Book Review: We Need to Talk by Celeste Headlee

by | Jul 16, 2019

Any book that promises to help me get better at something important, and that the work will be hard and take time (possibly even a lifetime), is a book for me. I stumbled across We Need to Talk by Celeste Headlee while I was browsing through my library’s e-book app¹, and am I ever glad I did!

Headlee is an accomplished interviewer, and had every reason to believe she was great at having meaningful conversations with all sorts of people. Turns out even a professional radio host has room for improvement. No one should be surprised to find out that I personally have plenty of room for improvement.

The first section of We Need to Talk is a meticulously crafted case that good conversation is vitally important, and that all of us have room – lots of room – to get better. The second section is designed around ten specific strategies Headlee identifies that can improve communication, and she encourages readers to choose one strategy at a time to work at consciously, rather than trying to get better at everything all at once.

Who should read it?

Everyone should read Celeste Headlee’s book, but in particular anyone who – like me – thinks they’re actually a pretty good conversationalist, thank you very much. There’s so much we insufferable know-it-alls can learn if we just get better at listening!

If you only have time to read one chapter:

Definitely read “Some Conversations are Harder Than Others.” This was a chapter that stopped me in my tracks, since it’s about very tough conversations and how worthwhile they can be.

This chapter is also important because in it, Headlee lays out the five key strategies that help facilitate productive dialogue:

  1. Be curious: have a genuine willingness to learn something from someone else without the intention of educating them or proving them wrong.
  2. Check your bias: remember that listening to someone doesn’t mean agreeing with them.
  3. Show respect at all times: focus on the positive intentions of the other person and try to see them as someone trying to accomplish something they believe to be good.
  4. Stick it out: sometimes, just learning what someone else thinks is satisfactory, even if all you do is listen.
  5. End well: Let go of the impulse to have the last word, and express gratitude that the other person shared their thoughts with you.

I’m glad Headlee doesn’t present these as a quick recipe for good conversations, because becoming the kind of person who can follow these strategies consistently is going to mean a lifetime of paying attention.

If you only have time to read one paragraph:

“One of the best lessons I’ve learned in nearly twenty years as a journalist is that everyone has something to teach me. If you can find it within yourself to stop using conversations as a way to convince people that you’re right, you will be stunned at what you’ve been missing. A flood of information will rushi in to fill the vacancy left behind by your ego. You might be overwhelmed with knowledge, perspective, insight, and experience. You’ll hear stories you had refused to hear because you were too busy stating and restating your case. If you enter every conversation assuming you have something to learn, you will never be disappointed.”

(Chapter 8: Get Off the Soapbox)

If you only have time to read one sentence:

“As they say, the mouth shuts, the ears don’t, and there’s a good reason for that.”

(Chapter 7: It’s Not The Same!)

¹ This is also the reason I don’t have page numbers for you!

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