The Knowledge Project – Celeste Headlee on The Dying Art of Conversation

Check out The Knowledge Project Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • Writing for eyeballs (which people read) is quite different from writing for the ear (which people listen to)
    • When writing for the ear, the prose has to be much clearer and crisper
    • “You’re trying to sculpt information so it can be easily understood by the brain”
  • A thought on interviewing:
    • “If the interviewer is good, they’re asking questions in a way that allows the other person to shine”
  • What makes for a good conversation?
    • “If someone walks away from a conversation and they didn’t learn anything from the other person, then it wasn’t a successful conversation”
    • “A good conversation is interactive for both people. It doesn’t even allow the other person to tune out.”
    • The best model for a good conversation is a friendly game of catch
      • Why? – In a game of catch, you can’t throw more than you catch – it’s an even balance, just like a conversation should be an even balance between talking and listening
  • “Consensus is the enemy of innovation”
    • Our best ideas come during times of cognitive diversity
  • Listening is really hard for humans because evolutionarily, we don’t really need to listen well (our survival more so depends on how successful we are at being loud to get the attention of an adult who will helps us)
    • For other species though, the ability to listen well is actually a survival skill
  • Don’t listen to reply, listen to consider and understand
  • “In everyday life, even when you’re not interviewing someone, the ability to see the world through their eyes…the empathy that creates within you is a necessary component to having a really good conversation” – Shane
  • A conversation tip – Try not to equate your experiences with someone else’s
  • Harvard released a study a few years back finding that talking about ourselves activated the same areas of the brain as sex and heroine

Intro

Music

  • Celeste’s grandfather was a famous composer – William Grant Still
  • “There comes a point when you can really listen to music at a deeper level” – As opposed to just “hearing” it
  • “I remember thinking that when I first got involved in opera, that I was really listening to music, and it was moving me on a completely different level”
    • Celeste first studied opera in college, and she eventually started singing it
      • “When I really began to listen, and heard the relationship of my voice to the orchestra, and all of the complexities of that music, in addition to what the lyrics meant, it was a different level of listening”
  • “Musicians are one of the only professions who are actually trained to listen”
    • Lots of people get trained in public speaking, but very few people get trained to learn how to listen

Vertical Listening

  • There are so many subtleties of orchestrated music that you just don’t realize without a deeper understanding of the art
  • Celeste goes on to explain the concept of “vertical listening”
    • “Vertical listening is when you’re hearing all kinds of different voices joining together to make one overall sound”
    • One might also explain this as “deep listening” – being able to hear all the sounds at once
    • “Vertical listening requires an amount of focus and attention that frankly has been disappearing over the past few decades”
      • “Our attention spans are shrinking”
        • Celeste thinks this may be contributing to the decline in tickets sales for live orchestrated music

Celeste’s Move to Journalism and Writing For the Ear

  • After college, Celeste took a job as a classical music host at Arizona Public Radio in 1999 in Flagstaff, AZ
  • Eventually, Celeste made the switch to “arts reporting” at the radio station
  • Celeste says the hardest part of this job was “learning how to write for the ear”
    • What does she mean by this?
      • Everyone is trained to “write for the eyeballs” (for someone reading) – but that’s not the way we absorb information when we’re hearing it
      • “When you’re writing for the ear, things have to be much clearer and crisper”
        • You can’t have any subordinate clauses (Celeste says you want to get rid of the word “that” as much as you can”), complicated sentence structures etc.
        • You want to aim for one thought per sentence
        • “You’re trying to sculpt information so it can be easily understood by the brain”
      • Think – If you’re speaking, and say something the listener doesn’t understand, the brain of the person listening is going to stop and say, “Wait, what was that?”, and they’ll spend at least a few seconds trying to interpret what they just heard
        • During that time – the speaker is still talking, so they’ll have just missed a portion of the message
        • Compare this to when you’re reading – if you don’t understand something, you can just reread it – you can’t do this when listening to something live
      • “You have to be extremely clear, simple, and precise in your language in order for people to understand it”
      • In radio, you have a very short amount of time to tell stories, so every word counts
        • “I think of radio as poetry”

More Tips on Writing For the Ear

  • Only one thought per phrase
  • “Think carefully about sentence structure and whether or not the brain will follow it”
  • Be careful about including too many commas 
  • Try to incorporate the use of colors – they’re really powerful for the ear
    • For example – “She was wearing a heavy fuchsia jacket”
  • “Once you learn how to write for the ear, you’ll find you can create beautiful prose – just gorgeous writing that is simple and clear and all the more beautiful for simplicity”

