In the opening scene of A Streetcar Named Desire, a play that I had the joy of teaching for many years at a former school, the character Blanche DuBois reunites with her sister, Stella, and immediately begins to dominate their conversation. After several minutes of speaking 3.5 words for every one of Stella’s (yes, I counted), Blanche says, “I’d forgotten how quiet you were.” Stella replies, “You never did give me a chance to say much, Blanche. So I just got in the habit of being quiet around you.”
The radio host Celeste Headlee in a TED Talk called 10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation begins by asking her audience, “How many of you know at least one person that you avoid because you just don’t want to talk to them?” Almost every audience member raises a hand. She then observes, “It used to be that in order to have a polite conversation, we just had to stick to the weather and our health. But these days, with climate change and anti-vaxxing, those subjects are not safe either.” Respectful dialogue, in other words, has always mattered, and it would seem to matter more today than ever. “Is there any twenty-first century skill more important,” she asks, “than being able to sustain coherent, confident conversation?”
Here are ten ways to have a better conversation according to Celeste Headlee:
- Don’t multitask. Be present.
- Don’t pontificate. “True listening requires a setting aside of one’s self.” – Scott Peck
- Use open-ended questions. Who, what, when, where, why.
- Go with the flow. Stories and ideas are going to come to you in conversation. You need to let them come and let them go.
- If you don’t know, say that you don’t know.
- Don’t equate your experience with the other person’s. All experiences are individual. It is not about you. Conversations are not a promotional opportunity.
- Don’t repeat yourself.
- Stay out of the weeds. Forget the details. The other person doesn’t care about them. They care about you.
- Listen. It takes effort and energy to pay attention to someone, but if you’re not doing that, you’re not in a conversation. Listen with the intent to understand, not with the intent to reply.
- Be brief.
Just as I will be using my Weekly News letters this year to share music with you, I will also use them to share ideas for how we might connect more meaningfully both within and beyond our MICDS community. At least through early November, I will be calling it “How to Prepare for the Election Without Thinking About the Election.”
So how am I going to prepare for the election this week without thinking about the election? I am going to try to be more like Stella and less like Blanche. I am going to try to follow Celeste Headlee’s ten ways to have a better conversation. And maybe I will listen to Go Crazy by G. Love & Special Sauce with Keb’ Mo’, which is this week’s “Refrain for Rams” (Apple Music / Spotify). Its lyrics offer a good reminder to let up on ourselves, and I’m guessing some of our younger Rams will want to dance to it, too.
Always reason, always compassion, always courage. I wish you a happy Labor Day weekend with your families.
Head of School