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Gift of the gab: how to become a supercommunicator | Social etiquette

Gift of the gab: how to become a supercommunicator | Social etiquette
Gift of the gab: how to become a supercommunicator | Social etiquette

The trouble with communication is that we all assume we’re good at it. Occasionally, we are. A friend in need reaches out: we say just the right thing. Smiles all round. Often, we’re not. Christmas dinner: discord descends. Turkey, flung. When the journalist Charles Duhigg was tasked with managing a project at the New York Times, he was surprised to find himself struggling to connect with members of his team. As a reporter, he was speaking to people every day – he was in the very business of communication. Yet he kept having clashes.

For some, it wouldn’t warrant further thought. People bicker, right? But for Duhigg, whose books The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better probe the science and psychology of everyday behaviour, social shortcomings are like catnip. As he observed these conflicts – first at work, and then at home when he’d complain fruitlessly to his wife, “My boss is a jerk… My colleagues don’t understand me…” and then bicker with her about it all over again – he became curious about where he was going wrong.

“What’s really painful,” Duhigg tells me via a Zoom call from his home in Santa Cruz, California, “is when we think we’re OK at it and then we blow up when there’s something vital we’re discussing.” Or: “When we fail to connect when connection is really important to us.” Just as Duhigg wanted to improve his own conversations, he also wanted to understand why some people seemed to have such an effortless, enviable knack for it.

We all know someone like this. They are the sort of people who consistently lighten your mood, de-escalate a row or bring you around to a point of view you never thought you’d consider. They are people whom we are drawn to and want to spend time with. They are excellent travel companions, networkers and dinner party guests – you can seat them between Brexiters and Remainers. In the scientific realm, they are known as “high-centrality participants” or “core information providers”. Duhigg, who has now written a book on the phenomenon, calls them “supercommunicators”.

Good conversation, and the feelgood feeling that blossoms from it, is an innate part of being human. As social creatures we crave it: relationships, communities, entire societies, all depend on our ability to exchange thoughts and feelings with others. “It’s a superpower,” Duhigg tells me. “It’s what sets us apart as a species.” Michel de Montaigne, the French philosopher, described conversation as “the most delightful activity in our lives”. The author Ursula K Le Guin, in her essay Telling is Listening, likened it to getting in rhythm. “Rhythm differences,” she wrote, “lead to failures in understanding,” and neuroscientists show this sensation to be quite literal; positive interactions result in a synchronicity of brainwaves, otherwise known as neural entrainment. Breathing, heart rate, the dilation of pupils, all begin to align. It is this that underpins the powerful feeling we know as “clicking”.

‘Positive interactions result in a synchronicity of brainwaves, otherwise known as neural entrainment.’ Illustration: Cat Sims/The Observer

You wouldn’t think it if you spend much time on Facebook, your neighbourhood WhatsApp group, or watching GB News, but we live in a golden age of communication. There are myriad ways to connect with others: any time, any place (with mixed results). Being able to connect with larger networks has become crucial to social, professional and romantic success. It’s perhaps one reason why some of the latest linguistic trends relate to improving dialogue around tricky subjects, such as the rise of therapy speak. Often this is misused as easy ammo for social media takedowns (take the “I’m at capacity” meme as your example). But it also reveals how eager we are to reach for tools to help us express ourselves. That’s how Duhigg sees it. “It might be that they’re trying to alienate you on purpose with that language,” he says, sitting relaxed, cap on, in his home office. “It might also be that they’re just awkward and they actually don’t know how else to communicate.”

We exist in a sea of dialogue and discussion, phone calls, meetings, Slack channels, group chats and emojis; it is easy to miss the moments when a deeper conversation might be available. “And that’s one of the things that supercommunicators look for,” he says. “They look for these opportunities to show someone that they want to connect, when other people might overlook it.”

As communication has become more complicated, Duhigg tells me, it has never been so important to think more deeply about it. Not long ago most people lived much smaller lives, often not straying far from the area where they were born – let alone juggling Zoom calls across five time zones. It meant that the “quiet negotiation” that happens at the start of a conversation, where you figure out what sort of chat you can have and pick up and respond to the non-linguistic cues of the other person, was relatively straightforward. Now, we have to grapple with a multitude of cultural and linguistic differences. “Take today,” Duhigg beckons to me on screen. “You’re on another continent. It’s the first time we’ve met. So understanding how to converse with you is much more important than if you and I had been born within half a mile of each other.”

A great deal of study has been done to help us understand what’s going on when we speak, fuelled by advances in data, analytics and neuroscience. It is into this trove of research that Duhigg dived, leading him to the Dartmouth Social Systems Lab, led by Professor Thalia Wheatley, which has run experiments designed to peek under the hood of conversing humans. For one such experiment, led by Beau Sievers, volunteers were shown a selection of silent, decontextualised clips from films and left to discuss and interpret the scenes while their brain activity was monitored. As expected, the discussions caused brain activity to align, but in some groups the effect was particularly pronounced, leading to stronger feelings of mutual understanding. All these groups contained someone with a particular aptitude for conversation, the people Duhigg calls the “supercommunicators”.

Curiously, these were not necessarily the obvious “leader” (in fact, groups with a more dominant individual tended to be less synchronised), but they were people who in their everyday lives tended to have bigger social networks, had people confide in them and were more likely to enjoy roles with greater responsibility. So what did they do? They spoke less, repeated other people’s ideas, admitted mistakes and were self-deprecating. They also asked questions – around 10-20 times as many as anyone else.

