in: People, Podcast, Social Skills

• Last updated: March 8, 2024

Podcast #968: The Secrets of Supercommunicators

Have you ever known one of those people who seemed to be able to connect with anyone? The kind of person who had the ability to make others feel understood and smoothly navigate even the trickiest of conversations?

Charles Duhigg calls these folks “supercommunicators,” and he’s the author of a new book by the same name. Today on the show, Charles explains that what underlies supercommunicators’ skill in connection is something called the matching principle, and he unpacks how it works and how you can put it to use in your own conversations. We discuss several techniques for how to figure out what kind of conversation you’re having, so you can align your language and energy with the other person. And because emotional conversations can be particularly difficult, we dig into tactics for successfully navigating them, even when they contain a high degree of conflict. We also get into how to carry the skills of connection into your digital conversations.

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Have you ever known one of those people who seemed to be able to connect with anyone, the kind of person who had the ability to make others feel understood and smoothly navigate even the trickiest of conversations? Charles Duhigg calls these folks supercommunicators, and he’s the author of a new book by the same name. Today in the show, Charles explains that what underlies supercommunicator’s skill and connection is something called the matching principle. And he unpacks how it works and how you can put it to use in your own conversations. We discuss several techniques for how to figure out what kind of conversation you’re having, so you can align your language and energy with the other person. And because emotional conversations can be particularly difficult, we dig into tactics for successfully navigating them, even when they contain a high degree of conflict. We also get into how to carry the skills of connection into your digital conversations. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

All right, Charles Duhigg, welcome back to the show.

Charles Duhigg: Thanks for having me on.

Brett McKay: So the last time we had you on was back in 2016, to talk about your book Smarter Faster Better. It’s all about the secrets of being more productive in life and business. We’ve also had you on to talk about The Power of Habit and The Habit Loop. You got a new book out, though, called Supercommunicator. How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection. I mean, this is all about how to have better, more meaningful conversations. What led you to take a deep dive into this topic?

Charles Duhigg: Well, when I wrote The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better, it’s very much focused on the self, and it’s about how we succeed as individuals, what do we need to do to be successful? But the thing I realized is that a huge amount of our happiness and our productivity and our success, it depends on other people. We work in teams. We have partners or spouses and kids and parents. And so I realized that at the core of dealing with other people, coordinating with other people is communication, it’s conversations. And then when I started doing the research, I learned that we’re living through this golden age of understanding communication, actually for the first time in ways we never have before because of advances in neural imaging and data collection. And I just thought it was fascinating. And more importantly, I thought it could help a lot of people, including myself.

Brett McKay: Was there a moment you had in your own personal life where you realized, boy, I really need to get better at talking because I’m not good at it?

Charles Duhigg: Oh, yeah. There was more than one moment. I think we’ve all had that experience. For me it was, I fell into this pattern with my wife where I would come home after like a long and hard day and I would start complaining to her like, “My boss is a jerk, or my coworkers don’t appreciate me”. And she very rationally would say, “Oh, here’s a solution. Why don’t you take your boss out to lunch, and you guys can get to know each other a little bit better”. But instead of being able to hear what she was saying, I would get even more upset. And I’d be like, “Why aren’t you supporting me? You’re supposed to be outraged on my behalf”. And then she would get upset because I was reacting very poorly to this advice she had given. And so I started going to these researchers and asking them, “Why does this happen?” ‘Cause it’s not just me, this is a pretty common pattern. And they said, “Well, actually, here’s what we’ve learned”.

And this is one of the biggest insight from the last decade is, we tend to think of a discussion as being about one thing, we’re talking about my day, or we’re talking about the kids’ grades or the pets. But actually every single discussion is made up of multiple different kinds of conversations. And in general, those conversations fall into one of three buckets. There’s practical discussions like where we’re solving problems or making plans. Then there’s emotional conversations where, “I want to tell you how I feel, and I don’t want you to solve my problem. I want you to empathize and I want you to listen”. And then there’s social conversations, which is about how we relate to each other and to society. And they said, “The thing that we figured out is if people are having different kinds of conversations at the same moment, then they won’t really hear each other, they won’t really connect with each other”. And so the key is what’s become known as the matching principle within psychology. That in order to communicate with someone, we need to be having the same kind of conversation at the same time, because that actually causes our brains to align.

Brett McKay: Okay, there’s a lot to unpack here, and I hope we can do that throughout this conversation. And to get into this idea of the matching principle, you start off the book talking about this guy named Felix Sigala, who worked for the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation team.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah.

Brett McKay: He’s a master communicator, but from the outside he looks pretty unremarkable. He just looks like a middle aged dude, mustache, maybe wears sweater vest, I don’t know. And so you’d see like, “How is this guy… ” People just relate to him, they connect with him, he doesn’t look charismatic. And so a team of researchers went in to study Felix to figure out what made him so good at communicating. What did these researchers learn about communication from Felix?

