Last year, I was lucky enough to hear Celeste Headlee advocating for better conversations.

What I like most about her work is that it’s actionable and backed by science. Powerful conversations can make or break your leadership. So a few tips to upgrade your conversation skills are never a luxury!

What I’m sharing here are insights from her keynote, her book “We need to talk”, and her TED Talk “10 Ways to have a better conversation”. Any great piece of advice you’ll find in there is hers.

Here’s how to upgrade your conversation skills (and it will take no more than 5 minutes!).


Do not multitask


Conversation tip: Do not multitask (section header image)


If you claim you multitask, in reality you quickly switch from one task to another. And the price you pay for the illusion of productivity is to have your thinking clouded by the excess of information.

To upgrade your conversation skills, start with being present (full attention, eye contact and non-verbal cues). Help your brain record the information so that you can actually get something out of those words.


Never lecture people


Conversation tip: Do not lecture others (section header image)


Because the brain sees it as an attack (like unsolicited advice, by the way).

Park your bias, opinions, filters, beliefs… Open the mind to be flooded with NEW information. Things you didn’t know and can learn from.

Related: How To Expand Your Leadership Boundaries: Learn To Respond

When you find yourself jumping on what others tell you, you rob them of their opinion. But what if you could upgrade your conversation skills by giving the benefit of the doubt? What if the new information could trigger constructive feedback?


Ready to step into your leadership potential? Download my FREE e-book to discover 3 practical steps to communicate for impact and lead through trust.


Ask open-ended questions


Conversation tip: Ask open-ended questions (section header image)


That is a genius tip Celeste Headlee learned as a journalist.

Open-ended questions can’t be answered by yes or no. They upgrade the conversation by giving a deeper focus. They show you care and get both participants curious about one another.

Start your questions with what, where, how, when, who.

(She adds why, but I’m not a big fan of that one. Why is often misinterpreted: people feel they need to justify, which implies you didn’t believe them in the first place. Not so good for trust, in my opinion.)


Do not equate your own experience with other people


Conversation tip: Avoid conversational narcissism (section header image)


No, it’s not empathy. It’s conversation narcissism.

There’s a full chapter on this in the book, but if you want to know what conversation narcissism is, think of a time (today) where your answer started with “me too”.

Think you reciprocate (which is important for any conversation)? In fact, you’re letting your brain scan your memory to check if your experience matches the one you just heard…and turn the communication back towards yourself.

Tap into your inner leader and empathise instead. And upgrade the conversation using any opportunity to throw open ended questions!


Go with the flow of the conversation


Conversation tip: Go with the flow of the conversation (section header image)


Let go of the info-stream in your brain. Use a true response, which is to wait until your interlocutor is done. Anything else is…reaction.

Cultivating self-mastery is essential to upgrade your conversation skills. A conversation is a little like a meditation; you need to learn not to pay attention to all distractions in your mind. But a truly great conversation can move your both minds forward!

So why waste time on making a point to control the exchange?


Say “I don’t know”


Conversation tip: Say "I don't know" (section header image)


We build relationships on conversations. Acknowledging there is something you don’t know shows you can be vulnerable and trusted.

Now, think of the opposite. When you pretend you know, you could be lying or taking advantage of the trust others put in you!

In “I don’t know”, there is an invitation to exchange. You upgrade the conversation by asking your interlocutors to pass on their knowledge to you.

Related: How to build positive relations get a strong reputation


Use detail only when asked


Conversation tip: Stay out of the weeds (section header image)


We all know someone who won’t stop talking. A candid question about the weekend ends up with a full account of their family reunion. Know what I mean?

Yes, we all love to talk about ourselves. But look at research done by psychiatrist, Mark Goulston. People enjoy listening to you for the first 20 seconds, get agitated for the next 20 and then lose interest.

A great thing Celeste does is to encourage you to reflect on why you need to talk that much. What space are you filling?

Learn to upgrade your conversation skills by communicating essential and necessary information. Curiosity is an asset for any leader. Wait for others to ask for details.


Do not repeat yourself


Conversation tip: Do not repeat yourself (section header image)


Otherwise people will stop listening to you (and this, from the first occurrence).

We learn at school that repetition is the sure way to get something into your head. But the thing is…it works because you’re the one repeating the info. The benefit isn’t shared if you repeat to someone else!

If repetition makes you feel you’re in control because there are things you know so well, it will be the exact opposite for your listener; their brain will spot known information and start to wander.

Drop control and trust their intelligence. If they missed the point, they’ll let you know.



Researchers at Harvard evidenced that talking about yourself activates the pleasure centres in the brain. The same exact areas that respond to sex, cocaine and sugar.

So yes, maybe it feels good for your ego to narrate your best stories, but not everyone will share the feeling!

It’s a hard job to upgrade your conversation skills until you can listen fully. On your journey, never forget that silence is not a bad thing. Be at peace with those moments where both need a few seconds to reflect and get a clear mind. After all, as French composer Debussy says it wisely, “music is the silence between the notes”.

What is your top tip to make a conversation meaningful? Share in the comments below!

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