Career & Success

From Good to Great: What Makes a “Supercommunicator”

In this podcast episode, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charles Duhigg shares what it means to be a supercommunicator.

March 14, 2024

| by Matt Abrahams Charles Duhigg

Across more than 130 episodes, Think Fast, Talk Smart has covered various aspects of what it takes to be a good communicator. But what about reaching that next level? What about becoming “super?”

“Supercommunicator” is a term used by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Charles Duhigg. In his latest book, Supercommunicators: How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection, Duhigg explores the precise attributes these people possess that set them apart.

“One of the things that we know about supercommunicators is that they seem to notice what kind of conversation is going on,” Duhigg says. “They’ve trained themselves to look for the little clues or cues that tell us, ‘Oh, this person might be talking about something that seems practical, but they’re feeling something: this is an emotional conversation,’ or, ‘that person is talking about a plan they want to make.’”

In this interview, Duhigg sits down with strategic communications lecturer and podcast host, Matt Abrahams, to explore these attributes further and explain how all of us can put them into action by practicing habits such as active listening, looping for understanding, and identifying someone’s true feeling underneath their words.

This recording is the first video podcast for Think Fast, Talk Smart. You can find a podcast version of this interview wherever you get your podcasts.

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.

Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: The ability to connect and to align our goals to others is a real superpower. Today we will explore how to be a super communicator. My name is Matt Abrahams and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast.

Today I’m excited to chat with Charles Duhigg. Charles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who currently writes for The New Yorker magazine. He is the author of the enormously popular and helpful The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better. His newest book, Supercommunicators, out now, fits squarely in the focus of this podcast.

Welcome, Charles.

Charles Duhigg: Thanks for having me.

Matt Abrahams: I look forward to this conversation. It’s going to continue from the dialogue we had when we were out walking around where I grew up and we had a lot of fun.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah. No, I’ve been looking forward to it, too.

Matt Abrahams: Let’s get started. Both of your previous books focus on motivation, decision-making, and personal growth. I’m curious, what made you look into communication?

Charles Duhigg: The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better, they’re really about how to improve ourselves, right? But the more I thought about it and the more I got exposed to how people were using the books, they would oftentimes say to me, “This was really helpful in helping me create an exercise habit or giving up drinking or smoking, but what do I do about other people,” because most of our life is other people. And of course, that is communication, as you know as someone who’s studied it. your whole life.

And then there was also this thing going on where I sort of felt like I was failing to communicate often, right? I mean, I’m a journalist so I’m supposed to be a professional communicator. And I would come home from a tough day at work, and I would be in a bad mood. And I’d complain to my wife, and she would give me good advice, like “Why don’t you take your boss out to lunch so you guys get to know each other so that you overcome these problems?”

And instead of being able to hear her, I would get more upset. I would say like, “Why aren’t you taking my side?” And then she would get upset because I was being irrational. And the more that this happened with my coworkers, with my kids, the more I realized there’s something here that I don’t understand. And so, almost all the books I write are borne out of me wanting to basically call up experts like yourself and ask them questions.

Matt Abrahams: Well, you do a really nice job of defining some of the key concepts. And moving from self-focused to other-focused, as you say, is really all about where communication lies. In Supercommunicators, you do a really nice job of explaining the role of connection and alignment in successful communication. Can you help us understand some of the neuroscience behind that?

Charles Duhigg: Absolutely. So, this is fascinating, and this is one of the things that in the last decade we’ve really begun to appreciate for the first time, which is that in this conversation, when we’re talking to each other — although we’re unaware of it — our pupils are going to dilate at the same rate, and our breath patterns are going to start matching each other, and our heart rates will actually start matching each other. And if we could see inside our brains, what we would see is that your brain and my brain and becoming more aligned, what’s known within neuroscience as neurally entrained.

And the reason why I think this is so powerful is because, A, it tells us what the goal of communication is, right? The goal of communication is to make that connection, to start thinking alike. Which doesn’t mean we have to agree with each other. It just means that we understand each other.

But equally what’s interesting about it is it tells us what communication is. I experience an emotion or a thought or an idea, and I want to share it with you. And if I share it well enough, you actually experience that same emotion, that same thought, that same idea. We become neurally entrained to the degree that we are thinking alike. Literally our brains are matching each other. And that’s what communication is, which is this superpower that we have as humans.