Charles Duhigg: So, Felix is a really interesting test case, ’cause you’re exactly right, if you met him, he would not stand out for you at all until he opened his mouth. And what’s really, really interesting is that he’s very typical of supercommunicators. Supercommunicators are not necessarily the most charismatic people. They are not extroverts. Who they are, they’re people who think just a little bit like half an inch deeper about how to have conversations. And as a result, they can connect with almost anyone. And the thing is, it’s just a set of skills anyone can learn, any of us can become supercommunicators. And so in Felix’s case, what happened was these researchers sat down with him and they were like, “Look, tell us what you do that’s so special? Why did so many people tell us that we had to be in touch with you?” And he said, “Well, let me demonstrate. It might be better”. And he just starts asking them questions like, “Tell me about what’s going on in your life”.

Now what’s interesting is that the questions he’s asking are a special kind of questions, but they don’t appear that special. They’re what’s known as deep questions. And a deep question asks us about our values or our beliefs or experiences. But it doesn’t appear to be that deep at first. It doesn’t seem really probing or intrusive. It doesn’t force someone to reveal something. But it’s as easy, like if you bump into someone and you ask ’em, “What do you do for a living?” And they say, “I’m a lawyer”. A deep question would be to say, “Oh, how’d you decide to go to law school?” Or, “What do you love about practicing the law?” Both those questions are pretty easy to ask, but what they do is they ask the other person, provide an opportunity for the other person to tell us about their experiences, why they went to law school, to tell us about their beliefs, what it is about justice and the law that gets them excited every day.

And when they share that with us, then it provides an opportunity for us to engage in what’s known as reciprocal authenticity, where we can share something about ourselves and we’ll feel closer to each other. And that’s exactly what Felix would do. He would ask these questions that were deep questions that didn’t appear that deep, and then somebody would bring up something meaningful. They became a researcher because their parents were researchers, or they… The thing that they love about teaching is to see how students develop. And then he would share something about himself. He’d say, “Oh, that’s really, really interesting, ’cause what I hear you saying is that you love to help other people. And actually that’s why I joined the FBI, ’cause I love to help people too. And I found this way”. So what’s happening there is that almost invisibly Felix is letting people… Inviting people to bring their full self to the conversation. He’s proving to them that he’s listening to them, he’s sharing his own life with them, and as a result, they feel connected. They believe that he wants to connect with them. And that’s the most important thing that supercommunicators do. They prove to us they want to connect.

Brett McKay: So these questions that he asks is this what allows Felix to match up so he’s able to sync up with the person he is talking to. So they’re all on the same page and the person feels like they’re communicating?

Charles Duhigg: That’s exactly right. So, these deep questions, and I will say, so people who are consistent supercommunicators, ’cause we’re all supercommunicators at one time or another, but people who can do it all the time on demand, they tend to ask 10 to 20 times as many questions as the average person. And some of those questions are like throwaway questions. They’re like, oh, what’d you think about her? Oh what’d you say next? We don’t even register them as questions, but they invite us into the conversation. But then about half of them are these deep questions. And the reason why those questions are so powerful is exactly what you just said, is that it allows you to say something meaningful, like something that’s true and authentic about yourself. And it allows me as a listener to engage in reciprocal authenticity without it seeming like I’m trying to steal the spotlight from you. Or I asked where you went on vacation just ’cause I really want to talk about where I went on vacation. They’re really powerful.

Brett McKay: So the matching principle is figure out what kind of conversation you’re having and then match the other person, or invite them to match you. And by asking deep questions, Felix was able to create this matching. And we’re going to talk more about how to create this kind of alignment throughout our conversation today. But besides asking deep questions, how else can you tell what kind of conversation someone wants to have?

Charles Duhigg: Well, you just listen to what they’re saying. Because they’re going to tell you, I mean, they might not say I want to have an emotional conversation, but if they bring up things like feelings, if they mention something that feels vulnerable to you or feels kind of emotionally authentic, then they’re having an emotional conversation. The same way that when I get home and I talk about, my boss is a jerk and he doesn’t appreciate me. It’s not really about what my boss did, it’s about how I feel about it. And that’s obvious, just from listening. On the other hand, if I’m talking to my wife and I say like, “Look, let’s figure out the budget for our vacation next year, ’cause I really want to go someplace exciting, but I don’t want it to be too expensive”. Well, that’s clear that that’s a much more practical frame of mind. So it’s not hard to figure out what kind of conversation is happening, it’s just a matter of listening for it and understanding that there’s these different kinds of conversations.

Brett McKay: Another way you suggest creating alignment is to share your goals for the conversation and then ask others what their goals are. So instead of being opaque and then each person has to decipher what kind of conversation is going on and what it’s about, you’re just upfront about that.

