Top Quotes: “We Need To Talk: How To Have Conversations That Matter” — Celeste Headlee

“Consumers in the United States return about $14 billion worth of electronics every year. But in 85 percent of those cases, there’s nothing wrong with the merchandise. The consumer just doesn’t understand how to use the device after opening the box. Sometimes weak documentation (such as an indecipherable instruction manual) is to blame; other times the culprit is insufficient “customer education,” the formal term for the casual conversations salespeople have with customers about a product.

That translates to nearly $12 billion a year lost because instructions weren’t clearly communicated. And in reality, this represents only a front-end loss because many consumers won’t go back to a company after they’ve had to return a product.”

“In one study, British researchers asked pairs of strangers to sit down in a room and chat. In half of the rooms, a cell phone was placed on a nearby table; in the other half, no phone was present. After the conversations had ended, the researchers asked study participants what they thought of each other. Here’s what they learned: when a cell phone was present in the room, the participants reported that the quality of their relationship was worse than those who’d talked in a cell phone-free room. The pairs who talked in the rooms with cell phones “also reported feeling less trust and thought their partners showed less empathy if there was a cell phone present.”

The researchers concluded that the presence of a cell phone hurt the quality of the conversation and the strength of the connection between the people talking. With a cell phone just sitting on a table in the room!

Approaching emotional problems with logic is a strategy that is doomed to failure. Logic attempts to negate emotion, but emotion is not weakness, nor is it unhelpful.”

Taking a moment to think about your own expectations and sharing them with your conversational partner sets the stage for a productive exchange. It’s the equivalent of walking into the grocery store with a list instead of browsing through the aisles.”

If you’re feeling anxious, distracted, angry, or simply stressed out, all of those feelings will change the tone of your voice and expression on your face. I have to admit that this is a real problem for me: every thought that passes through my mind is instantly broadcast on my face. That’s the reason I’m a terrible liar and a spectacularly bad poker player. You’d think it wouldn’t matter in radio, since the audience can’t see my face, but the expert or politician I’m interviewing can see me and knows exactly what I’m thinking.

We bring expectations to every conversation, no matter how brief. That’s what is going on in our heads before either person opens their mouth to speak. We can’t always control how a conversation goes, but we can create an environment for open, authentic communication by sharing our expectations and being aware of our own thoughts and feelings before we decide to speak.”

“Through my experience and research, I’ve identified five key strategies that help facilitate a productive dialogue. They are: be curious, check your bias, show respect, stay the course, and end well.

“This tendency to lump people into groups is known as the “halo and horns effect.” Psychologists call it a cognitive bias or a “bias blind spot.” Basically, when we approve of a single aspect of another person, we are more likely to judge them positively for other aspects. It takes just one common, important interest for us to find someone believable, trustworthy, and likeable.

The opposite is true as well: if we disapprove of someone’s appearance, opinion, occupation, or another personal aspect, we are more likely to disapprove of everything about them.”

“Take a moment to thank them for sharing their thoughts. It can be scary to talk about politics or religion with someone else, so express your gratitude for their time and their openness. If you end the conversation in a friendly and gracious way, you set the groundwork and the tone for future conversations.”

“The woman tells me her parents said terrible things about that family, things that she now realizes were racist and hateful and totally unfounded. But, she says, she doesn’t understand why people blame her for what her parents did. “It’s just as racist to assume that I’m racist,” she says.

“Just because I want everyone to come to the US legally doesn’t mean I’m racist,” she continues. “I don’t care what color the person is or where they come from, I just think they should follow the law. People have said the most awful things to me.”

At that point, I moved to sit in the seat next to her, looked her in the eye, and said, “I’m so sorry. I really am. I’m sorry that you’ve been made to feel like you can’t express your opinion without being called names and I’m so sorry that people said terrible things to you.”

Because I was watching for it, I saw the woman’s shoulders relax. I saw the muscles around her eyes relax and I saw her mouth fall into a slight smile. “Thank you,” she said. “Thanks for saying that. I just feel so awful. I feel like I can’t say anything.”

We ended up chatting for another twenty minutes or so before Delta began boarding my flight. As I stood to go, she thanked me again for listening to her and told me she now understood how her views might be offensive to some people. “I never thought about how I was saying it. I just thought about what was in my heart,” she said. “I didn’t hear it from the other side.”

I think she walked away with a broader perspective on the issue, although I can’t really say for sure. But I know that I came away with more empathy for her and those who share her views.

I also felt the pleasure of having given a sincere apology and having witnessed its transformative power firsthand. Apologies can come from anyone if they are both heartfelt and honest. After years of indigenous people demanding an apology from the Australian government for its past horrific treatment of them, the nation established May 26 as “National Sorry Day.” That might sound like a woefully insufficient response to a long-standing, systemic assault, but it provides a platform each year for the government to acknowledge the harm they caused and apologize for it.”

