How To Have A Good Conversation, With A Spouse or a Stranger : Life Kit Having good conversations is an art form. NPR's Sam Sanders tapped longtime radio host and podcaster Celeste Headlee for her tips for really listening and connecting.

Good conversations take time and attention. Here's how to have better ones

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This episode of NPR's LIFE KIT is all about how to have a good conversation. So to begin, I went to a place where good conversation happens, like, all the time.

Good morning. This is so cute.


SANDERS: A hair salon.

MONTOYA: My name is Juliette Montoya. I am co-owner of HeadQuarters Salon here in San Antonio, Texas.

SANDERS: Juliette's salon - it is really hard to overstate just how cute it is.

MONTOYA: So we took a 1968 LeSabre trailer. So it's kind of like Airstream-style. And it's just a single setup, so one chair, one-on-one. We refurbished it, gutted it, and now it's a Aveda salon.

SANDERS: It's so cute. Can I go inside for a little bit?

MONTOYA: Yeah, please do.

SANDERS: Oh, my God. OK.

MONTOYA: (Laughter).

SANDERS: Look at this. It's bigger than it looks from the outside.


SANDERS: Juliette talks to people all day about all kinds of things. And over the years, she's gotten really good at deciphering all kinds of conversations.

MONTOYA: I've had people, you know, try to describe a haircut in, like, sound effects.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

MONTOYA: And I'm like, OK.

SANDERS: Wait; what kind of sound effects?

MONTOYA: Like, they'll say something to the effect of, I want it to be like woosh. I'm like, can we look at a picture?


SANDERS: Juliette has a lot of tips about just how to talk to folks. I mean, some of these tips might seem kind of specific to her work, but they're really not.

MONTOYA: Kind of get down on their level. So instead of talking to somebody through a mirror or behind them, sit face-to-face, make eye contact and don't go right in for the touch...

SANDERS: Oh, OK (laughter).

MONTOYA: ...Which is interesting.


MONTOYA: So give that a minute to just, you know, get to know each other and kind of vibe off of each other's energy.


SANDERS: Make eye contact, respect physical boundaries - good conversation advice for anyone. And maybe the biggest tip Juliette gave me while I was sitting in her salon chair - it was about how to leave a conversation and move on to something else if you see yourself hitting a dead end.

How do you change the subject?

MONTOYA: Ask about their hair.


MONTOYA: What do you think about this, you know?

SANDERS: (Laughter) Yeah.

My name is Sam Sanders. I usually host another show, It's Been A Minute from NPR. But I'm here at LIFE KIT right now to share an entire episode full of tips like Juliette's, tips on how to just, well, talk to people - coworkers or family or friends or even strangers - and how to gracefully talk with them about anything, even politics.


SANDERS: We'll hear a bit more from Juliette at the end of this episode. But we're going to spend the bulk of our time getting some conversation pointers from someone who has thought about the art of talking for a very, very long time.

CELESTE HEADLEE: The reason I know so much about conversation is because I was a terrible conversationalist as a young person. This all started out as a journey to make myself better. So, you know, we're all works in progress. It's a skill that you constantly practice.

SANDERS: Celeste Headlee is a radio host and a journalist and a professional speaker. She thinks about talking a lot, so much so that she gave a TED Talk a few years ago all about how to talk to people.


HEADLEE: You know, it used to be that in order to have a polite conversation we just had to follow the advice of Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady" - stick to the weather and your health. But these days, with climate change and anti-vaxxing, those subjects...


HEADLEE: ...Are not safe either.

SANDERS: I called Celeste recently and asked her a lot of questions about good conversation. My first question for her was if she thinks we've all gotten better or worse since she first gave that TED Talk five years ago.


SANDERS: OK. OK (laughter).

HEADLEE: Yeah, it's gotten worse (laughter). And I think that the specific thing that has gotten worse is, when we do have the opportunity in a conversation to speak with either a stranger or someone who disagrees, we see that conversation as a chance to prove our point or convince somebody. And that's not a conversation. That's like a debate. That's about you talking. And so, yeah, I think it's gotten worse.