Matt Abrahams: That syncing up of neural patterns really is super interesting, and I believe — and I’m curious if you learned in your research — is more likely to occur when people tell stories and use vivid images and emotions. So, it’s not just listing information; it’s actually really engaging. Is that correct?

Charles Duhigg: That’s absolutely right. And I’m curious. When you’re teaching it and you teach people to tell stories, do people understand what you’re telling them? Do they know what it means to tell a story?

Matt Abrahams: So, we actually take a step back and we say what it’s really about is engaging. So, we talk about connection and engagement, and story is one of many ways to engage. So, story is but one tool of many that help people to really engage and connect. And that, to me, is where empathy is born.

Charles Duhigg: And if empathy means that we are feeling the same thing, that you describe a pain and I can understand it, then helping me understand how you came to that feeling as opposed to just what you’re feeling is so valuable.

Matt Abrahams: And our brains are wired to seek that kind of information out. We’re very receptive to that. I often talk about bullet points and lists; our brains aren’t wired for that.

Charles Duhigg: So, Thalia Wheatley at Dartmouth, she spent a huge amount of time looking at exactly that question: what kinds of things do we grab onto and what does our brain get a pleasure reward from. And her thesis — which I think is right — is that humans have evolved because we’re prosocial. And so, there’s a selective pressure on prosocial behaviors.

And listening closely and entraining with someone who’s telling you a story is a prosocial behavior that’s going to help you ally with them and build a family together or build a community or build a company. That knowing how to do this is something that our brain is hardwired to enjoy because evolution has said this is something that helps us succeed as a species.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah. You identify three types of conversations that we often toggle among. Can you detail the three types and help us understand some of the characteristics and implications of each of them?

Charles Duhigg: The way that this came about was that the same way that I was having this frustration with my wife, researchers saw that this was happening all over the place. And so, they started looking at what was actually happening.

And one of the first things they found is we tend to think of a discussion as being about one thing: our day or where we’re going to go on vacation. But what they found is that almost universally, each discussion was made up of different kinds of conversations that were happening. And if people weren’t having the same kind of conversation at the same time, they weren’t communicating with each other; they were getting frustrated.

Most of those conversations fall into one of three buckets. There’s a practical conversation where we’re either making decisions together. Perhaps we’re just deciding what we’re going to be talking about today. We might solve problems. We might be making plans. Then there are emotional conversations where if I tell you what my problem is, I do not want you to solve it for me, right? I want you to empathize. I want you to tell me that you understand.

And then there’s social conversations which are about how we relate to each other, how we relate to society, how we believe society sees us, how our backgrounds where we grew up. And what researchers have found is that if two people are having a different kind of conversation — even if both conversations are valid — they don’t connect.

So, when I came home and I was upset by a day at work, I was having an emotional conversation, and my wife, responding with advice, was having a practical conversation. And both of those are equally valid conversations, but because they weren’t the same conversation at the same time, we would both get frustrated mostly because we would fail to hear each other.

Matt Abrahams: So, it sounds to me like there’s this whole other level of alignment that we’re talking about. There’s neural alignment, but then there’s also conversational alignment.

Charles Duhigg: Absolutely. So, one of the things that we know about supercommunicators, or people who are consistently supercommunicators, is that they seem to notice what kind of conversation is going on. They’ve trained themselves to look for the little clues or cues that tell us, oh, this person, they might be talking about something that seems practical, but they’re feeling something, this is an emotional conversation, or that person is talking about a plan that they want to make. But what this has to do is how they think other people see them and how they see themselves, that’s a social conversation. Do you find that’s true?

Matt Abrahams: Yeah, so those who are most agile in their communication have a level of meta awareness, pattern recognition that they’re doing. And in the work I do on spontaneous speaking, I spend a lot of time helping people develop the skills to recognize some of those things. And first and foremost, I believe it starts with listening. And listening, to me, isn’t just hearing what’s said but observing what’s happening in the moment and understand. So, the words might not necessarily reflect the intent.

So, somebody could ask for feedback, but what they’re really asking for is support. And when you observe their nonverbal behaviors, the tone of their voice, their body posture, the context in which they ask, you begin to see that. Many of us, either because we’re anxious or excited, go into a conversation without taking a breath to understand what’s in the circumstance that might lead us to connect back.

Charles Duhigg: Absolutely.

Matt Abrahams: So, that level of alignment, I think, is really interesting to think that there’s this neural alignment that happens, but there’s — as you’re talking about, it sounds like — conversational alignment.

Charles Duhigg: Let me ask you something. As someone who is a supercommunicator yourself.

