What can we learn from ‘supercommunicators’?

Jun 28, 2024 | News

We can work on having deeper conversations, says the author of a book about connecting in disconnected times

Communication is homo sapiens’ superpower. A pretty ballsy assertion, right? Ballsy because it elevates us from our animal kin. Ballsier still because – well, let’s be frank – most of us are pretty rubbish at it.  
 
The good news is that our face-to-face foibles could be fixable. We all have a silver-tongued Luke Skywalker within us. A soft-speaking, deep-listening Jedi bubbling up inside. The Force for deeper verbal connection ready for awakening.  
 
So how do we tap into it? First, we have to resolve what gets in the way. So argues the business journalist Charles Duhigg in his new book Supercommunicators, a part-theoretical overview of all things conversant and part instruction manual for the connectively challenged. 

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Teeing up his thesis is that, as the modern human race, we’ve simply “forgotten” what we’ve evolved to do. Namely, to exchange these magical, mouth-making signals that we call ‘words’ in order to create mutual understanding, strengthen shared bonds, and avoid scuffles and Scud missiles.    
 
“As the world has become more technocratic and as politics have got more polarised, we’ve stopped practicing communicating across divides,” says Duhigg. “It’s dangerous. And it also doesn’t make us feel good. Because our brains have evolved to give us pleasure and when we don’t connect it feels lonely.” 
 
Anyone who has had relationship counselling can probably guess what comes next. Listen more. Speak less. Try and understand where your interlocutor is coming from. And be as honest and clear as possible about who you are and what you feel.  

Supercommunicators by Charles Duhigg

Duhigg deploys a one-word answer for what characterises a supercommunicator: questions. Masters of the communicative arts – you know, those people who after a conversation leave you feeling better, braver, and just generally buoyed up typically ask “10 to 20 times more questions” than average.  
 
“A big part of that is because by asking questions they are showing that they are interested and want to connect,” he notes.  
 
The same, incidentally, is true about smiling and laughing. Nine times out of 10, Duhigg argues, people don’t smile because the person they are speaking to has cracked a funny joke. Instead, it’s a sign to say: Hey, I’m on board with this.” Or: “We’re good. I don’t bite. Let’s get along.” 
 
Close behind this curiosity and goodwill comes honesty. The book opens with the example of Jim Lawler, a CIA agent, who tried and repeatedly failed to recruit spies in Europe. He followed instructions: set up an alias, identify a hot lead, strike up a relationship, then cajole them into service.

Out of transparency comes vulnerability, which give rise to trust, which is ultimately the elixir of true connection

Luckless and desperate, Lawler set up one last meeting with a foreign ministry official from the Middle East. She’d already said an emphatic no. But at their dinner date, he found her sad. She was heading home and disappointed at herself for not achieving more.  
 
Duhigg picks up the story. “He [Lawler] was terrible. Like, the worst recruiter ever. So, he just figured that: ‘I’m just going to be as honest as I can.’ And he told her: ‘I’m really bad at this job. I’m worried about getting fired …  and when he started to be authentic and genuine with her, she could hear him trying to say they have the same goals. To help women in her country. And she became one of the CIA’s best assets in the Middle East.”  
 
Super communication isn’t about manipulation, Duhigg stresses. In Lawler’s case, he’d totally given up on recruiting the agent, hence his outburst of candour. He was just being honest, showing his cards. Out of such transparency comes vulnerability, which give rise to trust, which is ultimately the elixir of true connection.  

Illustration: Rosie Barker

Of course, there are tips and tricks to smooth the way. When your teen messes up, for example, try to listen (i.e. why did you do it?) rather than lecture (i.e. “this is why you must never, ever do it again!). Or when you fight with your partner (and, yes, it’s inevitable), focus on controlling yourself (for example, your emotions, your environment, the boundaries of your spat) and not on controlling your loved one (“Don’t even go there or “If you roll your eyes one more time …”).  
 
Another helpful hint for all situations: don’t assume you know what kind of conversation you’re having. Miscommunication occurs when people are talking at cross-conversational purposes. Me speaking practically, say, while you’re speaking emotionally. As Duhigg writes: “This explains why, when you complain about your boss“Jim is driving me crazy!”and your spouse responds with a practical suggestion “What if you just invited him to lunch?”it’s more apt to create conflict than connection: “I’m not asking you to solve this. I just want some empathy.’” 
 
In conclusion, if you find yourself misunderstood or never getting through, don’t give up. “Anyone can be a supercommunicator,” Duhigg insists. Just get up to speed on the basics. Practice lots. And, hey presto, you’ll be wielding your very own likeable-lipped lightsabre before you know it.

Four tips for meaningful conversations

1. Ask: ‘Why am I speaking?’ 

Supercommunicators always start knowing what kind of conversation they want. To fix a problem, or to share their feelings? To know is to be prepared. 

Image: Volodymyr Hryshchenko 

2. Think about your goals

Your desired outcome matters. Imagine you want to ask the new love in your life to go on holiday, but fear coming on too strong. Solution: ask him, but in a way that allows him to say ‘no’. 

Image: Ryan O’Niel

3. Look for clues  

As we speak, we drop hints about the conversation we want. If the person is emotional, say, or constantly referencing other people, follow their lead and step into that conversational category.  

Image: Oleg Laptev

4. Ask questions – and listen

Where clues fail, use questions. Your partner has had a hard day. So, before you give your solutions, ask if they’re wanted. You might find she just wants to vent. 

Image: Towfiqu Barbhui

Supercommunicators: How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection by Charles Duhigg is out now, published by Cornerstone

Main illustration: Rosie Barker

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