Since childhood, they taught us how many rivers our country has, how to solve for that dang X in equations or how to conjugate verb tenses like mad. But our teachers forgot to teach us something crucial for our daily lives.
They never taught us to speak in order to understand others. Nor listen in order to learn.
Being a good conversationalist is key for anybody’s development, wherever you may be from and whatever your purpose in life may be. After all, it’s the primary way we understand other human beings.
If you want to improve your abilities as a conversationalist, I’ve chosen seven great TED talks (a non-profit organization whose mission is to highlight ideas worthy of being spread), which will help you enjoy your next conversations with anybody (family, friends and even strangers).
Some talks focus specifically on helping you have better conversations. Other talks address non-dialectical elements that still affect conversation such as our prejudices or body language.
All TED talks are in English with available subtitles. If subtitles don’t appear by default, go to the wheel icon (“Settings”) and then search for your language in “Subtitles.” I hope you enjoy them!
1. 10 ways to have a better conversation
Celeste Headlee, radio commentator at Georgia Public Broadcasting and a soprano, not only makes good on the title of her talk but also reflects on the current lack of communication that prevails in our society; “Is there any 21st-century skill more important than being able to sustain coherent, confident conversation?” asks Headlee in her introduction.
One of the details I love about this talk is seeing how Headlee becomes increasingly more passionate and concerned about the art of knowing how to talk and listen (check out her expression starting at rule number 6!). Headlee lets out a few jokes here and there to liven up her talk, but she doesn’t stop taking the topic seriously. Very seriously.
At the end of the talk, I couldn’t help but wonder if I hear only 25% of a conversation I have with somebody. Will Headlee encourage your self-reflection too?
2. How to speak so that people want to listen
Julian Treasure is a quirky character that I can only describe as a sound optimizer. His books, his talks, his consulting firm The Sound Agency… everything he creates is aimed at helping others create effective, suitable and organic sounds. You’ll understand it all once you see him, and hear him!, in action.
Treasure’s talk is divided into four parts. In the first, Treasure sums up the seven sins of a conversation (gossiping, judging, dogmatizing…). Afterwards, he presents the four pillars of a good conversation (honesty, authenticity, integrity and love). Then comes a series of useful tools for increasing your chances of being heard such as considering timbre, register or the use of powerful silence. The closing is a quick review of the six warm-up exercises that Treasure himself does before giving a talk.
3. 5 ways to listen better
In all the sources and resources for learning to talk better, I always find the same tip: “learn to cultivate active listening.” And it’s great advice, I won’t deny it, but these days, how is it done? The sound optimizer Treasure repeats this advice with a talk that gives us the answer.
Of the five methods in this talk for listening better, I’ll highlight three exercises that can be practiced at any time: listening to silence (or listening to quietness if you can’t get silence), differentiating multiple sources in a mix of sounds (how many birds sing by the creek where you rest?) and savoring mundane sounds (Treasure turns the sound of his washing machines into a waltz.)
4. Why you should talk to strangers
The writer and stranger-seeker Kio Stark does not speak directly about conversation abilities in her talk but I recommend watching it because it encourages you to open up to strangers and learn from them. Using very simple techniques such as sincerely complimenting what you like about a stranger, you might establish a fleeting connection that’s more powerful that you think.
5. How to speak up for yourself
“Can I correct my boss when they make a mistake? Can I confront my coworker who keeps stepping on my toes? Can I challenge my friend’s insensitive joke? Can I tell the person I love the most my deepest insecurities?”
Social psychologist Adam Galinsky explains the relationship between being able to give our opinion without it going amiss and the power we hold: the more power, the wider our range for successfully expressing our opinion. Does this mean if we weren’t born powerful, it’s better to stay quiet in certain conversations? Not at all!
In this talk, you’ll be given tools for enhancing your range of expressing ideas. The best part of these tools is that they don’t encourage coercion or manipulation but rather open your point of view and help you learn to empathize. Be flexible, win over allies, put yourself in others’ shoes, show your passion, ask for advice… and you’ll see how increasingly easy it is to give your point of view even in the trickiest conversations.
6. Why you think you’re right — even if you’re wrong
While preparing this article, I’ve encountered a recurring enemy of good conversation: prejudice. We love to cling to our ideas and force them on others without being open to other possibilities. How can we overcome this bad habit?
Julia Galef, writer, speaker and president of the Center for Applied Rationality, tell us that we’re obsessed with thinking like soldiers: “We’ll fight to the death to defend our idea whatever the cost!”
The key is thinking like scouts: “[A scout mindset is] the drive not to make one idea win or another lose, but just to see what’s really there as honestly and accurately as you can, even if it’s not pretty or convenient or pleasant.”
The talk isn’t specifically directed at conversation, as you may have suspected, but it has helped me become more aware of when I’m on the warpath with somebody. I hope it helps you too!
7. Your body language shapes who you are
At first glance, and from just reading the title, it may seem that the talk by social psychologist Amy Cuddy has nothing to do with the qualities of a good conversationalist.
However, don’t we also communicate with gestures or facial expressions?If we want to give our point of view on a topic but body-wise we’re insecure, who will take us seriously?
Now you understand why this talk may be useful for improving your conversations, right?
The talk also may be interesting if you have existential doubts about who we are or if you’re allowed to change even if this change makes you feel like an impostor. The final section of the talk, where Cuddy has an emotional breakdown after revealing her past, offers many answers about these more philosophical and ethical issues.