Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

How to become a supercommunicator, with Charles Duhigg

Episode Summary

978. Join Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling author, Charles Duhigg, as we talk about mastering the art of communication and his new book, "Supercommunicators." We explore the skills anyone (yes, you!) can learn to become a powerful communicator. (Grammar Girl Conversations)

Episode Notes

978. Join Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling author, Charles Duhigg, as we talk about mastering the art of communication and his new book, "Supercommunicators." We explore the skills anyone (yes, you!) can learn to become a powerful communicator. Learn about the science behind effective communication, from NASA's emotional intelligence tests for astronauts to everyday interactions that can make or break relationships. Learn about the art of asking the right questions, the importance of matching conversational styles, and the profound impact of understanding and being understood. Whether you're negotiating a business deal, strengthening personal relationships, or navigating the complexities of online communication, this episode offers valuable insights into becoming a more effective communicator — a supercommunicator!

| Edited transcript with links: https://grammar-girl.simplecast.com/episodes/duhigg/transcript

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Episode Transcription

Hey, it's Mignon. This is the first of a series of Thursday interview shows that are going to come out for the next couple of months that we're loosely calling "Grammar Girl Conversations." I'll talk with my favorite people — authors, dictionary editors, medievalists, and more. Watch for the conversations every week Thursday, and I hope you enjoy reveling in the word-nerdery as much as I do.

Mignon Fogarty: 

Grammar Girl here. I'm Mignon Fogarty, and I'm here with Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author of the bestseller, "The Power of Habit." And he's here today to talk about his fabulous new book," Supercommunicators." Welcome, Charles. 

Charles Dughigg: 

Thank you so much for having me. 

Mignon Fogarty: 

Yeah. We're delighted to have you. Some people are born supercommunicators, but I was relieved to hear that you can also learn these skills. So, what is a supercommunicator?

Charles Dughigg:

I think we all know supercommunicators. Let me ask you a question. If you were having a bad day and you wanted to call someone who you knew would just make you feel better, does the person you would call, do you know who that is? Do they pop into your mind? 

Mignon Fogarty:

Yeah. 

Charles Dughigg: 

Yeah, who is it? 

Mignon Fogarty: 

Yeah, it's my dad. 

Charles Dughigg: 

Your dad. My guess is for everyone listening, someone popped into your mind as well. For you, your dad is a super communicator, and you're probably a super communicator right back for them. He knows not only how to ask you the right questions, but he knows how to show you that he's listening and that he cares that he wants to connect with you. 

Mignon Fogarty: 

Actually, what's amazing is I was telling him about your — he did a lot of negotiation when he was in business — and I was telling him about your book, and he said, "I do all those things."

Charles Dughigg: 

Like a good dad. Like a good dad. He's like, "By the way, I know everything you have ever…I do the same thing to my kids." But what's interesting is that there's some people, and your dad is probably one of these, who can do this with literally anyone. They can consistently connect with almost anyone, even when connections are hard, even when we're in a negotiation, when we disagree with someone, or we don't have anything in common. These folks are consistent super communicators. In the last decade, we've learned an enormous amount about them because of advances in neural imaging and data collection. We've learned that it's just a set of skills that they have. It's not something that's inborn to them, it's not something that has to do with their personality. It's just these techniques that when we learn them, help us have conversations and connect with other people.

Mignon Fogarty:

Yeah. As a former biologist and science writer, one of the things I really liked about your book is that it's all based in science. You're a journalist, you went out and reported this story out. For example, NASA. People think about that as the hard sciences, but they've done a lot of research on communication.

Charles Dughigg:

Oh my gosh, and they had to, right? In fact, in the 1980s, there was this push to start building the International Space Station, and NASA suddenly realized, we're about to send people into space for a year at a time and they're going to live together in this little tiny can. If they don't have good emotional intelligence, they are going to kill each other. It's not going to work out. That's one of the things that they did is they, their head psychologist, a guy named Terry McGuire, he started trying to figure out, how do I test our astronaut candidates to see who has emotional intelligence and who just fakes it really, really well. It turns out that conversations were the way to do that. 

Mignon Fogarty:

I thought it was hilarious that the astronaut candidates were so good at faking it. 

