few more minutes left. But where can people find you on the Internet? Where would you like them to go?
The easiest thing is just Celeste Headlee Dotcom. And my last name is spelled like your body part lady. OK, terrific. Thank you to everyone at home or on the go for listening. If you have any questions or advice for us, you can reach us at podcast Political Politico, Dotcom. As I've mentioned a couple of times, political blog is a completely independent organization. Our entire team is ridiculously energized by the prospect of changing and expanding and evolving how we think about politics, but we really need your support to keep it going.
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