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5 Techniques to Turn the Way You Talk into a Superpower

Charles Duhigg, author of ‘Supercommunicators: How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection,’ explains how to level up communication to forge better connections.



Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and New York Times best-selling author of The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better. He is a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Business School. Duhigg has been a frequent contributor to This American Life, NPR, The Colbert Report, PBS’s NewsHour, and Frontline. He is a winner of the National Academies of Sciences, National Journalism, and George Polk awards.

Below, Duhigg shares five key insights from his new book, Supercommunicators: How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection


1. WE ARE ALL SUPERCOMMUNICATORS.

We all access our instincts and figure out how to connect with someone else. We all have the ability to ask ourselves, “What kind of conversation is actually happening? Is this a social conversation, practical conversation, or emotional conversation?” We can then match the other person and invite them to match us. Within psychology, this is actually known as the matching principle. What it says is that we need to be having the same kind of conversation at the same time, if we want to connect with each other.


2. ASK DEEP QUESTIONS.

Science has a pretty easy technique for figuring out our current type of conversation. This technique is to ask questions, but certain kinds of deep questions. Studies of supercommunicators have found that oftentimes, they ask 10 to 20 times as many questions as everyone else. But we don’t often notice that they’re asking these questions because so many of the questions are so easy to hear and respond to.


These questions include: What do you think of that? Why do you think that happened? What happens next? What do you think was going on inside his head when he said that?


These might seem like throwaway questions, but they’re actually deep questions. A deep question is a question that asks us to talk about our values, our beliefs, or our experiences. In answering them, we reveal something about who we are to the other person. Deep questions can be really easy to ask, as well. If you meet someone who is a lawyer, you can ask them things like, “Did you always want to practice the law? When did you decide to go to law school? Do you love your job?” All three of those are deep questions, and they don’t seem overly intimate, probing, or inappropriate. Those simple, deep questions are a way to invite someone else to tell you what matters to them and, more importantly, to tell you what kind of conversation they want to have.


When we ask a deep question, what someone says back to us not only tells us who they are and what they care about most but also tells us what kind of conversation they want to have. Then we can match them, or we can invite them to match us. We can tell them about our own experiences, our own values, and our own beliefs, and we can signal whether we want to talk about an emotional discussion or practical or a social conversation. We can invite them to align with us to achieve what’s known within neurology as neural entrainment when our brains begin to look alike. As a result, we really understand what the other person is saying.


3. LISTEN CLOSELY TO NONLINGUISTIC COMMUNICATION.

In the 1980s, NASA had a basic problem. It needed to start choosing different kinds of astronauts. Up until then, most space missions were short, usually just a couple of days at most. But President Ronald Reagan said that he wanted to build a space station where people could live for six months to a year.


For NASA, this meant that they needed a different kind of astronaut. They needed someone willing to live in a tin can surrounded by a vacuum for six months or a year with other people. These people needed to be good at connecting and have a high emotional IQ. They needed to know how to get along with people, listen to their emotions, and share their own emotions. They needed people who were good at understanding what kind of conversation was happening and matching people.


So NASA asked their top psychologists to develop a system to do this. For two years, they couldn’t come up with anything. The problem is, if you’re in the final round of being chosen to be an astronaut for NASA, you’re really, really good. You have practiced the answer to every question. You’ve got every single thing right in your entire life. You know how to fake emotional intelligence as good as anyone. But they couldn’t choose people who could fake emotional intelligence because that would only work for a week or maybe two. When you’re in space with someone for six months or a year, it can’t be faked. It has to be real, genuine, and authentic.


The psychologist was tasked with detecting who had real emotional intelligence and who could fake it really well. While listening to some old recordings of astronaut interviews, he noticed something. The key was that successful interviewees answered the questions similarly, but they laughed differently.


The psychologist came up with an experiment. Upon entering the room of the interview, he would purposefully spill a pile of papers on the floor. He would then start laughing at it. As he started picking up the papers, he would look at the candidates, point to his tie, and comment, “You know, I look like a clown today. After dropping all these papers. My kid made me wear this like ugly tie.” Then the psychologist would again laugh really, really loudly. He started paying attention to how the candidate laughed back. Did the candidate match his basic energy and mood? Or did the candidate do something different? Because everyone knows if someone’s laughing, you should laugh back, right? That’s basic politeness. People for whom connecting and emotional intelligence are important tend to match our energy in our mood, even when we communicate non-linguistically.


