GPB’s Celeste Headlee’s TED Talk about conversation goes huuuuge

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By RODNEY HO/ rho@ajc.com, originally filed Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Celeste Headlee, host of GPB’s morning radio show “On Second Thought” on 88.5/WRAS-FM (9 a.m. to 10 a.m.), converses with different people for a living, gleaning interesting opinions and anecdotes from plumbers to politicians.

So when her colleague J. Cindy Hill in Savannah asked her to do a TED Talk for TEDxCreativeCoast, she opted for a subject near and dear to her heart: “10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation.” (If watching the 12-minute talk takes too much effort, feel free to read the transcript here.)

She did the talk in the spring of 2015 in Savannah. It went well. Headlee moved on.

Then in February, the main TED page featured her talk, which is a huge honor given how many thousands of talks are now done each year worldwide. Her Twitter feed blew up. She began getting feedback from everywhere. Her talk has now garnered 5 million page views between the Ted page and YouTube. It’s been translated into 26 languages.

Headlee was surprised. “The most inspiring TED Talks are usually people talking about medical advances in Southeast Asia or technical breakthroughs or Nobel Peace Prize winners who wrote books.”

But her subject is universal. And in this day and age of smartphones, self-absorbed social media mavens and short attention spans, conversation is a dying art.

She brought up a few simple bits of advice to help people revive or build their conversational skills. For instance:

  • Don’t pontificate. If you want to state your opinion without any opportunity for response or argument or pushback or growth, write a blog.
  • Use open-ended questions. In this case, take a cue from journalists. Start your questions with who, what, when, where, why or how. If you put in a complicated question, you’re going to get a simple answer out. If I ask you, “Were you terrified?” you’re going to respond to the most powerful word in that sentence, which is “terrified,” and the answer is “Yes, I was” or “No, I wasn’t.” “Were you angry?” “Yes, I was very angry.” Let them describe it.
  • Go with the flow. That means thoughts will come into your mind and you need to let them go out of your mind. We’ve heard interviews often in which a guest is talking for several minutes and then the host comes back in and asks a question which seems like it comes out of nowhere, or it’s already been answered. That means the host probably stopped listening two minutes ago because he thought of this really clever question, and he was just bound and determined to say that. And we do the exact same thing. We’re sitting there having a conversation with someone, and then we remember that time that we met Hugh Jackman in a coffee shop.

“I never thought it was a wow topic,” she said. “The person who’s the most surprised as I watch that viewer tally go up is me.”

But now Headlee considers herself a “conversation evangelist.”

She thinks the adaptation of advanced technology has been “wonderful and powerful, but what it does to our relationships and our brains is lagging. I think we’re only now starting to realize that sending a text message or email instead of calling someone or seeing somebody affects the way we live and relate to one other.”

As she noted in her talk, she also thinks political polarization has made it more difficult for people to listen to each other and have meaningful conversations, as opposed to simply talking past each other or avoiding heady topics altogether.

“In my job, I talk to people I disagree with all the time,” Headlee said. “I have perfectly great conversations. I learn stuff from people. I don’t know how you’d ever learn and grow if you only talk to people you agree with.”

She is amazed by the impact the talk has had on some people.

“I get emotional and moving emails from people,” she said. “I got one from someone in D.C. who said she’s been riding the subway with the same blind kid every day for months. After watching my TED Talk, she asked him how his day was going and they had this incredible conversation. That’s what makes it worth it, to have an impact on people and change their habits because of something you said.”

ON THE RADIO

“On Second Thought,” Celeste Headlee, 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. weekdays, 88.5/WRAS-FM

Catch past episodes here.

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