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Author Charles Duhigg is trying to help us have better conversations


If you walk down the self-help aisle in a bookstore, you are likely to see a lot of titles encouraging you to add something to your life, to start a new workout routine, to optimize your schedule, to balance your budget better, to introduce a healthy habit. And then you might see Charles Duhigg's newest book, which is not about adding to your life. It is about improving something that we do constantly every single day, and that is speaking to each other. His book is called "Supercommunicators." Charles joins me now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CHARLES DUHIGG: Thank you for having me on.

DETROW: You write in the book early on that this was a little bit of a selfish pursuit on your part, that you realized that maybe you weren't communicating well and you put some thought into it.

DUHIGG: Yeah, I fell into this bad pattern with my wife where I would come home after a long day and I would start complaining about my day, and she very reasonably would suggest, like, a solution like, why don't you take your boss out to lunch and you guys can get to know each other better? And 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 on my side. And then she would get upset because I was attacking her for giving me good advice.

DETROW: I just - I feel like that actually - that exact spousal dynamic has repeatedly come up in interviews that I've done over the past year on a wide range of subjects.


DETROW: People, either they are the suggester or they are being suggested to, and even though it makes sense that that's helpful, it's not.

DUHIGG: Right. It's a conundrum, right? Why does this happen? And so I called up all these experts, and I asked them. And they said, what we've learned is that most people assume a conversation is about one thing, like we're talking about your day or the kid's grades. But actually every discussion is made up of different kinds of conversations, and they tend to fall into one of three buckets. There's emotional conversations where I talk about my feelings. There are practical conversations where we might talk about how to solve a problem or how to plan for the future. And then there's social conversations, which is about how we relate to each other and the social identities that are important to us. And they said, you have to have the same kind of conversation at the same moment to really connect with each other. And when you came home, you were having an emotional conversation, and your wife responded with a practical conversation. And both of those are legitimate kinds of conversations. But unless you're having the same kind of conversation at the same moment, you're unlikely to really hear each other.

DETROW: And I was attracted to this book because, you know, as we are doing right now, the bulk of my job is to have conversations with people. But that is a hard thing to do. And I will say sometimes these days I feel like I'm better at work than at home, which is something to work on.

DUHIGG: (Laughter).

DETROW: But I think the point is that that's hard to sustain, right? I feel like you can go into one conversation - this is an important conversation. Maybe it's with your boss, right? Maybe it's with your spouse about something important. And you can be thinking, I need to be present in this conversation; I need to listen. But doing that day in, day out, moment to moment feels really hard to do. And yet, there are people out there who are really good at this.

DUHIGG: Yeah. Yeah, there are these super communicators. And we all have moments of super communication - right? - when we know exactly what to say to a friend to make them feel better or what to say in a meeting to kind of get everyone over to our side. But you're exactly right. There are some people who can do this consistently, and one of the things that I suspected at first was that it was really exhausting for them, that they just had more energy than I did. But I found out that's not exactly right. Because our brains have evolved to be so good at communication, because it's something that's so important to how humans became humans, when we learn the right habits around communication, it tends to take up less energy. It tends to become easier, and there's some really easy tactics or tools that help us do that.

DETROW: And one of them you repeatedly write about is listening. And that's so interesting to me because - this sometimes comes up when I'll talk to, like, journalism students. You know, like, what's some advice? Well, listen to the people you're interviewing, right? Like, it's a basic thing, and yet so many of us are bad at it or don't do it. And over and over again, you point out that the people who are successful are actively listening, are reading other people's cues, are actually hearing what people are saying and responding and tweaking their response based on what they're hearing and taking in.

DUHIGG: That's exactly right. And sometimes we have to prove that we're listening, right? It's not just enough to absorb what someone's saying. Or sometimes we have trouble listening because we get distracted in our own brain even though we don't want to. And there's actually a technique that they teach at Stanford and Harvard and a bunch of other schools that's really powerful for this, which is known as looping for understanding. And what it says is when you're having a conversation with someone, start by asking them a question, right? And there's some questions that are more powerful than others. And after they've responded, repeat back to them in your own words what you heard them say. Prove to them that you're listening.