Charles Dughigg:

Yeah! Yeah, what's interesting is that, so he started this thing where he would, he changed how he did interviews. He would walk into a room and he would spill all these papers as if on accident. Then he would do this big boisterous laugh like, “Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!” and then pay attention to how the candidate, applying to be an astronaut, how they laughed back. Because everyone knew you're supposed to laugh back. Someone politely chuckle on and go, "Let me help you with that." And some would match him and go, "Oh my gosh, that happens to me all the time. Let me give you a hand." What he knew was that the people who matched him, they were the ones who were showing that they wanted to connect. They were the ones who had emotional intelligence. Because showing someone that we want to get to know them better, that is at the core of how we actually connect with them.

Mignon Fogarty:

Yeah. We talk a lot on the podcast about dialects, and code switching, and things like that. It kind of reminded me of this concept of matching. 

Charles Dughigg:

Yeah. No, absolutely. In fact, I think code switching is oftentimes a version of matching. What matching is, and this is interesting, because matching is not mimicry. Mimicry is inauthentic. Mimicry is something that feels like this person is trying to manipulate you. But matching is about recognizing what kind of conversation is happening, and trying to align with the other person. So, a good example of this is that it used to be that I would come home from work after a long day, and I would complain to my wife, and she would offer me this very practical advice, “Why don't you take your boss out to lunch and get to know each other a little bit better?” Instead of being able to hear her, I would get even more upset. I would be like, "Why aren't you taking my side on this? Why aren't you outraged on my behalf?" When I asked researchers, they said, "Well, look, you're actually having different kinds of conversations, and so it's very hard to hear each other. You're coming home, and you're having an emotional conversation. You're in an emotional mindset. You want to talk about your feelings. And your wife, your wife is responding with a practical conversation.” And those are both equally legitimate kinds of conversations, but if you're having different kinds of conversations at the same moment, you're not really going to hear each other. You're not going to connect with each other. And so the key is the matching principle in psychology, as it's known, which says that to really communicate with someone, you have to be having the same kind of conversation at the same moment. And then you can move together from different type of conversation to different type of conversation, but you've got to get aligned. 

Mignon Fogarty:

It reminded me of another thing we talk about a lot, which is writing to your audience, understanding your audience. And it seems like the supercommunicators do a really good job of understanding their audience and what the audience, their communication partner, needs. 

Charles Dughigg:

Absolutely, absolutely. Because if I'm coming to you as a science writer, I probably am in a more practical mindset, right? I want to know, I want you to prove to me that what you're telling me is scientifically valid, that it's rooted in evidence. But if I call up my mom and I talk to her about how nobody understands me and I've had a rough day, I don't want her to be like, “Well, let me tell you what the science tells you,” right? I want her to empathize. I want her to acknowledge my feelings. And I think when we're writing, it's incredibly important to ask ourself, “What does my audience want?” Like, why are they picking up this article or this newsletter or podcast or book? What are they looking for? And oftentimes it's more than one thing, right? It's they want a great story, and they want excitement, and they want suspense, and they want an idea that is rooted in science. And it's when we think about all those different things that we can provide to them that we manage to leap through the page and connect.

Mignon Fogarty:

Yeah, I realized that that was a mistake that I make sometimes in my interpersonal communications. It's like, I'm always bringing the facts.

Charles Dughigg:

Right. 

Mignon Fogarty:

Like, I am all about communicating the facts, and that's not always the right approach. 

Charles Dughigg:

Yeah, yeah. And sometimes we want those facts, but sometimes we're in a different kind of conversation. And what researchers have found is that there's these three main buckets that our conversations fall into. There's, as I mentioned, the practical, right? We're solving problems, we're sharing facts. There's the emotional where I describe my feelings and I don't want you to solve my feelings, I want you to empathize. And then there's the social about how we relate to each other and the social identities we carry. And for instance, politics is a great example of this because when we have a discussion about politics, sometimes our instinct is to go to the facts, to say like, “Look, like taxes went up under your guy or spending went up or things got worse.” But as we all know, that does not usually work, right? That changes no minds. Rather, it's oftentimes an emotional or a social conversation where we're talking about, “I like this guy 'cause this is how he makes me feel. And I feel like I'm frustrated by society and he promises to make it better,” or social to say like, "The way that I bond with other people, my tribe gets behind this issue and that's important to me." And it's when we have that conversation, when we're really talking about the same thing that we can begin to understand each other much better.