SANDERS: Yeah. Well, I mean, my personal take is that the entire nature of social media primes us to see conversation just as debate. You know, in a space like Twitter, the type of conversation that is rewarded with retweets and shares and likes is a convo that is the most combative. And so we're trained now to think that that's how we should do it all the time.

HEADLEE: Yeah, but, you know, the interesting part of this is that neither our bodies nor our neurology recognize social media as conversation.


HEADLEE: A lot of people think of social media as being a way for them to make social connections. But we can watch the brain when it's having an authentic social interaction, when you're actually speaking to someone either on the phone or in-person, and we know which parts of the brain are activated. We know what happens in the body. We know which hormones are secreted. And that doesn't happen when you're conversing - you can't see me, but I'm using air quotes - on social media. That's not a conversation.

SANDERS: These spaces can't be conversation, unfortunately.

HEADLEE: They can't. And that's a big part of what's making it worse. All of us, every single one of us has a limited amount of social energy every day.


HEADLEE: We're expending it on social media, which gives us nothing in return and is not actual social interaction.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Yeah.

HEADLEE: And then you get home and you - you know, if you do actually have somebody in your house - family or whatever - you've expended all your social energy, right? They want to have a conversation. You're like, I'm too tired for this.

SANDERS: 'Cause I've been arguing with a stranger whose profile photo was a cat.

HEADLEE: Exactly (laughter).

SANDERS: Every day we do this. Anyways (laughter), before we get into how to make conversation work in this godforsaken year, let's unpack the major points that you make in your TED Talk. Let me have them.

HEADLEE: The first one is to be present.


HEADLEE: And I think a lot of times, people think that what I mean is not to look at your email or your texting. But being present involves actually giving someone your focus, even your mental focus - right? - so not letting them jabber on and on like one of the teachers in "Charlie Brown" while you think about what you're going to do later, but really focusing on what they're doing.

The next thing is to let the conversation go. In other words, go with the flow of the conversation. And you can kind of think of it like a river. We dam it up all the time by stopping listening in order to think about what it is that we're going to say next. And so this one's actually quite hard. And it's that as those thoughts come into your brain, you need to let them go out of your brain and then return back to the conversation.


HEADLEE: Another one is don't pontificate, which is kind of an old-fashioned word for stop lecturing people.

SANDERS: Say that one again, like, five times for everybody.


HEADLEE: I mean, I know it makes you feel good, but it only makes you feel good for a very short span of time. In other words, it's activating your dopamine, which is your addiction hormone, which is a very, very short-lived high, right?

So the other thing is that it does not make the other person feel good at all, and it's accomplishing nothing.


HEADLEE: Another one is to use open-ended questions. And you know this one pretty well.

SANDERS: Yeah. For those that don't know the difference, a closed question would be, are you sitting down? But an open-ended question would be - on that same theme, Celeste, give me something.

HEADLEE: What kind of chair do you like to sit in?


SANDERS: There you go. Look at this pro. Look at this pro. OK, keep going.

HEADLEE: OK, so the next one on the list is, if you don't know something, say that you don't know it.

SANDERS: No one does that anymore.

HEADLEE: I know. I wish they did.

Another one is to stay out of the weeds.


HEADLEE: And it comes up a lot when you're talking to, like, an academic or a scientist. It means they're giving us too many details. You get lost in them trying to remember a date or somebody's name or the exact movie you were watching, and nobody cares about that.

Another one is to try not to repeat yourself. And people repeat themselves oftentimes because they think they're drilling information into somebody's head. But again, that's not how that works.

The next one is to be brief. Keep it short. People's attention spans are short, and they're getting shorter. In fact, you know, Microsoft has been doing studies on the attention span for a very long time, and they found that, at least on the Internet, the human attention span is now shorter than that of a goldfish.

SANDERS: Oh, Lord. Yeah.

