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Book Summary: We Need to Talk – How to Have Conversations That Matter

In a world filled with emails, texts, tweets, and posts, it’s easy to forget that face-to-face conversations are even an option. “We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations that Matter” is a great reminder that talking and listening to each other can create personal connections and even solve problems. In this book summary, you’ll learn how to do just that.

Master the skills for focused and productive conversations.

We Need to Talk (2017) walks you through the art of good conversation – a vital but often undervalued skill. It shows how effective conversation leads to more meaningful relationships and a greater understanding of other people. The book also offers advice on how to improve your own conversation skills.


  • Want to express yourself more effectively
  • Aren’t a good listener but want to be
  • Care about engaging more fully with friends, colleagues, and family members

Book Summary: We Need to Talk - How to Have Conversations That Matter


Relationships, Communication Skills, Interpersonal Relationships, Social Interactions in Relationships, Language, Psychology, Self Help, Personal Development, Business, Leadership, Adult, Media Studies, Social Skills

Key Ideas

  • Good communication is fundamental to being human, but modern life has set us up with some bad habits.
  • Look for common ground, and you’ll find you can take on even the toughest conversations.
  • Don’t assume you know what other people are going through.
  • You can get people to talk by asking open-ended questions, but the true power lies in listening to what they say.
  • Listening is an active – not a passive – skill.
  • When you’re talking, be sensitive to the listener.
  • Having good conversations is hard work – but getting them right benefits everybody.


Could an airplane disaster or a medical emergency be avoided if the people involved were better able to communicate exactly what they needed to say? In an emergency situation it’s so important to get the conversations exactly right.

Of course, lives don’t hang in the balance every time we talk to each other, but stop and think about how many things in your life might have been different if you had better conversation skills.

In this book summary, you’ll learn how communication skills evolved, understand why an email can’t take the place of an in-person conversation, and how to master the essential skills you need to have conversations that really matter.

Conversation as a Survival Skill

Biologists estimate that we have been constantly talking to each other for more than a million years. Humans are the only species who can verbally share thoughts, feelings, and ideas. Biologists say we use language in a multitude of other ways: to romance our mates, threaten our enemies, tell stories, make contracts, or tell a physician where it hurts. We can also describe what to do and what to avoid.

Conversation gives us an advantage over the rest of the animal kingdom. For example, if a dog doesn’t like you, you know it immediately: He’ll bark and bite and growl. But we humans have the ability to say things that may differ considerably from what we think. Your partner might say “It’s OK that you forgot my birthday,” but is that really what they’re thinking?

Even though we’ve evolved as a species for effective in-person communication, we seem to have forgotten how necessary one-on-one conversation can be. What’s more, the advent of technology makes it easier for us to avoid meaningful conversations in favor of texts, emails, tweets, and internet posts. The internet also makes it easier for us to sequester ourselves with people who share our likes and dislikes and avoid any unpleasant conversations with those who disagree.

Technology can only take us so far. We need face-to-face conversation to solve the problems at home and at work that really matter.

Communication and Conversation Are Not the Same

The difference between chatting by email and talking in person can be dramatic. Empathy is one of the most important qualities anyone can bring to a conversation.

Empathy is one of the ways we form connections with others and create meaningful communication with each other. Carefully composing and editing an email to your boss might give you some control, but think about the pleasure you get from chatting with your daughter about her basketball team’s latest victory or how your spouse triumphed over the leaky faucet in the laundry room. Texts and emails are efficient and painless, but a conversation can bring you an emotional connection with another person.

Remember that a conversation is not a debate and there are no winners and losers. If a person wants to share an emotional experience with you, replying with facts, figures, and statistics is not the way to go. Emotions are an essential part who we all are. To try to remove those emotions from conversation is one way to derail it entirely.

When you’re about to have a serious conversation, stop to think about what your goal is. This is just like the difference between going to the grocery store with a list versus going without one. If you shop with a list of things you want and need, you’ll have a much more successful shopping trip.

Tools to Improve Your Communication Skills

Computers were made to multitask but people were not. Even though you might feel proud when you are able to juggle several tasks at once, multitasking also creates overstimulation and brain fog. So, if you want to have a good conversation, give it your undivided attention.