Mignon Fogarty:

Yeah, you mentioned earlier that matching isn't manipulative. And I had heard of the concept of looping before, but I always felt like it was a little bit manipulative, like, okay, this is what I hear you saying. But it's much more than that. So I really appreciated how you explained that. 

Charles Dughigg:

Yeah, and particularly in conversations where there's conflict, this looping for understanding is really, really important. And it has three steps and you're right. The steps are designed to make it real and not manipulative. And the first step is you just ask a question, right? Preferably a deep question if you can. It's something that gets the other person to talk a little bit about their values or their beliefs or their experiences. Then step number two, repeat back in your own words what you just heard them say. And that in your own words is really, really important. Because I'm not trying to mimic you, I'm not trying to parrot you. What I'm trying to do is show you that I've paid attention, trying to, that I've processed what you're telling me, that I'm really grabbing onto it. And then the third step is to ask you if I got it right, to give me permission to acknowledge that I understood you, that I listened closely. And the reason why this is powerful is because it proves that I'm listening to you. And when someone proves that they're listening to us, we trust them more, we like them more, we become more willing to listen to them in return. But equally, if I do this honestly, it means I don't have to change my opinion. I don't have to be manipulative and pretend I believe something I don't. I might loop for understanding and understand exactly what you're saying and still completely disagree with you. But what's important is I've processed what you told me on your terms. I've shown you that I process it, that I listen closely. And then I'm in a place where I can say, “Look, I actually see the world differently, but it's so helpful to understand you and I hope that you'll take the time to understand me.” 

Mignon Fogarty:

A big part of the book is about asking questions, asking better questions. Maybe explain how people can just tweak the kinds of questions they ask just a little bit to become better communicators. 

Charles Dughigg:

Yeah, it's a great question, and particularly for writers, I think the ability to ask the right questions is really powerful. So one of the things that we know is that consistent supercommunicators, people who can connect with almost anyone, they tend to ask a lot more questions than the average person, like 10 to 20 times as many questions. And some of those questions are like, we hardly even register them as questions or things like, “Oh, what'd you think about that? Well, what'd you say next?” They're inviting us into the conversation. But some of the questions are what are known as deep questions, I mentioned this before. And a deep question is something that invites us to talk about our values or beliefs or experiences. And that can sound kind of daunting, but it's actually much easier and much less invasive than it sounds like. For instance, if you meet someone who's a lawyer, you might say, instead of saying, “Where do you practice law?” You might say, “Oh, what made you decide to go to law school?” Or “What's the best case you ever worked on? What do you like about being a lawyer?” Those are all deep questions. They're very easy to ask, but they're deep questions. Because when that person responds, they're gonna tell you about the experiences that they had that led them to law school, about what they love about their job, the values that they bring to their work every day and how they're able to make good on their beliefs. That's really powerful. And when someone reveals that to you, when they say something real and meaningful, if we respond in kind, if we engage in what's known as reciprocal authenticity or reciprocal vulnerability, then we're actually creating a bond with them. And again, we might come from completely different worlds. But if I say, “Oh, that's why you went to law school? It's interesting. I went to medical school 'cause I saw my uncle get sick when I was a kid.” Now suddenly we have this thing in common that allows us to form a real connection. 

Mignon Fogarty:

Yeah, you're mentioning reciprocity made me think of this part of the book where there's this famous study with these famous 36 questions or something like that that a lot of people may have heard of, the questions that make you fast friends for life. But what you had in there that I didn't know is that it was also really important to take turns. 

Charles Dughigg:

Yes, it's critical to take turns. So for folks who aren't familiar with this, sometimes these are called the 36 questions that lead to love. And what these researchers did, Arthur and Elaine Aron, is they brought these strangers in two by two, and they would give them this list of questions to ask an answer between the two of them. And then, and this is pre-internet, this is like the early 90s, then they just sent everyone home. They didn't give anyone contact information, nothing like that. And then seven weeks later, they followed up and they found that almost 60% of the people who had participated in the study, they went and they searched out the person that they had done this exercise with, right? One guy who said something like, “You know, I knew that his name was John, and his last name started with S. So I called every John S in the white pages until I found him.” Three people, three couples ended up getting married, who met this way. And the reason why is exactly what you just said, is that when we have a real conversation, when we answer questions that are meaningful and that expose something about ourself, and most importantly, when we engage in reciprocity, I ask you, you answer, and then you ask me. And we feel like we're sharing equally with each other and we're sharing things that matter. We just feel closer to each other. We like each other more. A stranger becomes someone that we're gonna go through the white pages to find because we had the right conversation with them. 