Even if you don’t believe someone has cause to feel wronged, it doesn’t change the intensity of the emotion in that person’s mind. They crave resolution and relief. You can give them at least a taste of that.

When you apologize sincerely, you acknowledge someone’s anger or sadness. You validate that they have reason to be angry or that their anger is real.

This often disarms them. Research shows that, after the apology, they no longer see you as a threat or as someone who might again harm them. They drop their defensive posture.”

“I recently had a conversation with a colleague about updates to our studio. He began to detail the specifics of equipment pricing and shipment dates, and my mind started to wander. I responded by saying, “Whoa! Maybe I didn’t have enough coffee, but I’m struggling to follow you. Can we go back to the part about when the equipment will be installed? That’s probably as deep as my mind can go at the moment.””

“If you want to get out of a conversation, get out of it. Tell the other person, politely, that you have too much on your mind to really listen to what they’re saying. “I need to gather my thoughts,” I often say. “I’m so sorry, but I’m struggling to stay focused and I do want to hear what you have to say. Can I check back in later?”

You must commit to a conversation, even the brief ones, or walk away. If you’re too distracted, admit that to both yourself and the other person. Be present or be gone.”

“If you continue to practice meditation and you become more aware of what you’re thinking, it might mean you’re a slower talker. You might naturally pause more often to take note of what you’re thinking. I see that as a positive.

Meditation will also benefit your conversation skills by making you a better listener. Once the chatter in your mind quiets down, you can really focus on what someone else is saying without becoming overly distracted by your own thoughts.”

“Study author Dr. Tania Singer observed, “The participants who were feeling good themselves assessed their partners’ negative experiences as less severe than they actually were. In contrast, those who had just had an unpleasant experience assessed their partners’ good experience less positively.” In other words, we tend to use our own feelings and perceptions as a basis to determine how others feel.

Here’s how that translates to your daily conversations: Let’s say you and a friend are both laid off at the same time by the same company. In that case, using your own feelings as a measure of your friend’s feelings may be fairly accurate because you’re experiencing the same event.

But what if you’re having a great day and you meet a friend who was just laid off? Without knowing it, you’ll judge how your friend is feeling against the standard of your good mood. She’ll say, “This is awful. I’m so worried that I feel sick to my stomach.” And you might respond, “Don’t worry, you’ll be okay. I was laid off six years ago and everything turned out fine.” The more comfortable you are, the more difficult it is to empathize with the suffering of another.”

“It turns out, the more money you have, the less able you are to correctly identify other people’s emotions. It doesn’t matter if you’re looking at photos or interacting with real people, if you’re wealthy, you likely have a harder time recognizing joy, fear, love, and anxiety in a stranger’s face. (You’re also more likely to be rude in conversation, which I think is related to empathy.)

In this case, income was the only differentiating factor. “It was across gender, across ethnic backgrounds,” says the author of the study, Sara Konrath. Konrath says those with lower incomes showed “greater empathic accuracy in the study.”

While many people believe education can increase empathy, that may not be entirely true, either. In Konrath’s extensive research, people with only a high school diploma scored 7 percent higher than those with a college degree.

But here’s the interesting part of that study, in my eyes. At one point, a group of students were told to imagine Bill Gates as the top of the socioeconomic ladder. (That doesn’t require a lot of imagination. He is quite literally at the top of that ladder, with a net worth of $75 billion.) The students were asked to imagine where they were on the ladder in relation to Bill Gates at the top. Most of us rank fairly low compared to Gates, so this group was imagining themselves as doing far worse than another person.

Another group was told to imagine someone at the very bottom of the scale, someone with absolutely nothing. And then they were told to imagine their place somewhere above the destitute person. Most people are doing relatively well compared to a homeless person with no money or property, so they were thinking of themselves as being much bètter off than someone else.

After those exercises, the researchers tested for empathy. All of the participants were shown photographs of strangers and asked to identify the emotion they saw in the other person’s eyes. (That’s a common test for empathic accuracy: how well you identify another person’s emotions.) Turns out, those who pictured themselves somewhere below Bill Gates on the wealth scale — those who had just imagined themselves doing far worse than someone else — were fairly accurate at identifying emotions. Those who compared themselves to a homeless person, and thought of themselves as far above another, scored significantly worse.

Nothing about their financial circumstances had changed. In other words, simply thinking of yourself as rich by comparison makes you less empathetic. Imagining that you are relatively poor does the opposite.”