HEADLEE: The very last one is to listen. And you could kind of say that all of the other nine steps are really about how to listen better. But it needs its own step, and that's partly because we rarely do it. But more importantly, it's because it's hard for our species. We've been studying listening for well over half a century, pre-smartphone, pre- all of the things, and we know that we struggle to listen as a species. Immediately after listening to someone give a 10-minute talk, we only recall 50% of what they said, and that percentage starts to go down almost immediately.

So listening is hard, and it's going to require energy and focus. And so of all of the steps, that's going to be the hardest. But if you're not doing it, then you're not having a conversation.

SANDERS: You know, you kind of mentioned this earlier, that you don't really believe that technology is making this stuff better or worse, but is there any way in which people who specifically live on the Internet most of their time are several times worse at just having a conversation than, like, folks who are never on the Internet?

HEADLEE: Yes. I'll give you just one example.


HEADLEE: They did a study in the U.K. in which they had strangers come in and just have, like, a 10-minute conversation sitting at a table. And in half of those situations, the researchers went in and just placed a cellphone on the table, visible. It belonged to neither person. It never made any noise. But the people who had a short conversation when the cellphone was present came out later and reported that the other person was unlikable, untrustworthy and unempathetic.

SANDERS: Ooh, wow.

HEADLEE: Yeah. So even the sight of that cellphone has an impact on your brain. So, yeah, if you want to have a good conversation, you don't need to set your cellphone down. You need to put it away. And you need to turn away from your computer screen so it's just not in your line of sight.

SANDERS: Say it again for those in the back. Good advice (laughter).

A really weird thing about conversation in this moment is that we're having to do it in an era of social distancing. So all of a sudden, a lot of us are having to have conversations with friends and loved ones and coworkers and even strangers in ways that we perhaps wouldn't have before the pandemic - Zoom calls, FaceTime, et cetera. Are there any tips on dealing with the way that remote communication in this year has just changed the rules of the game?

HEADLEE: So I'd say, No. 1, if you don't want to be on video, do not be on video. Zoom can be exhausting.


HEADLEE: It's also super intrusive. The one thing that we know is very quite healing for you and you take a lot of benefit from it in terms of you get positive mood boosts from hormones is exactly what you and I are doing right now, which is, like, talking on a phone.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

HEADLEE: It's very - it's really good for you. And in fact, they've shown that if you have just a 10-minute chat with somebody, you actually perform better on cognitive tests after you've had that 10-minute chat. It speeds up your brain. It's like speed for your mind. So if you are talking remotely, try to use the phone as much as possible.

SANDERS: Yes. Phone calls are so nice.

HEADLEE: They are.

SANDERS: Like, I've been having a lot more longer phone calls with people, and it's just - I feel like after the phone call is done, my shoulders have relaxed. It is just good for me. There's also this challenge, though, in doing the phone call. You cannot get into the multitasking conundrum. Just because you are on the phone and no one sees you, don't use that as a chance to...


SANDERS: ...Break the other rule of distraction, you know?

HEADLEE: Right. You know, it's funny 'cause when we're doing interviews for the radio, I think you learned really quickly not to do that because if you do get distracted and your guest stops talking...

SANDERS: Everybody knows what happened. They're like, oh, the host was distracted.

HEADLEE: Exactly (laughter).

SANDERS: Everybody knows.

HEADLEE: Yup, exactly. So I think - I feel like that's a lesson you learn early on as an interviewer.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah, yeah. I want to ask you some, like, technical questions.


SANDERS: If you want to break in and ask a question to someone who was just kind of rambling, how do you do it without offending them and seeming like an interrupter?

HEADLEE: If it's coming out of curiosity and you're demonstrating that you've been listening, they usually take it as a compliment. So in other words, if someone is rambling on and on and you go, hey, I hate to interrupt you, but let me go back to what you said before, you can make them feel good about it.

SANDERS: I care about what you're saying.