For example, asking your son or daughter to take out the trash while they are streaming videos and texting with friends is like talking to an empty room. If the person listening and the person speaking aren’t both fully invested in a conversation, the conversation is pointless.

Being invested in conversation means putting down your phone or turning off your laptop and staying focused. If you don’t have the time or energy for a focused talk, gently explain to the other person you don’t have time to listen to what they have to say at the moment. You could say something like, “I’m sorry, but I’m trying to stay focused right now. Let’s talk later?”

How to Comfort Someone

When a friend tells you about something bad that happened to them, your response might be to share something bad that happened to you as well. But this doesn’t always work: The person you’re comforting might think you’re trying to shift the conversation back to yourself. This is called “conversational narcissism.”

There are two ways to respond to conversations instead: a shift response or a support response.

An example of a shift response would be something like:

Tom: I am so tired today.

Betty: Me, too. I’m exhausted.

A support response would go something like this:

Tom: I am so tired today.

Betty: Why? Did you have trouble sleeping?

The shift response turns the focus away from the speaker and back to yourself and is a telltale sign of conversational narcissism. The support response encourages the other person to share their feelings and experiences. By keeping the focus on the speaker instead of turning the attention to yourself, you’re letting them know you are listening to them and you want to hear their story.

But don’t feel too bad if you have the urge to share your story of a bad dining experience when a friend tells you about hers. Humans are programmed to talk about themselves: Sharing experiences is a biological response. Instead, try to ask questions that will encourage the other person to share their thoughts. Listen to what is being said, ask encouraging questions and then share only if you think it will be helpful.

Get Off the Soapbox

There is no belief so strong that you can’t be silent for a moment to listen to another opinion. Your original opinion will still be there when they’re done talking.

The goal of an honest and respectful dialogue is to listen to differing views, not to change them. In fact, there’s research that actually suggests it’s extremely difficult to try to change someone’s mind in the first place.

But don’t feel you have to avoid a conversation just because you are afraid of an argument. Try not to make a heated conversation personal. If you believe the other person is wrong on the issues, dispute those issues. Do not attack the person personally: For an argument to have a positive result, it has to be more than just a chance to complain.

Be ready to admit if you were wrong if there is some merit in the other person’s position. Productive conversations aren’t always about being the winner or being right. It’s about finding common ground and moving forward.

Keep It Short

The average length of a radio interview on NPR is only about five minutes, despite the amount of information contained. And that’s probably a good thing, since a report from the University of Michigan found the average attention span had dropped between 2004 when it was about three minutes to 2014 when it had dropped to about 59.5 seconds!

This information makes a compelling case for editing yourself and your conversational style to suit an audience that’s prepared to give you only a few minutes — or seconds! — of their time. This is particularly essential when it comes to workplace conversations.

During work meetings, for example, have a list of topics and go through them as concisely as you can without embellishment or going off on tangents. Making the effort to be brief means staffers are more likely to be on time and more engaged during meetings. They’ll also be more likely to remember the details of what was discussed. Although not every meeting has to be lightning quick, a conversation has to be like playing catch: Both parties must want to participate.

No Repeats

Repetition can be very effective in oral communication. Think about the “I Have a Dream” speech or popular TV catchphrases like “winter is coming.”

But too much repetition in everyday conversation is not a good thing. Repeating the same phrase or comment over and over again is not interesting and does nothing to advance the conversation. It’s like walking in place: You won’t get anywhere. Repeating a deadline to your staff multiple times, say, will have no more impact than if you only said it once.

Listeners don’t always confirm that they’ve heard important information, but that doesn’t mean you have to repeat the information. If you’re not getting the response you want from a spouse or family member when you ask them to unload the dishwasher or walk the dogs, ask yourself why. Have they failed to follow through in the past? Are they too distracted by TV or video games to have a conversation with you?

Repeating yourself can also be a type of conversational narcissism. If you can learn to break the habit of repetition, your audience will be more appreciative and perhaps more responsive.

That’s a Great Question

You may be familiar with the five questions all reporters strive to answer in their stories: who, what, when, where, and why. If you ask someone “Were you scared,” they are likely to respond with a yes or a no, which isn’t very helpful to someone hoping to gather information. A better way to ask the question might be, “What were you feeling the minute after the earthquake hit?” A question like that will elicit a more detailed response.

