Celeste Headlee on creating empathic bonds through true listening

When we create our stories each week, one of the most agonizing decisions is what to call people. How do you distill a life—in the case of our storytellers, an otherworldly life—into the three or four words of a title scroll?

Listen to the full conversation below:


Suddenly we can’t be within six feet of each other. No visiting, hugging, or touching.

It’s devastating.

As is the dawning realization that despite being wired for each other, we’ve played fast and loose with our primal drive for connection.

Through her career as an NPR journalist, celebrated speaker, and best-selling author, Celeste Headlee has reported extensively on just how badly our ability to make meaningful connections is deteriorating.

Her new book, Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing and Underliving, helps us understand why we’ve gotten so good at doing that we’ve forgotten how essential being can be.

This Great Pause of COVID-19 can help us break free from the cult of production and efficiency.  As Celeste writes in her “Do Nothing Manifesto,” faster isn’t always better, overwork reduces productivity, and rest and contentment are worthy priorities.

Right now, our very definitions of human flourishing are seismically shifting under our feet. By better understanding our biological strengths, we can work with our wiring, not against it.

“We didn’t come to dominate the planet because we’re so smart or strong. Come on, we lose to mosquitos,” Headless says in our conversation. “We’re successful because we’re so good at communicating and at working together.”

We evolved to speak, deviating from our chimpanzee ancestors, when our larynx moved down our throats. This evolutionary adaptation increased our risk of choking, since food could now go down the wrong pipe. “We literally risk death in order to speak,” observes Headlee. “And that’s what we’re trying to replace with emojis!?”

In the past few hundred years we’ve grown more hyper-individualized, but humans have inhabited this planet for much longer. Interdependence lives inside our muscles, a memory waiting to be activated.

The first step is recognizing that the breakneck pace of modern life isn’t designed for humans to thrive.  But making substantive changes to profoundly improve our lives is within reach, Celeste assures.

“It only takes one good conversation to change your understanding of someone else’s world, your world, and the world at large,” she says. But “attempting to change someone’s mind is the death of conversation. Creating empathic bonds brought on by true listening is the only reliable way to we’ve found to actually change opinions.”

Every human deserves respect, even if every opinion doesn’t, Headlee told me.  Listening doesn’t imply endorsement.

We are grieving, worried and afraid. Our unprecedented opportunity—obligation, even— is to lock eyes with each other and recognize the pain reflected back is our own.

It takes great courage to be vulnerable enough to put our lives in each other’s hands.

When everything feels like it’s falling apart, we realize that we’re all we’ve ever had. Now we have the chance to start acting like it.


Comments (0)

Have no comment.

Leave your thoughts

Subscribe to Our Newsletter: For the Love of Conversation