Charles Duhigg: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. And think about how helpful that is. I mean, sometimes this happens really naturally. Like we have an agenda, we’re in a business meeting, and we’re, look, we’re here to discuss the budget. So we know what everyone ostensibly wants out of it. But if you even just take half a beat and you start by just saying look, and again, this is a great deep question. “Tell me what the budget means to you. What’s important to you about this budget?” Then what I’m really doing is I’m opening it up. ‘Cause you might say, “What’s really important to me is that we hit our numbers”. Practical conversation. Or someone might say, “What’s really important to me is that I’m worried we’re going to have to do layoffs. And I don’t want to do that to people and their families”. Okay, now you’re signaling that’s a much more emotional conversation. And so simply by asking someone what their goals are, and the easiest way to do that is A, to share your own goals. And B, to simply ask them, “What does this mean to you? Why is this important to you?”

Brett McKay: Okay, so ask people what their goals are for a conversation and tell people your goals. Another suggestion you make in the book that I really like is to come prepared internally for a conversation. Like mentally prepare, think beforehand about what you want to get out of the conversation and what you want to talk about with someone. And that can help you get more out of the conversation.

Charles Duhigg: There was this study that was done by some researchers who went into an investment bank. And this was a place where people screamed at each other all day long. They just got in fights constantly. And they told everyone for the next week before each meeting, write one sentence where you describe what you want to accomplish in this meeting and the mood you want to establish. It took about 10 seconds for people to do this, they would literally scribble down one sentence about the upcoming meeting and then they’d usually just stick the paper into their pocket and walk into the meeting. And people didn’t even usually announce what their goal was. They didn’t announce what they had written down, but the incidence of conflict in those meetings went down by 80%. And the reason why is because everyone knew what they wanted and so they were able to express that to others. Knowing what we want. Just taking like literally two or three seconds before we start a conversation to figure out why we’re having the conversation. It pays enormous dividends.

Brett McKay: No, that’s something that my wife and I do whenever we get together with friends before they come over or before we meet them for dinner on the drive over, we might say, “What are the things we want to talk to these people about? What do we want to catch up on?

Charles Duhigg: Yeah.

Brett McKay: So we make like a list so that whenever we see a friend we haven’t seen in a long time, it’s like, “Oh, I want to follow up with this”. And our friends do the same thing with some really good friends of ours. We call the quality conversations. So QCs. And we only see each other maybe once or twice a year ’cause they’ve moved away from us. But we each come with our list of like, here’s the things we want to talk about. And we don’t get to all of ’em, but because both of us have an idea of what we want to talk about, we can go really deep with our conversations.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah, that’s really, really smart. And in fact, there was an experiment done at Harvard Business School by Alison Wood Brooks, she’s a professor there, where what she did is she had all of her students… She told her students, you’re going to have a conversation with a stranger. And then what I want you to do is I want you to write down three topics you might discuss. And again, this was like 10 seconds of thought, people would write down like last night’s TV show and the game this weekend and where are you going on vacation? And then they would just stick that list in their pocket. And most of the people never discussed one of the topics that they had written down, but almost all of them reported feeling much less anxious during the conversation and that the conversation went much, much better than they expected because they had this list to fall back on just like you and your wife. And my guess is that because you guys are creating a list of stuff you really want to discuss, you do get to a lot of it, ’cause it’s stuff that’s important to you, but just having that list, it makes the entire conversation easier.

And it probably doesn’t take you guys long on the car ride over to come up with what you want to talk about.

Brett McKay: No. Yes. Just a few minutes. Another useful tip you provide to help people figure out what the conversation is about. Because again, everyone could be going into conversation with a different agenda. You might be thinking, I’m just going to focus on just practical things. This person wants to have more of an emotional conversation. You talk about thinking of every conversation as a negotiation.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah.

Brett McKay: How can thinking of conversation as a negotiation help you get that matching principle going?

Charles Duhigg: So this is really interesting and there’s a lot of research on this, and the word negotiation might be a little off putting or misleading to people because within psychology, this is referred to as a quiet negotiation where the goal is not to win anything. The goal is to figure out what each person wants. So think about how most of your conversations start is subconsciously you actually probably conduct a couple of experiments at the beginning of every conversation without even realizing it. Like sometimes when you start talking to someone at the beginning of a conversation, you might try… You might interrupt them just to sort of see… And then you pay close attention to their reaction to try and figure out, are the rules of this conversation that we can interrupt each other? Or is it like, no, we each have to wait our turn. You might make a joke and then you’ll pay close attention to see if the other person laughs to try and figure out is this a casual fun conversation or is this a little bit more serious? We need to be a little bit more formal.

We already engage in this quiet negotiation when we conduct those experiments. The difference is that for supercommunicators, they just pay a little bit more attention to how other people react and they take lessons from them. And most importantly, if they tell a joke and the other person doesn’t laugh, they don’t assume that that means that the other person doesn’t like them. They don’t assume that that means that they made a mistake. Rather what they just did was conduct an experiment and they got data from it. And the thing about experiments is they’re not all supposed to work. Like, my wife is actually a scientist and if every experiment she did was a success, she’d be the worst scientist on earth. Like the reason you do experiments is to learn things. And so supercommunicators treat the beginnings of conversations just a little bit more like a series of experiments to figure out what does this person want?