If you’ve ever been on a bad date, then you’ll know the significance of these traits (or the lack of them). But as Duhigg explains, the most important skill these people had was that they were able to constantly adjust how they communicated. They matched the mood as it shifted – allowing themselves to flow with the dynamics of the group. For Duhigg, this was revelatory. It highlighted why, when a colleague came to him looking for emotional support and he responded with practical suggestions, they would grow more frustrated. And why he in turn would get annoyed when his wife would do the same when he was simply looking to vent. “It explained why we were getting into a fight when we were both saying what we thought were perfectly reasonable things,” he says. “We were failing to match each other.”

In order to match, you need to know what sort of conversation you are having. Fortunately, as Duhigg explains, most conversations boil down to three types. First is a “What’s this really about?” conversation, which draws on a practical, decision-making mindset. Then there is “How do we feel?” which calls on an emotional mindset and the exchange of stories, empathy and support. Third is a “Who are we?” conversation. These relate to identities – it could be a conversation about who we are, our mutual connections, or where we are from – and, according to one study published in Human Nature, these account for 70% of conversations. Usually when we chat, however, we cycle through these categories and it’s not always obvious when they shift. “It’s surprisingly simple to describe,” says Duhigg, “but that does not mean it’s simple to implement.” Naturally, this benefits the relationships with those close to us. But as Duhigg discovered, it can also create bridges of connection between groups who are disinclined to hear what the other has to say at all.

Take vaccine hesitancy. During the pandemic, many of us endured tense conversations around this subject – sometimes with people close to us – usually to no avail. One reason for this is that this subject is not really about health choices at all – it’s about “who we are”. Vaccine hesitancy is more than just a rejection of the government and health officials, who can be perceived as a “threatening outgroup”. It is a community, an identity, one that provides all the positive feelings and self-esteem associated with belonging to a particular tribe. Health workers were desperate to get through to people and to do so, Duhigg explains, they had to find a way to forge a connection. The only way to do this was to create a dynamic that felt different to a doctor in a white coat wagging their finger.

‘We need to remind ourselves that there are different rules for different channels of communication’: Charles Duhigg. Photograph: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

That’s because stereotypes can push certain identities to the fore and can shape our behaviour. Studies have found that minority students can underperform in tests – second-guessing themselves or spending too much time on answers – not because they are less smart, but because they are distracted by negative stereotypes about their abilities. One experiment found that gender disparities among maths students could be neutralised simply by asking female students to jot down on paper all the ways they saw themselves, all their clubs, communities, roles and hobbies, just before an exam. Reminding people that they are not one-dimensional was enough to alleviate the anxiety of an “identity threat”.

It’s the sort of research that shaped how health workers began to address patients who were uneasy about the vaccine. They adopted a decades-old technique, traditionally used for people with alcohol addiction, called motivational interviewing. “If you talk to the doctors who learn this technique,” says Duhigg, “the number one thing they will say is that they’ll tell the patient: ‘I’m not here to convince you to get a vaccine. Like, honestly, if you don’t get a vaccine, that’s totally fine. I want you to have the information that will help you make the best choice for you. But I will not judge the choice that you make.’”

Doctors found success by listening to their patient, giving space for other identities to come to the fore. Perhaps they had kids of the same age, or liked to eat at the same spots. The patients felt heard. Crucially, the identities would shift. They’d see their doctor as a neighbour, a supporter of the same sports team, a parent who wants to do right by their kids – not as a threatening government official. Often, this was all it took.

Many of the modern-day communication malfunctions do not occur face-to-face, but online. Duhigg writes about one experiment to improve dialogue between both sides of the gun debate in America. Participants were taught a formula for active listening called “looping for understanding”. Put simply, it means asking questions, and repeating their response back to the speaker to check you’ve got it right. Primed to have better discussions, the group was able to talk honestly and openly without descending into a raging row. “They were able to have a conversation in person,” says Duhigg, “then they went online and it was something like 40 minutes before someone was calling someone a ‘jack-booted Nazi’.”

Duhigg, as you might expect, remains optimistic.“Most of us got our first email address 25 years ago,” he says. “We just haven’t learned the different rules. We learned how to communicate over telephones and that became intuition.” Now we need to adjust to the subtleties of new formats. Sarcasm, for example, may not compute in an email, but you may be able to communicate more brusquely in a text message than a phone call.

“Once we just remind ourselves that there are different rules for different channels of communication and that we need to acknowledge those rules and kind of abide by them, then a lot of the problems with digital communication start to work themselves out.”

And as Duhigg picked up an awareness of the categories and mindsets of conversation, his own communication clashes began to work themselves out, too. It was, he says, like discovering a “key” to unlocking different interactions. “I sort of engaged in communication without really thinking about what communication might be or what the definition of success should be,” he says. “But I think if you were to ask me during my worst moments, I would say, well the goal of having this discussion is to convince the other person to agree with me.” Now, he has a different take. A good conversation, he explains, is one where you can walk away knowing that you genuinely understand what another person thinks or feels. “And even if we walk away disagreeing, then that conversation has been a success.”

Supercommunicators: How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection by Charles Duhigg is published by Cornerstone at £16.99, or buy a copy for £14.95 from

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