HEADLEE: Exactly.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. What is your take on small talk as a way to big talk? I happen to believe in small talk. I love talking about the weather and parking and whatever with strangers, with interview subjects 'cause that's a way to break the ice and then move on to bigger things. But do you use small talk as a tool to get to the big stuff? And if so, how can listeners do that?

HEADLEE: Sometimes.


HEADLEE: You know, you can do anything in small talk. Like, a lot of times, I will use it as a way to let someone else tell their story. You know, a study out of Harvard showed that talking about yourself activates the same pleasure center in the brain as sex and heroin. It is inherently pleasurable to talk about yourself. So I'll use small talk as a way to let people do that. I'll ask them for the story behind their tattoos or whatever it is that they're wearing - 'cause there's always intention behind what someone chose to wear - or their haircut or where they came from.

You know, people have an outsized fear of knowing how to start a conversation. One thing that always gets people talking is people will ask me how I am, and I say, I'm pandemic OK, because...

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

HEADLEE: ...OK in 2020 is a very different thing than OK in 2019. And that starts a conversation going.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. What should listeners do when they encounter what they see as an awkward silence in a conversation?

HEADLEE: There's a couple things you can do. No. 1 is let it breathe.


HEADLEE: Silence is a wonderful thing. You would be surprised, if you let silence go, what people will end up filling that silence with (laughter).

SANDERS: Oh, yeah, because they feel an obligation to fill it.

HEADLEE: Right. The other thing you can do is also acknowledge it. Say...


HEADLEE: Sometimes I'll be like...

SANDERS: That was awkward.

HEADLEE: Yeah. I don't ever know what to say in these awkward silences. I end up making dumb jokes. So, you know, pardon me, but here's a dumb joke. You can't pretend like it's not happening.

SANDERS: Yeah, it is happening. Well, and this also gets to what is a thing I think about a lot, how our preconceived notions of what a good conversation sounds like is often not at all what a good conversation sounds like. I think we've been trained over the years to think that, like, if it's not Aaron Sorkin-esque, "West Wing"-style, quippy, quick dialogue, we aren't having a good conversation. That's not true. Sometimes the best conversations are full of pregnant pauses and ums and uhs and you talking over them and vice versa. It doesn't have to sound perfect. It's not supposed to sound perfect. Just be intentional, listen and try to be nice.

HEADLEE: Yeah, that's pretty much it. I guess I could've shortened my steps down to three.

SANDERS: No, I like your tips better.

HEADLEE: (Laughter).


SANDERS: Thanks again to Celeste Headlee. Before we close out the episode, I want to go back to that hair salon in that tiny LeSabre trailer because Juliette Montoya has one more tip on how to talk to people.

MONTOYA: I mean, I am a sucker for somebody who can make me laugh.


MONTOYA: If you can find, you know, humor in things, I think you can bridge a lot of gaps.

SANDERS: So on that note, give me a joke, and I'll leave you alone.

MONTOYA: Oh, my gosh. Are you kidding?

SANDERS: (Laughter) It's OK if you don't have one.

She had to think for a while. But then Juliette remembered a joke that she likes.

MONTOYA: It's about, like, a hippie being stuck out in the ocean.

SANDERS: Well, part of the joke. After I left her salon, Juliette texted me. She had finally remembered that joke. Here it is. Get ready. Drumroll, please.

Why didn't the lifeguard save the hippie? He was too far out, man.

Get it? Far out, man. Far out, man. Get it?


SANDERS: All right, listeners, for more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. If you go back in this feed, you can find one from me. I had a whole episode about how to get the most out of your weekend. You can find all that and more at And if you love LIFE KIT, subscribe to the LIFE KIT newsletter. That's at If you have a good tip for us, leave a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or send a voice memo to

This episode of LIFE KIT was produced by Sylvie Douglis. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our digital editors are Beck Harlan and Clare Lombardo, and our editorial assistant is Clare Schneider. I'm Sam Sanders. Keep talking to one another, and thank you for listening.

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