Matt Abrahams: My wife would disagree, by the way, but yes.

Charles Duhigg: Probably a lot of this is instinctual habits that you built up that you might not even recognize now. When you’re talking to someone, what do you think you notice that other people miss? Are you looking at their facial expressions more? Are you listening to their tone of voice? What is the thing that you’re noticing that other people might overlook?

Matt Abrahams: Clearly you’re a journalist and you ask insightful questions. I’m not sure if I could itemize the things that I look for or the people that I really respect as being good communicators, but it’s a combination of all of that. There’s a feeling and an instinct that comes from just having really thought about these circumstances in the past.

So, I am. I’m noticing somebody’s posture. I’m noticing how quickly they respond. I’m noticing their facial expressions. All of that is input that I’m taking in. But mostly what I do is I give myself a moment to just connect where I look. A lot of people who are nervous or anxious jump right in, and I think they miss that opportunity.

I had the good fortune as I was preparing for my recent book to interview a woman who’s a visual notetaker. Have you ever been in a meeting where somebody’s doing that?

Charles Duhigg: Oh yeah, yeah.

Matt Abrahams: And to me, it’s like speaking a foreign language where you’re taking input in verbal form and then translating it into visual form. And I asked her, “How do you do that so beautifully and so quickly?” And she said it’s a lot of practice and preparation. In advance, she’s thinking about what are the connections between ideas, what might be the direction that this conversation goes.

So, she’s forming ideas so that when she hears something come up, it’s part of this pattern recognition that she does. And I think that’s what you’re asking in the question about what makes for supercommunicators is I think they’re noticing patterns of behavior that they’ve primed themselves to look for so that they feel what’s going on.

Charles Duhigg: Well, and what I love about that answer, which I think the research backs up and I think is true, is that you have made it into a series of habits that rather than having to itemize, rather than having to pay close attention to eyes and hands and posture, what you do is you look for a gestalt, you look for that whole picture, and allow that picture to register with you, right?

I think that’s one of the things that happens is that when a conversation doesn’t go well, we tend to become focused on one thing, that you’re nervous or I’m nervous. And the more that we can step back and just give ourselves a chance, I think really, at the end of the day, it’s about being patient and giving ourselves a moment to think before we open our mouth and ask ourselves, why am I about to open my mouth?

Matt Abrahams: We are often so in our heads about what we’re going to say and how we’re going to appear that when you make yourself or encourage yourself or habitually learn to be other-focused, it allows you to take in that input and make adjustments. We often are so caught up in am I going to say this the right way, what are they going to think about me, the time pressure I feel or, gosh, this is the boss. That gets in the way of being in that moment to actually read those cues and clues.

Charles Duhigg: I think that’s absolutely right. One of the things that we know about people who are consistently supercommunicators is that they tend to ask 10 to 20 times more questions than the average person. But many of the questions are these questions that we don’t even register. They’re things like, “What’d you think about that” or “That’s interesting. What’d you say next?” These little questions that invite us in. And I don’t think that they’re thinking of them as questions. It just is a habit, right? It’s an instinct.

Matt Abrahams: Right. And they’re seeking out more information. And in so doing, you’re giving permission to the other person to share more and take more space and time which allows people to disclose more. Are there other things that consistent supercommunicators do that others don’t as much?

Charles Duhigg: Yeah. One of them is that they tend to ask a certain kind of question. Nicholas Epley at University of Chicago has written really beautifully about this. They ask deep questions. And so, a deep question is something that asks me about my values, my beliefs, or my experiences. And what’s interesting is that deep questions don’t often seem deep.

So, for instance, if you meet someone and you say like, “What do you do for a living?” “I’m a doctor.” “Oh, did you always want to be a doctor? Were your parents doctors?” Those are deep questions because the way that someone replies to them is going to inevitably tell you something about how they see themselves, what happened in their lives, the values that led them to medicine.

And so, one of the things that supercommunicators do is when they ask questions, they don’t just ask fact questions. They ask questions that get people to explain how they see the world and how they see themselves.

Matt Abrahams: Question asking is really liberating. And the nice thing about it is you can actually stockpile or think in advance about some types of questions that you might want to ask. Not that you script them out, but there’s work you can do in advance. And even though it sounds counterintuitive, in these spontaneous interactions you can actually prepare to be spontaneous.

