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All you need is love—and twenty questions

Charles Duhigg’s ‘Supercommunicators’ makes the point that good conversation is the starting point to true connection

Meaningful conversations can forge deep connections and change the way we experience the world. Photo: Getty Images

By Shalini Umachandran

LAST PUBLISHED 06.04.2024  |  09:22 AM IST

Ask more questions is advice that’s par for the course for a journalist, but best-selling author Charles Duhigg also believes it’s the single most important factor in communicating successfully. 

In his new book Supercommunicators: How To Unlock The Secret Language Of Connection, Duhigg writes that some people seem to “click" with others effortlessly, while most struggle to carry a conversation though we are connected and talking all the time—email, WhatsApp groups, Instagram, X, Slack channels, phone and video calls, meetings—in person and via screens. The ones who seem to slip into and steer conversations easily are “supercommunicators", and one of their secrets is that they ask 10 to 20 times more questions than the garden variety talker.

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Supercommunicators are not born with the gift of the gab; they’ve just learnt certain tips and tricks through trial, error and necessity to get people to open up to them. At the crux of the book is the premise that we’ve all failed to speak in ways that allow us to be understood. “Conversation is the communal air we breathe," writes Duhigg, but we’re all usually talking at cross purposes.

There are essentially three kinds of conversations we’re having at any given time—practical, decision-driving conversations, which he calls “What’s This Really About?"; emotional conversations that ask “How Do We Feel?"; and finally social conversations that explore “Who Are We?". The problem is that one of us is usually having the first kind of conversation, while the other is in the second or third mode. That’s why we get our signals crossed and end up bickering or feeling misunderstood, he explains. So how do we all get to the same frequency, or, in other words, have the same kind of conversation? Practise, listen, share and speak would be the summary of his solution—Duhigg has simple suggestions that anyone could follow to learn to guide conversations to the same plane and therefore, deflect or defuse conflict.

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As with his previous books, 'Supercommunicators' intersperses research findings that buttress his thesis with anecdotes, diagrams and personal observations

In his first book, the best-selling The Power Of Habit (2012), Duhigg blended scientific research, reporting and an effortless writing style to explain why our habits harden into unhealthy ones and how we can change them. As with all writers of this genre, Duhigg believes that psychology and neuroscience shape our behaviour and with (a fair bit of conscious) effort, we can change our habits and therefore, our fortunes. Supercommunicators is, in a way, an extension of that idea—we’ve fallen into bad patterns when it comes to conversation, connection and listening and if we become aware to these tendencies, we could change the way we connect with people and, in time, transform every aspect of our lives. As with The Power Of Habit and his second book, Smarter Faster Better (2016), Supercommunicators intersperses research findings that buttress his thesis with anecdotes, diagrams and personal observations.

To be a supercommunicator, Duhigg suggests focusing on having a “learning conversation" where one pays attention to the kind of conversation taking place (practical, emotional or social); shares what one hopes to get out of the interaction and finds out what others want from it; asks about others’ feelings; and finally, explores whether identities are central to the discussion underway. Tick all those boxes, and you’re on your way to becoming a supercommunicator.

As Duhigg demonstrates, beloved doctors, successful CXOs, popular university professors and excellent negotiators all share this ability to listen to the other person’s opposing point of view and yet gently manage to bend the person to their way of thinking. It’s also how, as Duhigg explains, the most successful CIA recruiters convince reluctant citizens to turn on their own governments and become spies for the US.

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These are also skills and techniques that can smooth the edges in any long-term relationship whether with a partner, parent or child—though I’d be wary of asking an exceptionally annoyed parent or partner, “Do you want me to suggest some solutions or do you just want to vent?". In some conversations, despite the conviction that Duhigg’s words carry, I believe discretion is the better part of valour.

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He doesn’t shy away from explaining how we bring social identities to any conversation—our backgrounds, biases, inherited beliefs and the evolutionary instinct to trust those like ourselves. It isn’t impossible to see differences as a source of rich variety. We can, he writes, have difficult conversations about systemic injustice, if we spent time thinking about how these should take place.

Essentially, this is a book that believes that love is really what keeps us all going. Not romantic love but deep meaningful connections with family, friends, neighbours, colleagues and people around us. And good conversation are the starting point for that love. The research he cites shows that the happiest people are those who regularly reach out to socialise, forging meaningful connections with their community. “Conversations can change our brains, bodies and how we experience the world," writes Duhigg, while acknowledging that we may not always manage to have deep conversations but intent, or wanting to understand the other person, is a good place to start.

So, the next time you find yourself at a family dinner and at odds with someone whose political views seem like they’re coming from the depths of the Mariana Trench, don’t rebut them. Instead, demonstrate that you’re listening, ask questions with empathy, summarise their views, maybe even repeat it back to them, and make them “feel safe" before sharing your opposing viewpoint—all before dessert is served.

As close to impossible as this may seem, it might be our only way forward in a riven world where everything from food choices to treaties from the 1970s are cause for violent disagreement.

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