“I’m quite light-skinned, yet I was the second-darkest kid in my elementary school in Southern California. In third grade, one of the other kids called me a “nigger” and I punched him in the eye, without hesitation. I was sent to the principal’s office and I still remember how scared I was outside his office. I was a good student and I didn’t get in trouble very often. I knew my mother’s reaction would be harsh if she had to pick me up from school. But the principal told me that if anyone else called me that word, I should punch them, too. And then he sent me back to class.”

“Take a moment to consider what you need to accomplish in a conversation before you utter your first word. Once you’ve conveyed your message, resist the temptation to keep talking.”

“You must be sensitive to the signals you’re getting from the other person. Are they indicating that their attention is dwindling and they need to take a break? Are they angling their body away from you, possibly even taking a step away? Are they breaking eye contact frequently? Are they interjecting with “uh-huh” and “yes” to encourage you to reach the end of your sentence? These are signs that the other person’s focus has been exhausted.”

“I was on a plane recently and the woman next to me began chatting before she even sat down. She had clearly just finished a wonderful visit with her new grandkids and wanted to share her joy with someone else.

Normally, I would happily sit and listen to her loving stories and ooh and aah over her photos. But on that day, I was just too exhausted. Her joy would have only irritated me if I had been forced to listen. So I waited for an opening in the conversation and said, “It sounds like you had a wonderful time. Usually, I would really enjoy hearing about it, but my brain is barely functioning right now. Please forgive me, but I just want to close my eyes and try to get some rest. Is that all right?” Obviously, she agreed and I enjoyed silence for the rest of the trip. As we left the plane, I asked to see a picture of her grandkids and thanked her, sincerely, for allowing me to relax.”

“You can also move a stalled conversation forward by asking pointed questions to help your partner get back on track. “What happened when you got home?” you can ask, or “You’re killing me with suspense. Skip to the end!” Don’t wait until you’ve lost your patience and are liable to say something regrettable. In order to cut an exchange short or move someone along politely, you should be in a positive state of mind.”

“I remember having a conversation with my son after he got into a fight. A schoolmate was yelling insults at him on the playground and snatching the ball from him whenever he could. Finally, my son lost patience and pushed him. “That was your mistake,” I told him. “He was wrong right up until you put your hands on him. Then you lost the high ground.”

Our conversation continued, as he explained that he had to go to the principal and write a note of apology to the other kid. “You just shouldn’t have pushed him,” I said. “If you’d held your temper, he would have been the one in trouble.” And then he said that he would have to spend a few lunch periods in detention and that the teacher wanted to talk with me. “That’s because you’re the one who decided to make it physical,” I said. Suddenly, he yelled back, “I know! I’ve heard it a million times now! I’m not stupid!”

I could have lectured him more about losing his temper and raising his voice to me, but I didn’t. Because he was right. I had repeated myself multiple times. (Back then he was still young enough to get frustrated by repetition. Now he just tunes me out.) I’m willing to bet there are many kids (and spouses) who don’t listen closely because they’re “tired of hearing it.” In this case, “it” is the same basic message rephrased over and over.

Repetition is the conversational equivalent of marching in place. It’s not interesting and it doesn’t move anything forward.”

“These types of repetition help you to retain new learning for one key reason: you’re the one repeating the information. Research shows that when we repeat something multiple times, it ups our chances of remembering it. The benefit increases if we repeat that information to another person, but the benefit isn’t shared with the person listening. So, if you’re in a meeting and you repeat a deadline to your team four times, you’ll probably remember it well but your team members are no more likely to retain it than if you’d mentioned it only once.”

“Try to become aware of how often you repeat yourself, and think about what might be prompting you to do it. Do you feel like you’re not getting the acknowledgment you need from the other person? Has he or she failed to follow through on things in the past? Are there too many distractions present when you’re trying to have a conversation (i.e., saying something important while your kid is playing a video game may not be a good idea)? Are you prone to ramble in your conversations?

Over the next few weeks, get into the habit of pausing for a couple of seconds before you respond to someone. Before you repeat yourself, take a moment to find something new to say. You can even ask your friends to tell you when you’re repeating something. I had my son say “echo” every time I started repeating things, and after hearing it a few dozen times, I began to break the habit.”

When I learn someone’s name for the first time, I repeat it immediately. Then I let some time pass, a minute or so, and I say it again. If I’m able to use their name in conversation four or five times, while allowing a little time to pass in between each iteration, I have a much better chance at really learning their name.

The same principle can also be applied to the workplace. Let’s say there are three important points you need to convey to your coworkers. You state them at the start of the meeting (“Here’s what we’re going to cover”), then you explain each point, and at the end, you repeat them one more time (“To recap, here’s the important information”). Your colleagues are more likely to remember what you’ve said if you give structure and space to your repetition.”