And then the third step, and this is the one usually we forget, is - ask if you got it right. And the reason why that's so powerful is because not only am I showing this other person that I genuinely want to understand what they're saying, I'm genuinely paying attention, but it also forces me to pay attention because sometimes we want to listen and we get caught up in our own heads about what we want to say next or what we disagree with. But if your assignment in a conversation is to listen closely enough that you can repeat back in your own words, showing you've processed it - what this other person said - it's almost like you're tricking yourself into listening more closely.

DETROW: I am going to resist the urge to repeat back to you what you just said right now...

DUHIGG: (Laughter).

DETROW: ...Because this is self-conscious to do during an interview. But do I have that right?

DUHIGG: You got it exactly right. You're doing great.

DETROW: How much do you think phones have changed the way that we communicate in a relatively short period of time?

DUHIGG: Well, it's interesting. So when telephones first became popular, like 100 years ago, there were all these researchers who said, we will never be able to have real conversations on a telephone because we can't see each other. And what's interesting is, at that time, they were right. If you read early transcripts from telephone conversations, it's people basically using it as a telegraph, you know, sending over, like, grocery orders or stock purchases. Now, of course, by the time you and I and everyone listening was in middle school, we could talk for, like, seven hours a night on the phone, right?


DUHIGG: It was some of the most meaningful conversations of our life. And what's happening right now, I think particularly - I have young kids. I know you have young kids. Our kids are learning how to use texting and Snapchat and emojis to be real conversations. Now, the key, though, is that you still have to pay attention to how you're communicating. You have to remind yourself that an email is different from a text, is different from a phone call, and there's different rules for each one. And if I want to connect with someone, I have to remind myself and pay attention to what those rules are.

DETROW: That's interesting what you were talking about - that study about early phones. Like, I'm thinking about early movies where people are clearly just acting like they're in a stage production in front of a camera, and it's...


DETROW: ...Awkward. And then we figured out how that entirely different form works, and people adapted.

DUHIGG: Exactly right. But the more we use these things, the more we learn to use them, the better we get because our brains have evolved to be good at communication. We look for opportunities to connect with other people because connection feels so good.

DETROW: What from what you learned about super communicators is useful for trying to have a political conversation in this current moment?

DUHIGG: I think the most useful thing - and actually, there's been a bunch of studies that have proven this out - setting your goal not to convince them to change their mind, but setting your goal rather to simply understand what they are saying because we have this innate need as humans to engage in reciprocal vulnerability and reciprocal authenticity. And so if I'm really trying to understand you - if I come to your house and I say, look, you know, I know that you voted, you know, for the Republicans, or I know that you're against gay marriage, or I know that you hate Donald Trump - I don't want to convince you right now of anything different. I just want to understand. I want to understand from your perspective, why is this important to you? Like, what are you seeing here that matters to you so much? Inevitably, what that person is going to talk about is that they're going to talk about how they see the world and their frustrations or their hopes and aspirations.

They're probably not even going to talk about a political candidate. Instead, they're going to talk about how it feels to be American right now. And the truth of the matter is that once they share that with us, we can share with them from our perspective how it feels to be an American. And they're going to listen because we've listened to them. That's so much easier to accomplish. That means that even if you walk away from a conversation and you still disagree with each other, but you understand each other better, then that conversation has been a success.

DETROW: And all the while, I thought that the key to changing somebody's mind politically was to personally attack them on social media. Wow, I had it all wrong.

DUHIGG: (Laughter) You know, people are testing it pretty actively.

DETROW: Yeah. So one last question for you - and maybe this is unfair because you spent a lot of time researching this book. You spent several years writing it and putting it together. But if you could distill everything you have learned about communication into a one-line mantra, the next time that we could say it to ourselves maybe when we're in an argument or a tricky conversation, what would that be?

DUHIGG: It's a great question, and I think that mantra for me personally is - just try and connect. And it's hard sometimes to remember to connect, right? You're in an argument with someone. All you can think about is, you know, they're so wrong, and I'm so right. Or I'm so angry, or I sure do hope that their guy doesn't win the election because it's going to be terrible. Or you're talking to your spouse, and you're talking about something hard. You're talking about something where you disagree with each other. It's so easy...


DUHIGG: ...To get focused on that conflict. But if we connect with each other, that connection becomes your primary goal, and it makes everything just a little bit easier.

DETROW: That is Charles Duhigg, whose latest book is called "Supercommunicators." Thank you so much.

DUHIGG: Thanks for having me.

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