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We Need To Talk [Book Review]

Last Updated on 25 August 2023

We Need To Talk

We Need To Talk is a bit of a misnomer because what the book is trying to say is that “we need to listen” (in fact, the author seems to advocate that we should talk less). This is a valid point, except that the author contradicts herself on several occasions while trying to justify the need to listen.

For example, she insists that we should listen to differing viewpoints, no matter what they are, otherwise we would be hypocritical. But, she said later in the book that “you shouldn't waste your time trying to disabuse someone of what you think is an incorrect opinion”. While I readily agree that we should listen more often, life is too short to tolerate crap the way she seems to suggest, at least for the better part of the book.

She also doesn't seem to practice what she preached. An example is the need to avoid inserting oneself into every narrative. At one point, she writes:

“Isay's words resonate with me because he admits that he's not a great listener but recognizes the power of listening and is actively working to be better.”

And then she immediately goes on:

“I feel much the same way. I'm not the best listener, either, but I know this skill is crucial to every relationship I have, and I am on a mission to improve.”

It is thus hard to like this book as the author gives advice that she does not follow.

There are references to Sherry Turkle's book, Reclaiming Conversation, which suggests young people wear headphones for the same reason adults overuse e-mail: we fear conversation. And that is probably true as we spend a lot of time avoiding uncomfortable conversation and not enough time making an effort to understand the people who live and work around us. Furthermore, we are so distracted by technology that having a meaningful conversation about anything has become a challenge. (You can read a full review of Reclaiming Conversation by following the link.)

Kids spend hours each day engaging with ideas and one another through screens – but rarely do they have an opportunity to truly hone their interpersonal communication skills. Admittedly, teenage awkwardness and nerves play a role in difficult conversations. But students' reliance on screens for communication is detracting – and distracting – from their engagement in real-time talk. It might sound like a funny question, but we need to ask ourselves: Is there any 21st-century skill more important than being able to sustain confident, coherent conversation?
Paul Barnwell, “My Students Don't Know How to Have a Conversation”, on why conversational competence might be the single-most overlooked skill we fail to teach students.

Alas, some of the author's own findings were purely anecdotal, i.e. not entirely based on rigorous scientific research methodologies.

Right off the bat, she posits:

“Why should you heed my advice? Because the studio where I broadcast each day functions as a kind of conversational laboratory. Just as a chemist experiments with silver nitrate or acetone or chlorine, I sit down with dozens of people every week and experiment with different kinds of conversations. Most of these people are strangers to me, from all over the world, from all different walks of life. I've talked to senators and movie stars, carpenters and truck drivers, billionaires and kindergarten teachers. Some of them are highly emotional; some are quite detached. My studio is a perfect place to test out techniques.”

See the problem there? A sex worker who plied the trade for a number of years can similarly claim to be an expert on sex? That is probably why the author peppered her advice with disclaimer after disclaimer.

However, she does highlight several valid points. For instance, studies demonstrate that if a person doesn't listen carefully and closely, they forget up to half of the information they hear within eight hours. That's why telling your kid to take out the trash while he or she is playing a video game and talking on the phone is equivalent to shouting it into an empty room.

Another valid point is “conversational narcissism”, which is the often subtle and unconscious tendency to insert oneself into a conversation and turn the focus of the exchange to yourself (which I mentioned earlier). If you observe yourself carefully, you may notice that this might be your default mode in many conversations.

The stupidity of positivity
One advice the author dished out is that we should focus on people's positive intentions when they speak. But the personal example she uses to illustrate her point is laughable:

“If someone cuts me off or runs a red light, my first instinct is to assume – and sometimes say aloud – terrible things about their intelligence and their upbringing. But what I've tried to do lately is imagine why they are in such a hurry or why they're in such a bad mood. Instead of the expletives that I want to say, I'll think, She's probably had a bad day. Maybe she's just trying to get home to see her kid.

It doesn't really matter if my imagined scenario is true of if the person is just a terrible driver, because the point of the exercise is to train my mind to see others as individuals who face daily challenges that are equal to mine. (My emphasis in bold.)

Not only is this absurd, but it has nothing to do with positive intentions.

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Overall, you might be better off listening to her TED talk instead.

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