“If I’m interviewing someone about a tornado that came through their town, I could ask, “The winds were moving at more than one hundred miles per hour. It looks like your house was just torn apart. Were you scared?” Most likely, I’ll get this answer: “Yeah, I was really scared. It was scary.”

But if I ask this person, “What was it like to be so close to the eye of a tornado?” chances are good that I’ll get a more interesting response. I could also ask, “What did you hear?” or “How did it feel?” These are all open-ended questions because they open up the discussion. They provide the individual the needed space to describe what happened in his or her own words. Maybe “scary” isn’t the right word to describe their feelings. Open-ended questions encourage people to tell their own stories.”

“In 2009, the once wildly popular Domino’s Pizza chain was struggling to survive. Sales were down and stock prices had hit an all-time low. The pizza itself had tied for last place in a national taste test.

Something radical had to be done, and fast. And so, in an unorthodox move, the company launched an ad campaign that bluntly admitted its mistake: it was making bad pizza. In a television commercial, they quoted customers who compared the pies to “cardboard” and called them the “worst excuse for pizza” they’d ever had and said they were “totally void of flavor.” The ad showed images of harsh criticisms from customers printed out, framed, and hung on office walls. The voice-over announced that Domino’s was debuting a new recipe and asked customers to give them a second chance.

The chief executive officer of Domino’s later said he was scared to death to run that ad. It could have backfired horribly. But it didn’t. That campaign has been credited with fueling one of the most incredible turnarounds in restaurant history. The following year, sales rose almost 14 percent and their stock price jumped by 130 percent. The company gambled on honesty and it paid off. As John Glass of Morgan Stanley observed, “People are so used to not being told the truth in advertising. The candor worked.””

“Business psychiatrist Mark Goulston says we only have about forty seconds to speak during a conversation before we run the risk of dominating the exchange. He describes the first twenty seconds as the green light, when the other person likes you and is enjoying what you have to say. The next twenty seconds are the yellow light, when “the other person is beginning to lose interest or think you’re long-winded.” At forty seconds, Goulston says, the light turns red and it’s time to stop talking.

“Let me go a step further and suggest that you eliminate the phrase “Well, actually…” from your lexicon. I don’t usually give advice about specific words or phrases to use or avoid, but I’ll make an exception here. Much like “I’m not a racist, but…” nothing good will come after the words “well, actually.” If you really need to correct someone because something bad will happen if they don’t have the accurate information, find another way or wait until they’ve finished their story. If it’s trivial, a correction is not necessary. No one needs to interrupt a story about dinner in order to explain that real champagne only comes from France.”

“Once you’re aware of the thoughts that come into your head, don’t fight them or try to “clear your mind.” You can’t stop your brain from thinking, and actively resisting your thoughts can be very distracting. Instead, when a thought comes into your head, simply say to yourself, “That’s a thought,” and then try to return your focus to the conversation.

“It’s not easy to break the habit of simply waiting for someone to take a breath so that you can speak again, but it can be done. First, try to listen for ideas. While the other person is talking, think about the deeper meaning of their words and their thoughts. Watch their facial expressions and gestures. What are they really trying to say? You can ask questions like, “Does that mean that …?” or “Are you saying that…?” Perhaps they’re hinting at something. What is it? Why are they telling that story at that moment? What’s the big idea?

Also, think ahead to what they might be going to say next. To guess what’s coming, you must pay attention to what’s happening. This carries risk, as you might be tempted to make assumptions about what they’re saying instead of predicting based on what they’re actually telling you. Because it’s condescending to finish the end of someone else’s sentence or story, it’s best you keep these guesses to yourself. The act of guessing, though, will keep you engaged.”

Try to summarize what you’re hearing, but do it in your head. This is another way to put the extra words in your mind to good use. Review what the other person has said and rephrase it. You will immediately notice if you missed something or if you’re not clear on a specific point. Then you can ask a good question such as, “How did you get from the post office to the school? I missed that part.” Remember that active listening is not just about passively sitting there in toleration while someone else speaks. Listening is work.”

“The best conversations happen between two people who are considering each other. That’s the definition of consideration after all, to think carefully about the effect of what you say and do and try to avoid upsetting or harming another person with your words or actions. It’s not always easy to do this — social scientists say narcissism is on the rise and it takes effort and practice for us to consider others.

Ultimately, the tools and strategies I’ve offered in this book share one underlying purpose — and that is to help you consider others when you’re talking. Because doing that will make not only for better conversations but also for better relationships and, ultimately, I hope, a richer life.”



I read non-fiction and take copious notes. Currently traveling around the world for 5 years, follow my journey at

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Austin Rose

I read non-fiction and take copious notes. Currently traveling around the world for 5 years, follow my journey at