Five Reasons Smart People are Bad Conversationalists and How You Can Improve

Kyle Crocco
4 min readDec 7, 2017
Smart people can be dumb at conversation

Do you have trouble with conversations with people you don’t know? If you’re like most smart people, you’re probably an excellent conversationalist in your area of expertise. You can talk day and night with people in your field. However, when it comes to keeping a conversation going with someone outside your field you run into problems. Why is this?

In her recent talk at Google, NPR host, TED speaker, author of Talk to Me, keynote speaker Celeste Headlee, explained the five reasons why smart people can be so dumb in conversation and what you can do to improve your conversational skills.

1. You’re too logical

Sometimes you’re too smart. Headlee explains that those great logic and analytic abilities that make you top in your field often impair you when it comes to regular conversation.

While reasoning skills are great for understanding complex problems, they are not as useful in understanding how people feel. Real conversations — not exchanges of information that we sometimes call conversations — are all about emotions, not problem-solving.

2. You don’t care

Logical people are not known for their emotional touch. For good conversation, Headlee explains you need to use your emotional intelligence, not your analytical skills.

People tend to be emotional, illogical, and unreasonable — the antithesis of the logos-ruled mind. Good conversation doesn’t follow a well-thought-out plan. It flows; it detours; it’s what happens when you stop thinking and start feeling.

Unfortunately, many of us are ill-equipped to feel in conversation. It’s not your fault, exactly, that you’re unable to walk in someone else’s shoes.

A meta-analysis by Sara Konrath looking at changes in college students’ dispositional empathy between 1979 and 2009 showed we have become less empathetic in the past thirty years. While there is no direct cause for this trend, there is a strong correlation between our declining empathy and the rise of technology.

3. You talk too much

Another problem for smart people is they know too much — and tell others about it in conversation. When you’re an expert in something, you tend to drop knowledge bombs where none are needed.

Your teachable moment is less conversation than lecture. When you end up performing your best monologue, the other person is left out of the conversation. You may think the conversation is going great, but mentally the other person has packed their bags and is scanning for the exit.

This tendency for people to monologue is only enhanced by the body’s biological response. Research has shown that self-disclosure activates our dopamine pleasure centers, whether we have an active audience or not. So while you may be turned on by your detailed analysis of Tarantino films, no one else is.

4. You think you know it all

Some smart people don’t think they can learn from someone outside their field. However, everyone is an expert at something and worth listening to, says Headlee. You just have to open yourself up to the idea that all conversation partners have something to offer and “prepare to be amazed.”

5. You don’t pay attention

Smart people think they can multitask conversations. However, research has shown that when you multitask, you perform worse at both tasks than you think you are doing: the quality of both activities drops by 20%, and your IQ drops by 10 points.

Headlee explains we often multitask because we can listen faster than people can speak. The average person speaks about 150 words per minute, while we can listen to up to 300 words per minute. However, this gap in conversational processing isn’t making better use of our time. In fact, multitasking decreases our empathy.

Three Simple Principles to Be A Smarter Conversationalist

So how do you overcome your smart problems to have a good conversation? Headlee lays down 10 great methods for good conversation and suggests mastering one to improve your skills. However, what it really comes down to for you smart people is focusing on these three principles.

1. Be present. Headlee says if you don’t have time to stop and listen to someone, then you don’t have time for conversation. If you multitask and don’t listen, you are wasting both your time and the other person’s time. Either devote your full attention to the conversation or arrange another time when you can talk.

2. Be empathetic. If you don’t care, you will never have a good conversation. Headlee suggests two tactics for improving your empathy.

First, don’t equate your experience to someone else’s. The pet death, job loss, recent divorce of your friend is not the same as the one you went through. Saying it happened to you and then talking about your experience is not empathy. In fact, it’s often the opposite.

Second, to be more empathic, ask more open-ended questions. When you ask who, what, where, and when and let a person discuss their experience and how they felt, then you are being empathetic.

3. Be open to learning. When you talk the whole time, you never open yourself up to something new. You might think what you’re saying is fascinating, but other people will find you’re a conversational bore.

Headlee suggests to think of a conversation as a game of catch. You need to continually throw the ball back and forth for it to be a game. Do the same with conversation.

If you follow these three simple principles, you’ll find that you not only learn more, but you’ll have better conversations. Headlee guarantees it or your money back.

During his daylight hours, Kyle Crocco is a Storytelling Architect, creating sizzle reels that tell the stories for professional keynote speakers.



Kyle Crocco

Kyle Crocco is the author of Heroes, Inc. and Heroes Wanted.