The way that we can show that we want to connect with others or determine who wants to connect with us is by sometimes paying attention to non-linguistic expressions. Not the words coming out of their mouth but how they say them. Do they match our energy? Do they match our mood? Do they ask us questions? Similarly, when others express something emotional, or they express some happiness, sorrow, or laughter, we can match them. In doing so, we show them that we want to connect.


Studies show about 80fi of laughter does not occur in response to anything humorous. Most of the time, when we laugh, it’s not because someone said a joke. Most of the time, when we laugh, it’s to show the other person that we want to connect with them. When they laugh back, that’s how they show that they want to connect with us. We start to believe that each of us wants to connect because we’re proving it to each other.


4. HOW DO WE PROVE THAT WE WANT TO CONNECT WITH SOMEONE?

How do we go beyond laughing with them or asking questions? How do we prove that we really want to understand them? There are some conversations, particularly conversations that happen amid conflict and tension, where it’s not enough to ask a question and listen to the other person. Studies show that for us to connect with each other, we have to prove to them that we’re listening, and we have to prove to them that we want to understand.


There’s a story about a big conversation around gun safety that occurred between people who are gun advocates and gun control advocates. This is the kind of conversation in which all these people were deeply devoted to their own cause. This is the kind of conversation that is usually totally pointless because all that happens is that people start screaming at each other or repeating all the talking points they already know.


But the organizers of this conversation wanted to do something different. They wanted to see if they could get people to talk about these ideas and really understand each other without necessarily changing anyone’s mind. So, they taught everyone in the discussion a specific method for communicating what they said, called looping.


Looping involves three steps. The first is that you ask the other person a question. Upon hearing their response, you really listen to what they say. The second step involves repeating back, in your own words, what you just heard them tell you. We often forget the third and final step, but it is the most important one. The last step is to ask them if you got it right.


The organizers of this conversation gave the participants this training and then instructed them to talk about tough subjects. During these tough conversations, two things would happen. One, sometimes they didn’t get it right. Sometimes, they didn’t really understand what the other person was trying to say. That was helpful to know because nobody knew this miscommunication was occurring until they asked about it. But the second thing was when someone repeated an idea and then asked if they got it right, suddenly, it felt like the speaker was really heard. It feels like this person really wants to understand, and, as the speaker, it feels wonderful.


That is how we prove to other people that we want to understand them. By using looping for understanding, we show others that we’re trying to understand. When we’re in a fight with someone or talking about a difficult subject, they might be angry at us. When we prove that we are trying to understand and listen, suddenly, they trust us more. They even like us more. More importantly, they start listening back and trying to listen to us.


5. SOCIAL CONVERSATIONS ARE THE MAJORITY OF CONVERSATIONS WE HAVE.

During social conversations, we’re talking about how we relate to each other—not as individuals, but as members of a society. One of the most important things about how we relate to each other is that we all have this sense of identity that we carry around with us. These identities are complicated and there are dozens of them. For instance, I’m a writer. But I’m also a dad, I love to run, I’m a white man who’s married to a woman, I live in California, I usually vote for people who are a little bit left of center. I have dozens, if not thousands, of different identities.


When we’re having a social conversation—talking about society, how we relate to society, or how we relate to other people—what’s really important is that we acknowledge those identities. Think about how frustrating it is when you’re talking to someone about a problem or a question, and who you are never really comes up. Who you are shapes how you want to respond. Your response to something might be, “As a lawyer, I totally hear what you’re saying.” What’s really important is that the other person does not deny you that identity. If they don’t acknowledge a part of your identity, it might feel like they’re telling you that you can’t possibly understand. When we acknowledge identities, we help each other, and we help ourselves communicate.


It’s important to ask questions that include the respondent’s identity. Examples include: As someone who grew up in a religious household, do you think that shapes your ideas and your feelings on this topic? As a woman working in science, tell me what that’s like. Do you think you see this differently than me?


Oftentimes, we want to shy away from our differences. But particularly in a social conversation, embracing and acknowledging those identities helps us understand each other. More importantly, they make us feel safe and secure in that conversation. They make us feel like we have a place in that conversation because the other person has recognized who we are.


What’s important with communication is learning how to recognize what conversation is occurring and matching each other, inviting others to match us, proving to them that we’re listening by asking deep questions, and by looping for understanding, acknowledging who they are. These methods help us ensure that everyone feels like they have the right to participate in this conversation and have a place to speak up. That is when we start to connect with each other. That’s when we become supercommunicators. The right conversation at the right time can change everything, and this is how you have those meaningful conversations.


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