A Quick Segue into How Radio Works

  • Major networks like National Public Radio (NPR), American Public Media (APM), and Public Radio International (PRI) create and sell shows/programming to consumers (the local public radio stations)

A Great Piece of Advice Celeste Received from a Mentor

  • “Radio is people, talking to people, about people”

More Journalism Tips

  • Make it a story – with a beginning, a middle, and an end
    • “A story is like a shark. It has to keep moving forward or else it dies.”
    • “You have to provide that next rung for the listener. There can’t be any gaps, or they fall.”
  • In a sense, your mindset for a story should be – “Here’s this topic. It’s important to you, and I’m going to give you enough information so that you’re going to understand it.”
    • “My goal is to make them [the listener] understand it”
    • “By the end of this, if that person listening can’t turn to someone next to them and explain what the story is, then I failed”

A Podcast Interview Shouldn’t Be That Complicated

  • Just read the guest’s work (you’d be surprised how many people actually don’t do this) and then ask sincere questions

The Power of a Single Question – An Interview Tip

  • “Don’t waste any time” 
    • “When you start that interview, the first question needs to be a good one”
      • It could be a provocative question, but it doesn’t really matter – that first question needs to get to the heart of the story

What’s the difference between an interview and a conversation?

  • “An interview is a formalized, structured conversation”
    • It’s similar to a conversation in many ways, EXCEPT – one person is in control (the interviewer)
  • “If the interviewer is good, they’re asking questions in a way that allows the other person to shine”
    • “If I’m interviewing Neil deGrasse Tyson, he doesn’t give a damn how much I know about astrophysics. The audience doesn’t care either. They’re listening just so I can ask the questions that allow Neil deGrasse Tyson to say interesting things.”
  • A conversation should be much more balanced and mutual, compared to an interview

What makes for a good conversation?

  • It’s a mutual exchange of information/ideas
  • “If people walk away from a conversation and haven’t learned anything from the other person, then it wasn’t a successful conversation”
  • “The best model for a good conversation is a friendly game of catch”
    • Why? – In a game of catch, you can’t throw more than you catch – it’s an even balance, just like a conversation should be an even balance between talking and listening
    • Also – if it’s a friendly game of catch, you’re thinking about the other person’s success – you’re trying to throw the ball in a way that the other person can actually catch it
      • “You’re setting the other person up for success, and that’s what a conversation should do also”
      • So don’t just think about what you’re saying…
        • Think about what the other person is saying
        • Consider – are you keeping them engaged? Is it interactive?
          • (Just like a children’s TV show is interactive)
        • “That’s why we’re so addicted to our smartphones, because they’re so good at playing on our need to be engaged and involved”
        • “A good conversation is interactive for both people. It doesn’t even allow the other person to tune out.”

The Tribal Nature of Human Beings

  • “Human beings are tribal by nature”
    • “Our need to belong, exceeds our need to be moral”
    • Social media and tech is allowing us to isolate ourselves within tribes to extents never seen before
      • Social media just allows us to be the worst versions of ourselves 
        • In email, for example, you’re less likely to cooperate and more likely to escalate conflict
      • “Your digital persona is just not as nice as you are”
      • “If we already have a tendency to want to surround ourselves with people who agree with us, and then we have this technology that’s with us constantly which allows us to do that to an unprecedented extent, it’s kind of a recipe for disaster”

Cognitive Diversity

  • “Cognitive Diversity is really good for us. It’s when human beings do our best thinking. Agreement is not a great goal if what you’re trying to do is be creative and innovative in your problem solving.”
    • Cognitive diversity isn’t something we enjoy though – but it’s where our best ideas originate from
      • Humans see disagreement as a personal attack to our own opinions, which we’re very attached to
    • “Consensus is the enemy of innovation”
    • “Make it the goal not to reach consensus, but to find the best of the different ideas”

The Benefit of Conversation

  • The neurological, physiological, and emotional effects of conversation have been found to be beneficial except in two circumstances:
    • When the conversation has a negative tone (like someone criticizing you)
    • When someone is offering you unsolicited help/advice/training
      • Humans just don’t like to be told what to do

How do conversations change when multiple people are involved?

  • It’s hard to sustain the necessary attention and focus once more people are involved
    • It’s possible with 3-4 people, but really difficult after that

Human Beings are Terrible Listeners

  • “Listening is really hard. Not because of our smartphones or because we’re distracted…it’s hard because the homo sapien species does not listen well. Evolutionarily we don’t really need to.”
    • The ability to listen well, for other species, is actually a survival skill
    • Human beings on the other hand – “Your survival depends on how successful you are at being loud to get the attention of an adult who will help you.”