Charles Duhigg: Absolutely. And actually, you can script them out, right? Alison Wood Brooks at Harbor Business School did this wonderful study where she had people talk to strangers and write down three topics they wanted to discuss before the conversation. It took like 7 to 10 seconds, and then people would put the card in their back pocket. Very, very few of them actually spoke about the things they had written down, but almost all of them felt less anxious during the conversation because they knew that they had this thing in their back pocket.

At the end of the day, most deep questions are a version on, “What did you make of that?” “I went to medical school.” “Oh yeah? What’d you make of that? What was that like?” That’s all it takes.

Matt Abrahams: You dedicate a lot of time in the book talking about conflictual communication. What best practices do you suggest to help us communicate better when we’re in conflict?

Charles Duhigg: One of the things that the research shows — and a lot of this comes from Sheila Heen and her colleagues at the Harvard Negotiation Project — oftentimes when a breakdown occurs in a conflict conversation, it’s due to one of two things or possibly both. The first is that the people involved do not believe that the other person is actually listening.

And so, what’s really important is not just to listen but to prove that you are listening. And one of my favorite techniques for this is this thing called looping for understanding which has these three steps: ask a question, and hopefully a deep question, then repeat back what you heard the person say in your own words. And then the third step, the one that we usually forget, is ask them if you got it right.

And the reason why that’s so powerful is because not only does it mean you’re actually listening — you’re going to hear what they’re saying and make sure you hear — but it proves to them that you want to understand. But then the second thing that can happen, even if people believe they’re listening to each other, is they can become involved in a fight over control. And it’s very, very natural.

When you are in conflict, your instinct is to control anything you can, and the easiest thing to try and control is the other person. “If I can just make you see all the facts, you’re going to agree with me. If I can just get you to listen to my argument, then it’s going to be okay.” Or you say you’re upset. “There’s no reason to be upset.” I’m trying to control your emotions. That is toxic.

And in fact, we know this from research on marriage therapy. When people try and control each other, it ends up destroying the conversation. Alternately, there are things that we can control together even if we’re in a fight. And in particular, there’s three that seem powerful. If we can control ourselves. If I say to you, “I heard what you just said. I just need a couple seconds to think about how to respond to that.” I’m showing you that I’m controlling myself and I’m inviting you to control yourself.

The second thing we can do is control the environment. So, instead of having the fight at 2:00 in the morning when the baby’s screaming, say, “Let’s wait until 10:00 when we’re well rested and we can do this over coffee.”

And the third thing we can control is the boundaries of the conflict. One of the most destructive things in marriages is what’s known as kitchen sinking where we start fighting about where we’re going to spend Thanksgiving, and eventually the fight is about your mother, “and she drives me crazy, and we don’t earn enough money and that’s why we can’t do anything nice.” A fight about one thing becomes a fight about everything.

Matt Abrahams: Control and the power around who controls what in conflict is clearly critical. And I like how you broke down what we have control over and its impact. This notion of looping is really powerful. We have talked often on this podcast about the value of paraphrasing. Paraphrasing is so important. Not only does it validate I heard you — literally I heard those words and I understand them — but I took time to listen. So, I’m validating you as a person and that can be really helpful.

I think if all of us were to reflect back on a recent conflict and think about where we were exerting control or trying to exert control and the impact that had on the communication, we might do things very differently.

Charles Duhigg: We want to listen, and we’re so upset that we actually sabotage ourselves. And one of the things I love about looping for understanding is that it gives you an assignment. My assignment is to listen closely enough to you that I can kind of tell you what I just heard.

And so, then I can’t really think about what I want to say next. I can’t even really think about what I’m feeling. I just have to pay attention to you. And so, even if I want to listen, it gives me a tool for doing so because I know what I’m going to say next, which is to repeat back and then ask if I got it right.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. It gives you a process to follow. I often talk about listening for the bottom line instead of the top line. So, when you’re in these circumstances, listen for what the bottom line the person’s saying and how can you repeat that back rather than just getting the gist and getting into your head about what I’m going to say next and what that means for me, et cetera.

Charles Duhigg: Can I ask you, when you’re teaching students, particularly students who have spent some time in the professional world, and they’re talking about conflicts at work, how is our conflict at work different from our conflict at home or are they just versions of the same basic impulse?

Matt Abrahams: Well, I think they’re versions of the same basic impulse. I think at work we have additional layers of power, status, tenure, history, all of these things that factor in. Now those can play out in our personal lives as well, but they have ramifications that are more codified in a way, and we have to be sensitive to that. So, I might, with my spouse or with my kids, have the conflict in the moment, but at work that might not be appropriate to bring it up. So, I have to think about temporally how does that happen.