Brett McKay: So you could… Okay, so you’re going to throw out a question, maybe you throw out one of those deep values questions, we’ll talk more about that. And the person doesn’t bite on it. They don’t really talk about what drove them to become a lawyer. It’s just like, well, it’s more of the practicality. They paid a lot of money. So you can understand, well, this person might want to talk about how to finance a 401 [k] or something.

Charles Duhigg: Totally. Or maybe they don’t even play along at all. Maybe you say like, “Oh, what made you decide to go to law school?” And they just say, “It just seemed fun. It seemed like a good idea”. “Okay”. I just conducted an experiment to figure out is talking about careers a way for us to connect? And the answer, the results you just gave me are, “No”. So then I might try a completely different topic and say something like, “Oh, the Super Bowl’s coming up. Who you’re rooting for in the game?” And then when someone says, “I’m rooting for the 9ers”. “Oh yeah, what do you love about the 9ers?” Like, why the 9ers instead of Kansas, by conducting these little experiments and just paying attention to how people react a little bit more, we figure out how they want to connect with us.

Brett McKay: Okay. So to figure out what kind of conversation you’re having and what it’s about, you listen, you ask questions, you tell the person what your goals are for the conversation. You ask them what their goals are. You think of the conversation like a negotiation. You throw things out there, maybe you throw in a joke and see how they respond to that. If they respond to the joke, maybe they just want to connect.

Charles Duhigg: Absolutely.

Brett McKay: So you’re going to…

Charles Duhigg: Or sometimes you don’t even have to throw out a joke, you could just laugh, 80% of the time when we laugh in conversations, it is not in response to something funny. It’s to show the other person we want to connect with them. And then the most natural thing to do is to laugh back, they’re showing us that they want to connect with us. So, I mean, think like, I’m laughing right now. Think about how many times in a conversation you laugh, but nobody’s told a joke. That’s a little experiment.

Brett McKay: Okay. We’ve talked about how to tell what conversation you’re having, and emotional conversations are some of the hardest. I’d like to dig in more into that. If you’re having an emotional conversation, your advice is to ask about other’s feelings and share your own.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah. Once we’re in emotional conversation, once I’ve said, you’ve brought up something that seems clearly to have to do with feelings, and the most natural thing for me to do is empathize. Oftentimes people are very scared of asking about this question. The best example of this in my life was that about six years ago, my dad passed away and I came back to… I was living in New York at the time. I came back to New York from the funeral, and like this was the most meaningful thing that had happened in a long time. The most profound, experiences of many people’s lives. And I would tell people I bumped into, they’d say like, how are you doing? They said, my dad passed away. I was there last week for the funeral. And they would usually, they would almost always say like, oh, I’m so sorry, or, my condolences.

And then because it felt uncomfortable to them, they would go on to something else. They would be like, I’m so sorry to hear that. But thank you for coming in today, ’cause I wanted to talk about the budget, but for me, this was the most profound thing I had been through. I was desperate to talk about it. I didn’t want to talk about anything else. And if somebody had said to me like, I’m so sorry to hear that. Tell me about your dad. What was he like? I would’ve appreciated that so much. And exactly what you said when we were having emotional conversations, oftentimes instead of asking about people’s feelings, we avoid asking. And as a result, we deny ourselves that opportunity to connect on an emotional level, which often is one of the most profound connections we can have.

Brett McKay: I’m curious, do all conversations have an emotional undercurrent even when it’s brass tacks, where going to go for vacation? Or who’s taking the kids where? Is there typically?

Charles Duhigg: Absolutely.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Charles Duhigg: Absolutely. From the second you open your mouth, emotions in some small way are shaping what you say and how you hear other people, going on vacation. I say to my wife, I’d really like to go to Hawaii. [laughter] And she says, I’d really like to go to Japan. And suddenly I’m like, Japan’s twi… In my head I’m like, Japan’s twice as expensive as Hawaii. And that makes me anxious. And also, we went where you wanted last time. It seems like fairness would dictate I get to choose this time. Those emotions are all there. Now that doesn’t mean that we have to make this into an emotional conversation, but it does mean that if we’re having problems connecting with each other on this practical discussion of where to go on vacation, it might be because we want to have an emotional conversation and we need to recognize that and let that out.

Brett McKay: Sometimes too, people don’t even know when there’s emotion tied to something they’re saying. They think it’s…

Charles Duhigg: Yeah.