When you ask questions, you’re showing the speaker that you are listening and are interested in hearing about their experiences. Taking time to think of relevant questions can spark a genuine and interesting conversation. Once you’ve asked a good question, give the other person time to think of an answer. Don’t be afraid of silence.

You Can’t Know Everything

Conversations, like relationships are built on trust. Your words and your opinions will carry more weight if you can admit what you don’t know. It’s important to get comfortable saying you don’t have all the answers.

Saying “I don’t know” when you aren’t sure of something has two main benefits:

  1. It establishes you as honest and trustworthy.
  2. You admit your own fallibility.

Sharing with someone that you don’t know something, aren’t sure of something, or even that you made a mistake might feel a bit like admitting weakness, but what you’re actually doing is creating a connection based on honesty and empathy.

It’s better to admit you haven’t seen the latest blockbuster movie than to offer a false opinion that’s not yours. Honesty in conversation builds the trust that forms the basis of a good relationship.


There’s a difference between hearing and listening. And it’s hard to actively listen — to not just hear but to understand, answer, and respond to what’s been said. Being a bad listener isn’t a character flaw; after all, we’re wired to talk more than listen.

To be a better listener, try to break the habit of waiting for someone to finish talking so that you can talk. Instead, think about what they are trying to say. Then, instead of talking about yourself, ask questions about what you just heard. Is the news good or bad? What does it mean for the speaker? If they seem to be hinting at something, what is it?

Learning to be a good listener won’t come overnight. It takes practice. You can become a better listener by actively taking the time to teach yourself how to listen.

Sometimes We Shouldn’t Talk

It’s probably no surprise that even a book about talking should end with knowing when it’s best not to say anything at all. A time when it’s better not to talk might be if you’re not able to fully commit to a difficult or emotional conversation. Stepping back by saying, “I’m so sorry you’re in this situation and I wish I had time to talk to you more about it, but I’ve got a lot of deadlines today.” Being honest about your ability to participate fully in the conversation is better than pretending to listen or only listening with half an ear.

A good conversation requires energy and focus. Be considerate of the speaker and if you can’t be fully present, be polite, but be honest, and step away from the conversation.

Sometimes, for your own mental and emotional health, it’s important to have some quiet time at lunch or on the commute home to just decompress. That way you can be fully present to engage with friends and family when you get home.

But when you do have a conversation — even if you just have one meaningful conversation a day — it should be one where you are an active participant as well as an active and empathetic listener. Those are the conversations that will give you a better insight the people and the world around you.


It’s not hard to be a good conversationalist. It’s important to focus on the conversation at hand and to actively listen to what the other person is saying. Put down the cell phone, engage thoroughly, and enjoy sharing learning something new from someone else.

By tweaking how you approach conversations, you’ll be able to make greater connections and strengthen relationships.

About Celeste Headlee

Celeste Headlee began her journalism career in 1999 and has worked as a reporter, producer, and host in public radio on the local, national, and international level. In 2015, she delivered a TED talk for on how to have better conversations that has received millions of online views.

Celeste Headlee, host of the Georgia Public Broadcasting news show On Second Thought, has been a host on NPR and has appeared on CNN, PBS and the BBC.

Celeste Headlee is a journalist and broadcaster who hosts the daily news show On Second Thought on Georgia Public Broadcasting. She’s spent more than ten years with NPR, and is also a classically trained singer. Her second book, Do Nothing, is about how to enjoy your leisure time.

CELESTE HEADLEE is an award-winning journalist, professional speaker and the author of We Need To Talk: How To Have Conversations That Matter, and Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving. An expert in conversation, human nature, reclaiming our common humanity and finding well-being, Celeste frequently provides insight on what is good for all humans and what is bad for us, focusing on the best research in neuro and social science to increase understanding of how we relate with one another and can work together in beneficial ways in our workplaces, neighborhoods, communities and homes. She is a regular guest host on NPR and American Public Media and a highly sought consultant, advising companies around the world on conversations about race, diversity and inclusion. Her TEDx Talk sharing 10 ways to have a better conversation has over 23 million total views, and she serves as an advisory board member for and The Listen First Project. Celeste is the recipient of the 2019 Media Changemaker Award. She is the proud granddaughter of composer William Grant Still, the Dean of African American Composers.