Charles Duhigg: Raising this issue of power and hierarchy in differentials I think is really important. I spent a number of months with Amazon writing an article about them. One of the things they do well is they communicate internally really, really well. And they basically have a rule that Jeff Bezos created which is when a meeting starts, the most junior person talks first, and then the most senior person talks last. And that’s sometimes hard because you sit down and you say, “This is a budgetary meeting.” What you really want to know is what does the boss think because that’s what we’re going to end up doing. But the boss can’t start.

And so, as a result you have to almost without a net give your opinion. But what it does is it ensures that you have a voice in that room. And as a result, you might change his. Mind or her mind, you might not change his or her mind. But the fact that you know that they have listened to what you have said means you’re more invested in whatever the ultimate solution is.

Matt Abrahams: Feeling that your voice matters is really important. And we’ve seen, especially with hybrid communication where some are in the room and some are virtual, conversational equity is really important, and having processes and procedures that bring all voices to the table are really important.

Which leads me to my next question. You also spent some time in your new book talking about online communication. And I’m wondering if you have some rules or ideas beyond what you’ve just suggested around what Amazon does to help us communicate better when we are virtual in some way, maybe it’s visually virtually like Teams, Webex, Zoom, or Slack or text or even social media? What thoughts do you have on that?

Charles Duhigg: It’s one of my favorite chapters because it’s this chapter about this group that brought together gun control enthusiasts and gun rights enthusiasts. And they brought them together in Washington DC to have this huge meeting. And their goal was not to have people agree with each other. Their goal was not even for them to find common ground. They just wanted to see if they could have a civil conversation, right?

Matt Abrahams: The bar was set low.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah, if they could talk to each other without screaming midway through the day. And it worked really well when they were in person. They taught them things like looping for understanding, different techniques. And they said, “This is great.” And actually, I talked to a number of people who had attended it and they said, “I was getting on the plane to go home, and I was thinking if I can tell all my friends about this, we can change the world. This is amazing.”

They get home and they had actually set up a private Facebook group to continue the conversation, and they had invited some more people into it. And within 45 minutes of going online, people were calling each other jackbooted Nazis, right? It just completely fell apart. And I think one of the big reasons why it fell apart is because people assumed I can communicate online the same way I communicate face-to-face, which of course is not true, but it’s even less true than we think it is.

When telephones first started becoming popular, there were all these articles about how we would never be able to have a meaningful telephone conversation because you can’t see the person, you can’t see their expressions. And so, telephones were just going to be used for like stock trades. And the funny thing is they were right.

At the time, if you listen to those early conversations, people don’t know how to talk to each other over the phone. Now everyone has — when you’re a teenager you have seven-hour-long conversations over the phone and you feel so close to that person. It’s because we’ve learned a set of skills for phone conversations. Internet communication or online dialogue is very, very young, right? The first email was sent in 1982. Most of us didn’t start emailing, if we’re old enough, until the 2000s, the turn of the century.

Texting really only took off once the iPhone — Each of those modes of communication has its own rules, its own logic. But if we assume that we can talk to someone the same way on the phone that we can talk to them over email, we’re probably going to make a mistake. Sarcasm works really well if you can hear the tone of my voice. If I send you a sarcastic text, you have no idea that I’m trying to be sarcastic, and so you think I’m a jerk.

So, that’s one of the things that I think is helpful to recognize is just to say, oh, actually, if you’re about to send a text, or if you’re about to send an email, of if you’re about to call someone, take a second and ask yourself how does this mode of conversation work that I need to accommodate.

Matt Abrahams: Right. Being aware of the channel really makes a difference.

Charles Duhigg: Makes a huge difference.

Matt Abrahams: And all of us are constantly channel switching, and we have to take a breath, as you say, to think about, one, is this the best channel for this message. And then second, what are the constraints of this channel, and how can I leverage them versus just communicating the way I always communicate.

Charles Duhigg: And yet so much of what’s happened with the digital revolution is it has pushed us to speak faster, right? To say like, “Oh, I can send a text and I’m not even think about what I’m saying. I’m just going to punch it out as fast as I can and hit send. I’m going to post something online. I’m going to send you a quick email.” The more that we just get ourselves to slow down just half-a-second, the more we can actually communicate though that channel.