Brett McKay: They think it’s completely practical. You might see this in, I dunno, it could be a business meeting or a meeting that you have with a group you belong to, and you’re trying to make a decision that’s seemed… On the surface seems very brass tacks. What are we going to do for the budget? Who are we going to assign to this task? Whatever. And whenever you see people coming at it just loggerheads, it’s butting heads. In my experience, there’s always been… There’s some emotional hangup there.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Someone feels strongly about this. It’s not even logic, it’s you have to dig deep. Why is this person so stubborn about this thing? Or why am I so stubborn about this thing? And then once you get that on the table things, it might not resolve right away, but at least you know where everyone’s coming from.

Charles Duhigg: That’s exactly right. And one of the things you said is really important is listen for conflict. Listen for, this isn’t going the way I planned it going. Listen for, I just feel like we’re not connecting with each other. We all know when that happens. When we’re in that meeting and we’re discussing something that seems practical and you can feel at the table like, we’re not on the same page. Something’s happening here. We’re not agreeing with each other. We’re not building on each other’s ideas. That is a great clue, that you’re having a practical conversation and there’s something emotional that you need to discuss, that you need to shift a little bit so that you can get those emotions on the table. ‘Cause oftentimes, once we simply acknowledge them, they become much less powerful. Once I say, look, I know that you are worried, I hear you saying that you are worried that we’re going to have to lay people off, and that’s going to be incredibly stressful. And so I want to say, if it comes to that, you and I will be in this together. We will do this shoulder to shoulder. Now all of a sudden that anxiety is gone. Now we can talk about plans, but if we don’t even acknowledge the anxiety, then it’s hopeless.

Brett McKay: And the reason why people don’t acknowledge it ’cause they feel uncomfortable about talking, about emotions.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah. Or they simply don’t recognize.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Charles Duhigg: That this is an important part of conversations.

Brett McKay: We’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Going back to this idea that, you gave that example your father died, you get back and people are, I’m sorry. And then they just moved on to business as usual. And you talk about people do that ’cause they just… Yeah, they don’t know what to say. They feel uncomfortable.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah.

Brett McKay: They feel awkward. And a technique that I found really useful, I got from your book and we… You mentioned it earlier, this idea of deep questions is turning what are typical shallow questions into deep questions. I want to go into this deeper.

Charles Duhigg: Okay.

Brett McKay: What are some more examples of turning shallow questions into deep questions?

Charles Duhigg: The basic principle of a deep question is instead of asking someone about the facts of their life, ask them how they feel about their life. And anyone who’s listening who has kids knows how true this is. I have kids myself, if when my son comes home from school and I’m like, what’d you do today? That’s a facts question. He’ll be like, nothing. What did you learn today? Nothing. [laughter] It’s like pulling teeth. Whereas, when he comes home and I’m like, Hey, I was wondering what was the best part of your day? Or, I saw that you hung out with Jasper after school. What do you like about Jasper? What do you think is cool about him? Suddenly it’s like opening the flood gates because instead of asking him about facts, I asked him how he felt.

And this is the principle that underlies every deep question. The question doesn’t have to be very profound, and the question doesn’t have to be very specific, it has to be some version of, tell me what you make of that. What does this mean to you? Why is that important? Instead of asking someone like, Hey, where’d you go to college? You can ask them like, what was the best part of college for you? What you’re really asking them there is what was important to you about college? And it’s easy once you shift your brain a little bit to look for these opportunities. Deep questions are incredibly easy to find and they’re so much more fun to talk about.

Brett McKay: Yeah. You talk about, you get some other examples instead of asking where are you from? What’s the best thing about where you grew up? And…

Charles Duhigg: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Someone might talk about their friends and playing in the fields and memories with barbecues. And some people might say, it had a… I don’t know, a nice park system. You’ll be able to figure out what people value with their answer.

Charles Duhigg: That’s exactly right. What they will tell you is they’ll tell you what matters to them. I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, so if someone says, what’s the best part of growing up in Albuquerque, what I’d say is, it’s just, I had a lot of family around me and it was really easy to see them. It’s not a fast paced, high pressure place. And so what I told this person is I told them family is important to me. And so that’s something we can dive into. I told them that, I was born into a place where it was a slower pace, which also implies that maybe I’ve lived other places that are faster paced. I told you so much about myself simply by telling you what I liked about growing up in Albuquerque. And it gives you a chance to tell me about yourself to be like, I grew up in Boise. And, same thing. It was like slow paced and now I live in New York, it’s a little bit more fast paced and I like that too. Now we’re having a conversation where we can get real with each other and get deep.

Brett McKay: So you didn’t value Blake’s Ladi Burger? Green chili burger?

Charles Duhigg: [0:27:01.5] ____ You know Albuquerque.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Charles Duhigg: [laughter] I will say a Blake’s green chili cheeseburger is a pretty good way to go.

Brett McKay: It’s a good one, yeah. Okay. Ask those deep questions. You figure out what they value. And you can even do this with things that are practical. If you feel like there’s an emotional undercurrent here, you can turn these shallow questions into deep questions. I’ve been doing this with my kids, before we go to bed at night, we lie down next to ’em. We talk about the day with each of them. And I’ve been trying to ask these deeper questions instead of asking like, what’d you do today? What was… I asked, What was the best thing you did today? Or What’d you like about that?

