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The art of listening - and why it's not all about you

Going with the flow, letting it go and staying out of the weeds

I had dinner with a friend a few weeks ago.

We’d both forgotten it was Valentine’s Day, as it figures on neither of our radars. So we were were surrounded by couples gazing adoringly at each other, and our candlelit table was strewn with rose petals.

The waiter obviously thought we were together, and greeted us with a knowing smile. Amused by his mistake, we decided not to burst his bubble.

As we ate and chatted, I realised that ours was one of the few tables where there wasn’t an uninvited guest. For all around us, as far as the eye could see (and the restaurant was long, narrow and packed) were couples one or both of whose faces were illuminated by the glow of not just a candle, but a smartphone. 

Now my friend and I both have phones – in fact we’d arranged to meet via WhatsApp, as phone calls are so yesterday – but we never have them on the table when we meet up. Instead, they’re tucked away safely in our pockets, out of sight and out of mind.

And that makes a big difference, as we’re not distracted when we talk. We’re both present in the moment (three years on, I’m still on the mindfulness kick) and we have better conversations because of it.

But it’s not just that we have no distractions. He’s one of the few people I know who actually gets how a conversation works: the give and take, the listening and talking, the to and fro.

And that’s perhaps no surprise, given that he worked for years as a broadcast journalist, getting people to open up and tell their story.

Which leads me nicely to Celeste Headlee, whose talk on TED has already racked up almost 7 million views. 

You can see why. 10 ways to have a better conversation is amusing, waffle-free and highly practical.

The veteran radio host says you should forget everything you’ve been told about how to talk and listen (“It’s crap!” she says bluntly, to an amused audience). Instead, she gives her top tips based on decades of experience.

You’ll find out what Buddha said about having your mouth open, why it’s a bad idea to pontificate, and how conversations are like a mini-skirt. 

For anybody involved in communication, this talk is a must. Whether you’re in conversation with a client, a case-study interviewee, your marketing agency or a prospect – or even a friend over a table of rose petals – you can use these simple techniques to great effect.

At a fraction under 12 minutes, it’s a presentation that walks the talk, obeying the last of the 10 rules: be brief.

I hope you enjoy it.

[If you’re reading this in an email, click here to see the talk on TED.com]