Mignon Fogarty:

And a lot of this is about speaking to each other, verbal communication, but you had a section about communicating online, which is, you know, we lose all those tools. We have the laugh, like, are we laughing the same? You just lose that when you're communicating online. And, you know, one of the things was like, you just, essentially, you just cannot be too polite, like crank up the politeness, but what else?

Charles Dughigg:

Well, it's fascinating what they found and there's been study after study that's done this, is if you look at people just like screaming at each other online and one person starts saying "please" and "thank you," the entire temperature will lower by about 50% and people will stop screaming at each other. This is what we know. We know that different forms of communication require slightly different rules. And all of us already know this, right? One of my favorite examples of this is that about 100 years ago when telephones first became popular, there were all these studies that said people will never be able to have real conversations over the phone 'cause you can't see each other. And at the moment, they were actually right. If you listen to, if you read the transcripts of early phone conversations, it's people using it like a telegram, giving each other shopping lists or stock orders. But of course, by the time we were teenagers, we could talk on the phone for like seven hours a night. And what happened is that we learned how to use telephones. We learned that there's special rules for telephones. Without even being aware of it, when you and I talk on the phone, we over-annunciate our words. We put more emotion into our voice because we know the person can't see us. And when it comes to online dialogue, which is usually written, the same thing is true. There are special rules for different forms of communication. And when we get into trouble is when we forget to pay attention to those rules, when we forget to remind ourself that a text is different from an email, is different from talking to someone on the phone. But if we do remind ourselves and we say like, “Oh, they're not gonna be able to hear the sarcasm in my voice, so maybe I shouldn't be sarcastic, or maybe I should put a bunch of emojis to sort of show the emotions I'm feeling alongside these words,” that's when that communication becomes better. That's when we're able to connect, even if we can't see each other. 

Mignon Fogarty:

You have said that writing this book was a learning experience for you as you were working on it. And I would just love to hear how it has changed your work as a journalist, as a reporter.

Charles Dughigg:

Yeah. You know, I think as a reporter, so I write for The New Yorker magazine right now. I used to write for the New York Times, and I report these books. They're kind of like the same reporting projects as my newspaper and news magazine work. And I think I used to feel like my job as a reporter was just to ask questions, not to insert myself into the conversation, but to interview the other person. And one of the things I really carried away from this is, in order for a conversation to happen, both people have to bring themselves to it. Right? Even though I'm asking someone about their research and their findings and my experiences aren't gonna show up in the article, if I share my experiences, if I react to what they're telling me with my own feelings and my own thoughts, then what that source is telling me is gonna become so much richer. And so oftentimes now what I find myself doing is I'll call someone up and I'll ask them some questions and they'll mention something. You know, “I got interested in this because one of my kids got sick.” And I'll ask questions about like, “What was it like to have a sick kid? ‘cause I've had sick kids and like, I know how scary it is. And I know you go into the hospital and like you feel totally overwhelmed. Like, what was it like for you when you went into a hospital as a scientist?” And suddenly they tell me these things that are so much richer, so much more meaningful. The goal of a conversation in a lot of ways, and this is true of interviews too, is to surprise ourselves by what we say. That's where new ideas come from, is we speak them to someone else and we say, “Oh, those words just came out of my mouth and I never thought about it that way before.” And that's exciting and that's reporting in journalism. And so I try and bring myself to these conversations, ask deep questions, engage in this vulnerability and authenticity reciprocation, prove that I'm listening. The same things that we do in a conversation are the things that make an interview magical. 

Mignon Fogarty:

Wonderful. Well, I think this is a really important book. As I was reading it, I was thinking, I need to get this for every 22 year old in my life. Imagine if I had known these things when I graduated from college and entered the workforce, life would have been a lot smoother. The book is "Supercommunicators" by Charles Duhigg. I encourage you all to read it. And thank you, Charles, so much for being here with us today. 

Charles Dughigg:

Thank you for having me on. has been such a delight.

Mignon Fogarty:

I hope you all enjoyed my conversation with Charles Duhigg.

I'll be back with our regular Tuesday episode, including a fun segment about the origin of punctuation and some useful advice for fixing noun clusters. And make sure to check back here next Thursday for our next installment of Grammar Girl Conversations.

That's all. Thanks for listening.