What does it really mean to have listened to somebody?

  • You have to have learned something from them
  • “To listen well is not just to hear what they’re saying, but to consider it”
    • But that’s not what we do – most people get 5 seconds into a conversation before we begin trying to decide whether or not we agree with the other person
      • “We’re listening not to actually absorb what they’re saying, but to evaluate it – evaluate if we agree and evaluate if they’re right”

Don’t Be Afraid of Silence

  • “I think we’re afraid of silence or pauses in conversation and there’s really no need to be”
  • Most commonly, there’s only about a 0.5 second pause (or less), between the time one person ends a sentence, and the time the other person responds – that means we’re just not listening to the end of what someone is saying
    • It’s like we’re listening to reply, not to understand
    • “You need to listen all the way to the end of what someone is saying, and we rarely do that”
  • Stop thinking about what you’re going to say next during a conversation
    • It occupies your mind and just wastes mental space – “You are absolutely capable of responding in the moment”

The Three Layers of Listening

  • Evaluative Listening
    • When someone responds immediately to what someone says with their judgment
    • With this, you’re listening only to decide whether what the other person says is right or wrong 
  • Interpretive Listening
    • When there’s an active interpretation – you’re trying to understand
    • This might involve asking for clarification 
  • Transformative Listening
    • Listening with the willingness to change your mind and consider other points of view

Empathy

  • “In everyday life, even when you’re not interviewing someone, the ability to see the world through their eyes…the empathy that creates within you is a necessary component to having a really good conversation.” – Shane
  • “The best way to increase your empathy is by listening to someone else’s perspectives and viewpoints”
  • Consider this:
    • It’s been found that if you read an opinion you don’t agree with, you’re more likely to think the author of the text doesn’t agree with you because they’re stupid/they don’t understand the core concepts
    • But if you hear someone saying that same opinion in their own voice, you’re more likely to think they disagree with you because they have different perspectives and experiences 
      • “One of the best ways to create that understanding and that empathic bond, is to hear someone’s voice”
      • Think of the implications of this today – we’re always texting and emailing instead of talking on the phone
        • “If the voice is what allows us to humanize one another, and we’re not hearing each other’s voices anymore, then, of course, we’re going to hate each other”

Conversational Narcissism

  • Check out the book The Pursuit of Attention
  • “Conversational narcissism is the tendency to turn the conversation back to ourselves, and we do it ALLLL the time”
  • There are a few ways to do this (both fall under what Celeste terms the “shift response” umbrella)
    • You could talk about you/your needs etc.
      • With this, it’s quite obvious you’re making the conversation about yourself
    • The other way is more subtle – You can just withhold attention/interest
      • When you do this long enough, the person you’re conversing with is more likely to ask about you about yourself….and then the conversation turns to you
  • Consider the opposite – known as the support response
    • This is when you ask follow up questions, and keep the conversation on the other person
    • This is what’s taught in improv classes – “Improv is a great way to make you aware of your tendency to switch the conversation onto yourself, but also a great way to train yourself out of it”
  • A great tip:
    • When Celeste is running workshops, she does what’s called the “Yes, and” improv exercise
      • One person will say a sentence, and after that, every other sentence will begin with the words – “Yes, and”
      • “It’s gonna sound awkward, but it doesn’t matter. Everything needs to begin with ‘Yes, and.'”
      • Why do this? – We all have the tendency to say “Yes, but” after someone says something
        • By saying “Yes and” first – we’re showing that we are accepting what was just said, with no questions or arguments 

One More Tip For Better Conversations

  • Try not to equate your experiences with someone else’s
    • Specifically when someone comes to you with a struggle or source of pain
    • Try not to say something like – “I know how you feel. My brother/sibling/mother/dog also….”
      • Why not? – “Because you don’t know how they feel. It doesn’t matter if their talking about their dog dying and your dog died of exactly the same thing. You still don’t know how they feel.”
        • This is because when we experience any kind of pain, our brain intermediately gets to work on softening the memory right after it happens
          • So your memory of a painful experience is very distorted
    • When someone is telling us about their pain, it can feel awkward, and we don’t quite know what to say – so we default to the subject we’re most comfortable with….ourselves
    • Harvard released a study a few years back finding that talking about ourselves activated the same areas of the brain as sex and heroine

What’s the best lesson Celeste’s mother ever taught her?

  • They don’t really get along….
  • “So the best lesson my mother ever taught me is how not to have conversations”

These notes were edited by RoRoPa Editing Services

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