Face-to-face conversation reaps rich rewards, but its a dying art, says Celeste Headlee. Heres how to revive it
It seems that were talking more than ever. And its true that we have more platforms for connection and communication than ever before. But what feels like conversation is actually just talking. Conversation the exchange of ideas and thoughts between two people in which both understand one another and respond to each other is disappearing underneath the mountains of tweets and posts, texts and emojis.
Its that conversation I want to revive, the kind that stimulates critical thought and increases empathy. Thats the kind of bond that builds bridges and crosses the political divides splitting us apart.
Can you still have that kind of conversation? Of course you can. The first barrier is the phone thats either in your hand or close enough for you to reach. Research shows its distracting, as part of your grey matter is occupied thinking about whether it will ping.
It also distracts the person youre speaking to. A study in the UK a few years ago showed that the mere presence of a phone, even one that didnt belong to the people talking, made those involved in a chat more likely to see the other person as unfriendly and untrustworthy. So, the first step is not to put the phone down, but to put it away.
Next, stop avoiding conversations you think might lead to an argument and instead learn to have the discussion without arguing. You do that by choosing to learn from the conversation instead of teach. Dont try to educate the other person, prove them wrong or change their mind, because that probably wont happen.
Instead, make it your goal to learn more about their perspective and their thought processes. This is an excellent way to increase your own empathy and stimulate your mind with new ideas. You may disagree with what theyre saying, but youre doing a lot of good for yourself in listening to them with respect. Ask questions, hear new ideas. Its OK if you dont approve or agree.
And that brings us to the next step: listen. Listening is a skill and we arent born knowing how to do it well. Most of the time, we dont hear everything a person says. Often we hear just the first few words someone speaks and then start crafting our response. Thats a common habit and its hard to break.
In order to listen effectively, you have to allow thoughts to enter your head and then let them flow right back out so you can return to listening. Thats a discipline and an exercise in mindfulness. Its not easy, but its necessary if you hope to really hear and understand what another person is saying.
We have all become very adept at expressing our own thoughts and feelings, and social media gives us endless methods for publishing them. But in all this talk, we arent listening.
Talking teaches you nothing, and so its no surprise when we learn nothing about each other and find it hard to empathise with those who disagree. Weve stopped listening and therefore stopped learning.
While this all may feel like a homework assignment that you dread, learning to listen is an intensely rewarding experience. The people around you, even strangers, have secrets and hidden talents. If you havent heard them, youve missed out on a lot of fascinating stories and helpful advice.
So, put your mobile down and look at the people around you. Take a chance and ask someone a question, and then really listen to their answer. You might be surprised by the change in your perspective.
We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter by Celeste Headlee is published by Piatkus at 13.99. To order a copy for 11.89, go to guardianbookshop.com