Charles Duhigg: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And it opens up some great conversations. Another part of having these emotional conversations is we need to start paying attention to, how the other person feels during this conversation. We gotta pay attention to their mood and energy.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah.

Brett McKay: What do you mean by paying attention to mood and energy in the other person?

Charles Duhigg: Okay, when we’re kids, we do this almost automatically. Babies almost from birth, if you smile at a baby, they’ll smile back at you. But as we get older, instead of paying attention to nonverbal communication, we start focusing on people’s words. We ask someone like, Hey, how you doing? And they say, I’m fine, but their arms are crossed and their voice sounds really like lethargic and their eyes are downcast, but we pay attention to their words rather than how they look to us, the signals they’re sending us. And so a big part of this is, making ourselves a little bit more open to noticing what’s going on, beyond the words coming out of someone’s mouth. Are they leaning in towards us? Are they interrupting us? Interruption? We think of interruption as being a bad thing, but oftentimes when we’re interrupting each other, it shows that it’s a good conversation because it means that both of us really like what we’re talking about.

We really want to connect here. Or are they someone who’s just sitting there listening? Are they kinda like looking away? It’s really easy to ignore all of those signals, but once we train ourselves, and again, this isn’t hard, it’s a habit that we can develop really easily. Once we train ourselves to notice how people are behaving, how much energy is in their voice? Are they high energy or low energy? Do they seem upbeat or glum? That tells us almost everything we need to know about what’s going on inside their emotional mind, even without them saying a word about their emotions.

Brett McKay: And should we match them? If they’re high energy, should we respond by being high energy as well?

Charles Duhigg: It would feel pretty good if we do. Think about how, again, going back to laughter. And in fact NASA uses this to figure out which of their astronaut candidates or applicants have high emotional intelligence. Think about if you tell a joke and then you go, ha ha, [laughter] and you laugh really big at it and the other person goes, [laughter] Yeah. It’s funny. You don’t feel like you’re connected. [laughter] You like the fact that you’re high energy and they’re low energy. They’re laughing back. They’re doing the same thing you are. They’re matching you. But because our energy levels don’t match, we know that we’re not connecting. Whereas if we chuckle a little bit and the other person chuckles with us, then we’re telling each other, we’re on the same wavelength.

Brett McKay: Yeah. That story about NASA, there’s this guy, it was, Terrance McGuire.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah.

Brett McKay: NASA started putting astronauts up into space stations and so they’re going to be up there for months, even years, a year at a time. And instead they had to figure out how can we make sure these people don’t kill each other while they’re up there? And like, ’cause they’re annoyed, and the thing they found, he started studying their conversations, looking at psychological profiles. And the thing he found that determined, it wasn’t the determining factor, but a sign that someone had emotional intelligence and could get along with other people, [laughter] was laughing when other people laughed.

Charles Duhigg: And laughing the same way they laughed. What’s really interesting is when you make it to the final rounds of like astronaut, interviews, everybody there knows how to fake into emotional intelligence really well. These are the people who have the right stuff. They’ve practiced this for years, but the difference between someone who can fake emotional intelligence and someone who has emotional intelligence is pretty big when you’re like nine months into a mission and you’ve been living in a tin can for the… With five other people. And so you’re exactly right. What McGuire did was he changed how he interviewed people. So he’d walk into these interviews carrying a bunch of papers, and he would spill the papers as if on accident, but he would do it on purpose and he would always wear this yellow garish tie.

And he would turn to the person who he hasn’t even met yet who’s about to interview, and he’d say, my gosh, my son made me wear this tie today and I dropped all these papers. I look like a clown. [laughter] And he would laugh at himself in this big energetic laugh. And then, without the applicant realizing he would pay close attention, did the person laugh back politely? Or did they match his energy and his intensity of laughter? Because if they’re matching him, that’s someone who takes emotional intelligence seriously. That’s someone who has thought about how to connect with other people, and to that person it just feels like a habit. They’re doing what feels natural. But we develop those natural instincts by thinking at some point in our past about how we want to be in a conversation.

Brett McKay: Some of the most emotionally laden conversations are high conflict conversations.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah.

Brett McKay: And you, talk about this tool that can help you navigate these high emotion, high conflict conversation is the loop of understanding what is the loop of understanding?

Charles Duhigg: Yeah. And it’s looping for understanding, when we talk about how people do it. One of the interesting things is that when we are in a conversation that has any tension or conflict in it, even if it’s small, we’re disagreeing about something, we hold different political opinions, there’s this thing in our head that immediately makes us suspect that the other person is not listening to us, but they’re waiting their turn to speak. And that can be really frustrating and that makes us less likely to listen to them. The way we overcome this is this technique known as looping for understanding. And there’s three steps to it. The first step is, ask a question. The preferably a deep question. The second step is once a person is answered the question, repeat back what you just heard them say in your own words.