Table of Contents

Introduction ix

Part I
1 Conversation is a Survival Skill 3
2 Communication and Conversation are not the Same 19
3 You Can’t Outsmart a Bad Conversation 31
4 Set the Stage 49
5 Some Conversations are Harder than Others 59

Part II
6 Be There or go Elsewhere 89
7 It’s Not the Same! 103
8 Get Off the Soapbox 121
9 Keep It Short 139
10 No Repeats 149
11 That’s a Great Question 161
12 You Can’t Know Everything 169
13 Stay Out of the Weeds 179
14 Travel Together 191
15 Listen! 205
16 Sometimes we Shouldn’t Talk 223

Conclusion 229
Acknowledgments 235
Notes 237



In this urgent and insightful book, public radio journalist Celeste Headlee shows us how to bridge what divides us–by having real conversations

NPR’s Best Books of 2017

Winner of the 2017 Silver Nautilus Award in Relationships & Communication

“We Need to Talk is an important read for a conversationally-challenged, disconnected age. Headlee is a talented, honest storyteller, and her advice has helped me become a better spouse, friend, and mother.” (Jessica Lahey, author of New York Times bestseller The Gift of Failure)

Today most of us communicate from behind electronic screens, and studies show that Americans feel less connected and more divided than ever before. The blame for some of this disconnect can be attributed to our political landscape, but the erosion of our conversational skills as a society lies with us as individuals.

And the only way forward, says Headlee, is to start talking to each other. In We Need to Talk, she outlines the strategies that have made her a better conversationalist—and offers simple tools that can improve anyone’s communication. For example:

  • BE THERE OR GO ELSEWHERE. Human beings are incapable of multitasking, and this is especially true of tasks that involve language. Think you can type up a few emails while on a business call, or hold a conversation with your child while texting your spouse? Think again.
  • CHECK YOUR BIAS. The belief that your intelligence protects you from erroneous assumptions can end up making you more vulnerable to them. We all have blind spots that affect the way we view others. Check your bias before you judge someone else.
  • HIDE YOUR PHONE. Don’t just put down your phone, put it away. New research suggests that the mere presence of a cell phone can negatively impact the quality of a conversation.

Whether you’re struggling to communicate with your kid’s teacher at school, an employee at work, or the people you love the most—Headlee offers smart strategies that can help us all have conversations that matter.


“Civil discourse is one of humanity’s founding institutions and it faces an existential threat: We, the people, need to talk about how we talk to one another. Celeste Headlee shows us how.” — Ron Fournier, New York Times bestselling author of Love That Boy and Publisher of Crain’s Detroit

“We Need To Talk is an important read for a conversationally-challenged, disconnected age. Headlee is a talented, honest storyteller, and her advice has helped me become a better spouse, friend, and mother.” — Jessica Lahey, author of New York Times bestseller The Gift of Failure

“This powerful debut offers 10 strategies for improving conversational skills. Tidbits from sociological studies and anecdotes from history, including from civil rights activist Xernona Clayton’s groundbreaking conversations with KKK leader Calvin Craig, round out a book that takes its own advice and has much to communicate.” — Publishers Weekly

“In the course of her career, Headlee has interviewed thousands of people from all walks of life and learned that sparking a great conversation is really a matter of a few simple habits that anyone can learn.” — Jessica Stillman, Inc.

“This book is necessary…Headlee’s treatise on creating space for valuable mutual reciprocity is one that should become a handbook in any school, business or even a doctor’s office where the everyday person visits.” — George Elerick, Buzzfeed

“A well-researched and careful analysis of how and why we talk with one another—our strengths and (myriad) weaknesses…A thoughtful discussion and sometimes-passionate plea for civility and consideration in conversation.” — Kirkus Reviews

“Refreshingly honest….In the era of the lost art of conversation, Headlee helps us find our voice.” — Henry Bass, Essence

“The perfect pre-Thanksgiving read to head off family squabbles and turn the holiday meal into a feast of ideas instead of a political fracas.” — Karin Gillespie, Augusta Karin Gillespie, Augusta Chronicle

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