Author Talks: Charles Duhigg on how the best communicators ‘click’

Connecting with others can feel like an art, but it’s also a science. In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Lucia Rahilly chats with Charles Duhigg, a New York Times best-selling author and writer for the New Yorker, about his new book, Supercommunicators: How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection (Random House, February 2024). Duhigg reveals why meaningful connection can feel so elusive—and breaks down what you can learn from the best communicators to turn every conversation into an opportunity to “click.”

Why did you write this book?

It’s easy to believe that because there’s so much technology around us, it’s easier to communicate and connect with people. Despite our best attempts and despite using many different platforms, we fail to connect with the people who matter most.

I experienced this inability to connect when I was a reporter at the New York Times. I fell into this pattern with my wife, where I would come home after a long day and I would start complaining about my boss or my coworkers, and my wife would offer a practical suggestion. She would say, “Why don’t you take your boss out to lunch so you guys can get to know each other better?” Instead of hearing her advice, I would get more upset and respond defensively: “Why aren’t you supporting me? You’re supposed to be outraged on my behalf.”

I talked to a few neurologists and psychologists to help me understand what I was doing wrong and how to change that conversation between my wife and me. Their response was, “In the last decade, we’ve learned that most people think of a conversation as being about one thing. Actually, every discussion is made up of multiple kinds of conversations.” They informed me that I am only going to be heard by and hear the person with whom I am speaking when we both have the same conversation.

I realized that when I came home, I was having an emotional conversation. I wanted my wife to understand how I felt, but she was having a practical conversation by trying to solve the problem. Both of us had legitimate approaches, but because we were having different conversations at the same time, we couldn’t hear each other or connect.

Why does it feel good when we connect and bad when we don’t?

Communication has always been Homo sapiens’ superpower. It’s the reason that we have succeeded as a species. We can communicate with each other better than any other species on Earth. Our brains have evolved to communicate effectively. They’ve developed a craving to connect with other people. It’s that feeling when you have a great conversation with someone, and feel great afterward. That feeling is a product of evolution and is hardwired into our brains. Those good feelings that come from connecting to people pushed our ancestors to form families, which created communities and villages that enabled us to thrive.

We have an actual biological need to connect with other people through conversation. When two people are conversing, their pupils will start to dilate at the same rate, even if they’re separated by thousands of miles and just talking on the telephone. Their breathing patterns and heart rates will start to match each other.

Most important, the activity inside their brains will become synchronized, known in neurology as neural entrainment. The goal of communication is to exchange feelings or experiences. I will describe a feeling, and I hope that you have that feeling or experience, too, even if it’s only a little bit. When that happens, our brains start acting similarly. That’s how we transmit information to one another. We’re designed to connect that way, and it feels incredible when it happens.

What distinguishes someone as a ‘supercommunicator’ if we are all hardwired to communicate?

The easiest way to explain a supercommunicator is to describe one. You probably know who to call if you’re having a bad day and need someone to raise your spirits or make you laugh. That person that you know to call is a supercommunicator to you. Conversely, you’re probably a supercommunicator for them.

There are even some people who can be supercommunicators for almost everyone—and can do it consistently. They tend to think about conversation and communication deeper than everyone else. They consider everything before they open their mouths, and they’ve developed listening habits that enable them to find out what’s going on.

Supercommunicators ask ten to 20 times more questions than the average person. Those questions can include something like, “That’s interesting. What did you think of that?” or “What did you say next?” They pose questions that invite us into the conversation.

Some of their questions are “deep questions.” These questions ask people about their values, beliefs, or experiences. An example of this could be as easy as saying, “You’re a lawyer. What made you decide to go to law school?” They ask questions that dig into learning who people are. They aren’t overly intimate questions but an opportunity to share who we are. People love the opportunities to share those things, which could feel amazing.

How do supercommunicators approach important conversations?

Most conversations fall into one of three buckets: emotional, practical, and social.

In emotional conversations, we want to talk about our feelings. In practical conversations, we want to solve a problem or create a plan together, and in social, we want to talk about how we relate to each other and how society relates to us.

Researchers have found that consistent supercommunicators tend to pay more attention to the type of conversation that’s occurring. If I ask a coworker, “How was your weekend?” and that person responds with something that touches the emotions, such as “Oh, it was amazing! I saw my kid graduate from college!” It’s easy to glance over that moment by hopping into a work discussion after saying, “congratulations.”

What a supercommunicator hears in that situation is a coworker who wants to have an emotional conversation—not a hugely emotional one, but a little bit of one. Instead, the person might ask, “What did that feel like when you watched your kid walk across the stage?”

Supercommunicators offer an opportunity for people to have the type of conversation they’re seeking and match the type of discussions others are having. They’re clear about what kind of conversation they want and need. When this happens, we become neurally entrained. We begin to think alike, which allows us to connect. Studies show that this occurrence enables us to understand what the other person is saying very clearly.