And then the third step, and this is the one most people forget, is ask if you got it right. And the reason why this is so powerful is because what we’re trying to do is prove that we’re listening. We want to prove to the other person that we’re hearing what they said, that we want to understand what they say. That we’re not just waiting our turn to speak. And this looping for understanding, it becomes real. It’s like a second nature. I do it all the time now. I’m like, what I hear you saying is, and tell me if I’m getting this wrong. And then I repeat what they said in my own words. And it’s important that it’s in my own words. I’m not mimicking them, I’m proving to them that I’ve heard what they said and processed it a little bit. And study after study shows, if you do this in a tough conversation, in a tension-filled conversation or discussing politics with like your uncle, it changes the entire dialogue for the better.

Brett McKay: Another, idea you talk about to navigate high conflict conversations is, try not to control the other person. ‘Cause that ratchets up the tension.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Why do we have a tendency to want to control the conversation and the other person, and what can we do to counter that?

Charles Duhigg: A lot of this research and insights comes from looking at marriage counseling and how married couples talk to each other. Everybody fights. Every married couple has arguments. Some of those arguments almost seem not to matter at all. People, they have an argument and then the next, 10 minutes later they’re fine. Some of those arguments become toxic every single time. And so researchers started looking, trying to figure out what’s the difference between these two groups. And what they found is that in the toxic conversations, the toxic fights, what happens is that we’re trying to control each other. And when we’re feeling attacked or when we’re discussing something that’s tense, it’s very natural to want to control something. We have inborn instincts to try and control a situation when we feel anxious.

And the most obvious thing to control is the person I’m talking to. And that control can be like, if I can get you to listen to me, then you’ll agree with me. If I can just get you to see things from my perspective or I can try and control your emotions, I might say, you shouldn’t feel that way. That’s not such a big deal. You’re making too big a deal of this. When people try to control each other, it becomes toxic. But we have this instinct for control and we can’t just repress it. What we should do instead is we find things we can control together. And there’s three things in general that even if we are in a fight with each other, we can control together. The first is the environment. If this fight starts at two o’clock in the morning, we can agree, okay, let’s wait until tomorrow when we’re both well rested and we’ve gotten a chance to think on this a little bit.

Let’s not talk about this until 10:00. That’s controlling your environment together. And that’s really positive. The second thing you can control is yourself. And you can make this obvious. You can say things like, look, I hear what you’re saying. I just want to take 10 seconds to think about what you said before I respond. That’s something that shows that we’re trying to control ourselves instead of the other person. And the third thing we can control, is the boundaries of the fight itself. There’s this pattern in a lot of marriages called kitchen sinking. That’s one of the most toxic things that can happen, which is, we’ll start by arguing about where we’re going to spend Thanksgiving and it becomes, your mom hates me and we don’t have enough money. [laughter] A fight about one thing becomes a fight about everything.

That’s terrible. Oftentimes you see what the best couples do is they say, okay, look, we gotta figure out where we’re spending thanksgiving. Let’s focus on the Thanksgiving question. I don’t want to talk about your mom, I don’t want to talk about money. We can talk about that stuff, but that’s a different conversation. And what happens is, when we try and control our environment and ourselves and the boundaries of the fight itself, what we’re doing is we’re introducing control that we can share, places where we can cooperate with each other. And instead of controlling each other, we’re controlling these things together. And again, that doesn’t mean that the fight disappears, but it makes it so much easier for us to get through it.

Brett McKay: No, you mentioned earlier, I’ve gotta watch myself for that ’cause I’ve done that a few times. I do that a few times is where you’re having a conversation and someone’s saying, someone says something and I’m like, you’re not listening to me, but they are listening to me.

Charles Duhigg: Totally.

Brett McKay: They don’t want to do what I…

Charles Duhigg: Exactly.

Brett McKay: They don’t agree with me, but I project on them and say, you’re not listening. No. And there’s times where people will tell me something and, I understand completely what you want. I just don’t agree with it. Yeah.

Charles Duhigg: And think about how good it would feel if you’re in that conversation and that person says, okay, look, I might disagree with you, but I want to repeat back what you just said to me to make sure I understand it and tell me if I’m getting this right. And that takes like 30 seconds to repeat that back. If they did that, then you would not say, you’re not listening to me. You would say like, no, you heard what I’m saying. And we might disagree with each other, but you heard me and this is hardwired into our brains that would make you more likely to listen to them. When we prove that we are listening through looping for understanding, we make the other person more likely to listen to us.

Brett McKay: A lot of this looping for understanding, it’s easy to do in person, ’cause you can do it real time.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah.

Brett McKay: But it gets hard when you take that conversation online. And so online conversations can become really fraught. Dumpster fires as people say.

Charles Duhigg: Immediately.

Brett McKay: Immediately.