Supercommunicators offer an opportunity for people to have the type of conversation they’re seeking and match the type of discussions others are having. They’re clear about what kind of conversation they want and need.

How can we have practical yet productive conversations at work?

We often have practical discussions at the beginning of a conversation. We ask ourselves, “What’s this really about?” Psychologists and neurologists refer to this as a “quiet negotiation,” but the point of the negotiation is not to win anything.

We negotiate to figure out what each participant wants from the conversation. We do it subconsciously—we conduct experiments to understand how the other person feels. I might tell a joke and then pay close attention to whether you laugh, indicating that this is a casual conversation. If you don’t laugh, it shows that I should be having a more serious, formal discussion. I may interrupt you to see how you react. If you respond favorably, I know we’ll ping-pong back and forth. If you don’t respond well, that signals that we should take turns speaking with each other instead.

This quiet negotiation happens at the start of every conversation, and its goal is to figure out how participants can share control of a discussion. Now, let’s consider how we handle conflict.

Let’s say we’re arguing, and we disagree with each other. In those situations, our need for control is particularly acute, and it’s human instinct to try to control things because we feel anxious, overwhelmed, and worried.

The most obvious thing we can control is the other person. We can say things like, “If only you’d just listen to me, then you’d understand what I’m trying to say. If only you’d see things from my perspective, you’d agree.” We try to control the other person’s feelings by saying, “You shouldn’t feel that way” or “You shouldn’t be worried.”

That approach feels terrible and never works. It never convinces someone to listen. Instead, at the beginning of a conversation, we should figure out what we can control together and how to become partners in the discussion—even when we disagree. For example, if you have an argument with your partner at 2:00 a.m., you can both control the environment by agreeing to wait to continue the conversation until the morning. In that case, you demonstrate control over yourself and invite your partner to do the same.

This often happens in fights between married couples. There’s a toxic pattern known as “kitchen sinking,” which starts with a discussion about where the family will spend Thanksgiving but quickly becomes an argument about who an in-law hates or about not having money to take the trip. Those arguments are terrible and never make things better. Perhaps you both try to set the boundaries of the argument by agreeing to discuss only Thanksgiving. It’s important to note that even though you find things you can control together, it doesn’t mean you’ll always agree. Agreeing isn’t the point of managing conversations together, but it puts us on the same side of the table. We now have a partnership, and we’re working together.

Do emotional conversations matter in the workplace?

Emotions influence every single conversation we have. They influence how I hear you and how I speak. We can pretend that emotions don’t exist and fail to acknowledge them, but if so, we are doing ourselves a disservice.

An emotional conversation doesn’t mean that we’ll start crying with each other. It doesn’t mean that we must have a soul-bearing experience. It can be as simple as someone asking about my weekend, and I say, “I had a great weekend because I hung out with my wife, and we had such a nice time together.”

Emotions influence every single conversation we have. They influence how I hear you and how I speak. We can pretend that emotions don’t exist and fail to acknowledge them, but if so, we are doing ourselves a disservice.

Simply sharing joy and happiness about something important is an emotional conversation. As I mentioned before, the key are these deep questions. A deep question can be as simple as asking someone, “What do you make of that?” This question invites a person to tell their experiences, which inevitably opens the door to their values, beliefs, and who they actually are, which is important. It allows us to engage in “emotional reciprocity.” As a result, we’re hardwired to feel closer to each other and trust each other more. When we’re having an emotional conversation, we should ask deep questions. Remember, a deep question doesn’t ask about the facts of someone’s life but asks how they feel about it. In doing so, we learn who they are, and we share the same thing about ourselves with them.

Do hybrid work and virtual communication make it challenging to connect emotionally?

In today’s workplace, a ton of communication doesn’t happen face-to-face or even in the same city or time zone. How do principles change when communication channels shift? It’s funny to talk about what happened when telephones became popular about 100 years ago. There were many articles about how people would never have a real conversation on the telephone. They said, “Since you can’t see the other person, you won’t be able to communicate anything meaningful.” Everyone thought people would use telephones like telegraphs—to send stock orders or grocery lists.

Researchers recorded and transcribed those early telephone conversations, and those concerns were correct. If you look at those early transcripts, you’ll see people talking to each other in very stilted ways. They didn’t know how to speak on the telephone in meaningful ways. Fast-forward to several years later, and we talk on the phone for hours. Those conversations can be the most significant of our lives; we’ve improved because we’ve learned the rules of telephone communication.

When talking on the phone, you overemphasize your words a little more without realizing it. You’ll tend to put more emotional direction into the tone of voice that you’re using because you know the other person can’t see you. You know how to transmit your feelings through your voice. We don’t consciously do it; it happens automatically.

We’ve learned how to use different channels. We’ve been using the telephone for over 100 years, but we’ve been talking via the internet for about 25 years, and for something like Slack, it’s only been five years or so for some.

As new forms of communication emerge, they require slightly different rules, habits, and practices. People commonly make the mistake of assuming that the rules are identical from channel to channel. Use sarcasm as an example: if I’m speaking to you and I say something sarcastic, you’ll pick up on it because of the tone of my voice. Conversely, if I write something sarcastic, you may not pick it up in that email I sent you. Instead, you take it seriously and get upset.

The most important thing to remember regarding virtual meetings, emails, or texts is to consider the message before we hit “send.” Different forms of communication have different rules. We know the rules, but in the busyness of life we often overlook them because we’re moving too fast. If we take a moment to remind ourselves what kind of communication channel we’re using and its rules, we’ll communicate much better.

The most important thing to remember regarding virtual meetings, emails, or texts is to consider the message before we hit ‘send.’ Different forms of communication have different rules.

How different is communication via virtual channels?

Research has taught us that it’s as easy to communicate via virtual channels as it is to communicate face-to-face if all participants are accommodating. Take a video conference, for example—if I feel alienated during a meeting, I may cross my arms and look off to the side. You may not pick up on the fact that I’m upset. It’s not always clear that I’m not participating, and nonverbal cues aren’t readily noticed. I would have to speak up and tell you how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking.

We do this automatically when it comes to telephone conversations because we know the person can’t see us. Therefore, we change our tone of voice and what we say. Conversely, we can see each other on a video conference but can’t see each other perfectly. We need to accommodate that fact and consider what that medium requires. You can have rich conversations on any channel if you keep the rules in mind.

How can we navigate social-identity conversations in a polarized world and workplace?

We often encounter social-identity conversations without realizing they’re happening. In the book, I wrote about Dr. Behfar Ehdaie, a surgeon in New York City specializing in removing cancerous tumors, mainly from prostates.

He encountered a problem with patients who received a cancer diagnosis. He would tell them, “The best thing to do is nothing. This is a slow-growing cancer.” He would advise them that he would monitor the cancer every six months and do a biopsy every two years; surgery would not be necessary. Dr. Ehdaie thought those conversations would be some of the easiest he would have in his life and that people would be overjoyed to hear that they didn’t have to go under a knife.

Instead, he experienced the same situation repeatedly: patients would go home and return the next day demanding surgery. Dr. Ehdaie was shocked. He didn’t understand why patients would come to him for advice and then ignore his recommendation.

He discussed his dilemma with communications experts at Harvard Business School and asked, “What am I doing wrong?” They responded, “You’re assuming what the other person wants out of the conversation.” Dr. Ehdaie didn’t ask the patient who they were and what they needed. The experts suggested that he ask patients what they made of the diagnoses and what it meant to them instead.

Weeks later, a 62-year-old patient walked in and Dr. Ehdaie asked those recommended questions. The man began discussing how his father died when he was young and what that did to his family. The patient didn’t want to put his wife and children through that same experience. The patient was worried about how he could manage his family’s anxiety. The doctor expected the man to ask questions about medical procedures or pain; instead, he talked about how important it was that he take care of his family. He sees his primary role as caring for others because of what happened to him in his youth when his father couldn’t care for him.

Once Dr. Ehdaie knew that, he could then match that type of conversation and help the patient mitigate those worries. He shared a story from his youth that helped him connect with the patient. At that point, when they matched each other, the doctor could introduce a practical discussion. He could start discussing medical options, and the patient was willing to listen. Within five minutes, the man agreed to the doctor’s recommendation not to get surgery and felt OK about it.

Essentially, when unexpected identities pop up during a conversation, we haven’t created room to allow that identity to express itself. We don’t know what the other person wants from the conversation, but the easiest way to figure it out is to ask general questions: “What do you make of this?” or “Why is this important to you?” In return, we can often share who we are, and the other person is prepared to listen.

What surprised you most while writing this book?

What surprised me the most is that anyone can become a supercommunicator. It’s just a set of skills. Before writing this book, I thought supercommunicators were extremely charismatic, extroverts, or people who were popular in high school.

It turns out that it’s quite the opposite. Some supercommunicators fall into those categories, but many supercommunicators didn’t have friends in high school, and that’s why they started paying attention to how to communicate with other people. Also, there are those whose parents divorced when they were young, which made them become the peacemaker. That experience taught them how to think about how people connect.

In the book, I write about Jim Lawler, a CIA officer. His job is to recruit spies overseas, and he was not able to excel at it until he learned how to connect with people, be authentic, and listen. Jim Lawler eventually went on to become a trainer who taught other recruiters. I spoke to someone whom he trained. She said, “I was actually really bad at getting along with other people until Jim explained that communication was just a skill and a simple tool that anyone can use.”

We can prove that we’re listening by “looping for understanding.” It’s where we ask a question and repeat it to hear it in our own words and then ask if we got it right. We can recognize the type of conversation by looking for little signals about whether someone’s in a practical, emotional, or social mindset. Anyone can learn to do this. Our brains are hardwired for it; and when we do it, we become supercommunicators.

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