Charles Duhigg: [laughter] There’s a story in the book about, this experiment that was done where they brought together gun control enthusiasts and then gun rights activists. And the goal was to have like, teach them how to have a civil conversation. And so they taught them looping for understanding and a couple of other skills and it worked really well face to face. And then they go home and they had created a private Facebook group for them. And within 45 minutes people were calling each other jack booted Nazis. [laughter] It fell apart immediately. [laughter],

Brett McKay: Why is that? What’s going on?

Charles Duhigg: Well, I think what’s happening there, and this gets to everything else we’ve been talking about. ‘Cause you can do looping for understanding online. You have to think about how to do it a little bit differently. One of my very examples of how technology changes these conversations is if you look at when telephones first became popular about a 100 years ago, there were all these studies that were written that basically said, no one will ever use a telephone for a real conversation. Because we can’t see each other, we’re not going to be able to discuss real things. And in fact, the researchers were right at that time. There were all these studies where they would transcribe people’s phone conversations and they’re stilted and weird. People used phones as telegraphs to send grocery lists or stock, news of the day.

But of course, by the time you and I and everyone listening were teenagers, we could talk for like seven hours a night and they were the most meaningful conversations of our lives. And the reason why is because we learned how to speak on the telephone differently than we learned how to speak face-to-face. And in fact, one of the things we know is that without realizing it, when you talk on the phone, you tend to enunciate a little bit more than you would face-to-face. And because you know the person can’t see you, we tend to put a little bit more emotional signals into our voices. We do this unthinkingly. Now, when it comes to online communication, most people have only been emailing for like 25 years at the most. Slack, we’ve been slacking for four or five years, texting each other using emojis to text each other.

I still don’t know how to do that. And so we make this mistake when we go online, which is that we assume online conversations are like offline conversations, but they’re not. They have their own rules and we know those rules. We intuit those rules, but sometimes we just have to remind ourselves that if I’m talking to you over the phone and I say something sarcastic, you will hear the sarcasm in my voice. But if I email you and I can still, when I’m writing the email, I can hear the sarcasm in my head. You can’t hear it. And so you’re going to read that as being serious and you’re going to get upset. I need to use a different way to signal to you, I’m being sarcastic. Either not be sarcastic or maybe I put one of those little winking emojis at the end. Something to show you that I’m being sarcastic, which I don’t have to do when we’re talking to each other. And if we just take a second before we hit send to say like, what are the rules of email? What are the rules of texting? How are they different from the rules of making a phone conversation? Then we tend to communicate much better online.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you have some other rules. Overemphasize, politeness.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Express more gratitude, deference, greetings, apologies, and hedges.

Charles Duhigg: And studies back all of that stuff up. Study after study shows that like, in fact there was this interesting study of Wikipedia editors where people would be fighting with each other all day long online. And they just asked… They told one person to start saying, please, and thank you every other comment. And like everyone else stopped fighting. It’s like we start mirroring each other, we start matching each other and being a little bit more polite online, it has these totally outsized impacts.

Brett McKay: And you can use looping for understanding to deescalate these high conflict online conversations. If you see someone.

Charles Duhigg: Totally.

Brett McKay: Throw something out there, a total flame. They knew it was like a grenade is going to cause everyone to get angry. You can ask, you can get curious and be like, all right, it sounds like you feel passionately about this. Tell me why is that instead of responding with an immediate barb.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah.

Brett McKay: And you might find that it…

Charles Duhigg: Absolutely.

Brett McKay: It forces the person to get outta their own limbic system, their…

Charles Duhigg: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Reptile brain and start thinking like, a homo sapien.

Charles Duhigg: That’s exactly right.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Charles Duhigg: It takes advantage of those parts of our brains that have evolved to be good at communication.

Brett McKay: Charles, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Charles Duhigg: Yeah, absolutely. The name of the book is Supercommunicators. You can buy it at Amazon or anywhere else that you, get books. If you want to reach out to me or learn about me, if you just Google my name Charles Duhigg, I’m the only Charles Duhigg on Earth, [laughter] D-U-H-I-G-G, or if you Google the Power of Habit or Smarter, Faster, Better, my website will come up and I’ll mention on my website is my email address, which is [email protected]. And I read and reply to every single email I get from a reader. It might take me a couple of days, but I want to connect with you and have a conversation. And so if you send me a note, I will read it and I will reply.

Brett McKay: Well, Charles Duhigg, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Charles Duhigg: Thanks for having me on. This has been so much fun.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Charles Duhigg. He’s the author of the book Supercommunicators. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, Also, check out our shownotes at where you find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

That wraps up another edition of the AoM podcast. Make sure to check out our website Find our podcast archives. And while you’re there, sign up for a newsletter. We got a daily option and a weekly option. They’re both free. It’s the best way to stay on top of what’s going on at AoM. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to get your view off a podcast or Spotify. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member. Who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, is Brett McKay, remind you to listen to AoM podcast, put what you’ve heard into action.

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