Matt Abrahams: I’m starting to hear threads through our conversation, and they clearly are there in your book, is this notion of alignment, this notion of slowing down. These are things that supercommunicators do that really help them be more effective.

I want to go back to that walk you and I took in my hometown. And as we were walking around, we talked about the power of storytelling. And you are clearly an amazing storyteller, and your new book includes many memorable stories. When you’re thinking about conveying the information you convey, when do you think to use story, and how do you conceptualize story? What’s your process for telling stories?

Charles Duhigg: I wanted to write about nonverbal communication, in particular laughter, because I thought laughter was really interesting. And I had once talked to this guy who was a psychologist at NASA. It was his job to figure out who was emotionally intelligent and who faked it really, really well. And he said that he couldn’t do it until he started paying attention to how different people laughed.

He would walk into the beginning of an interview — these are applicants — carrying a bunch of papers and wearing this garish yellow tie. He would spill the papers as if on accident, but he did it on purpose, and then he would start laughing so loud and he would say, “I can’t believe I just did that. Not only that, but my kid made me wear this tie today and now I look like a clown.”

And he would pay attention to whether the candidate who’s sitting there, whether they laughed politely or whether they matched his energy and his affect. Because if they matched his energy or affect, they were making an offering: I want to connect with you. Those are people who were good at connection, good at emotional intelligence. The reason why that story was powerful, I think, is because now when we think about laughter, we think of someone walking into a room and astronauts and NASA.

And so, one of the things that I try and do is embed as much as I can in stories. And a story could be telling you about something that happened or an anecdote. But a story could also be, “I had this experience and I wanted to find out why, and I founded this idea.” It could be as simple as something saying I thought the idea was X, and then I learned that the idea is Y. That’s a story. But because you’ve seen the evolution of that idea, it’s easier to remember.

Matt Abrahams: So, it’s the arc with the detail that you really look for as you craft your stories.

Charles Duhigg: So, I think it’s actually the detail’s great, but not as necessary as the arc. So, every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, right? And when people think about stories, they tend to focus on the beginning and the end. “I needed to earn some money, and so I went and I got a job at McDonald’s,” right? What’s interesting is that it’s the middle that people really listen to.

So, if you think about Cinderella, the beginning is her parents die and she lives with her evil stepmother. The ending is they get married and they live happily ever after. That takes about four minutes in the movie of Cinderella. The rest of the movie is the middle, and that’s what everyone remembers: the pumpkin turning into a carriage, the mice that become horses. The middle is what matters.

And the reason why it matters is because it gives me an opportunity to see you learn something, to see you try an idea. That idea might fail at first, but you learned something from that that lets the idea work. Seeing you go through that process actually helps me understand the idea. If you just tell me what the idea is, I don’t absorb it as fully as if you say, “I tried X and it didn’t work for this reason, and I tried Y and it didn’t work for that reason. And then I found Z. And Z —” Now I understand why Z was so powerful. But if you had started with Z, I wouldn’t have known that.

Matt Abrahams: I love the mantra that the middle matters.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: There is so much pressure in communication to focus on primacy and recency, beginning and ending, and it is in the middle that some of the magic happens. I think you have to absolutely focus on how you start and how you end, but that arc in the middle really matters.

You are probably best known — at least currently. We’ll see if that changes based on your new book — on your work on habits. What new communication habits have you taken on as a result of your new research and new book, and how did you go about inculcating those habits?

Charles Duhigg: That is a great question. The habits that I find have emerged in my life are, first of all, just being really comfortable asking questions. I think that sometimes people, they hesitate to ask questions because they’re worried it’ll come off as too inquisitive, or that the other person won’t want to answer, or they’re just anxious.

And yet, what I’ve found and what every study has shown is if you ask someone a question — it hardly matters what the question is — they love answering it, right? I love talking about myself. You love talking about yourself. Asking a question gives us a chance to let the other person do something they love. Asking a deep question is even better because it gives me a chance to learn about who you are and for you to remember this moment that was important to you.

And then the second one, and I haven’t done much of it in this discussion, but that looping for understanding. I find that I just almost instinctually now when I’m talking to someone and they describe something to me, I say like, “Okay, okay, let me say that back to you and tell me if I’m getting this wrong. I think what you were telling me was —” And I don’t even think about doing it, but people really love that. They love it when you do it, and it means that I’m listening more closely.

Matt Abrahams: You are certainly an expert question asker. And I actually would say that your question asking serves the purpose of looping because having been involved in conversations with you, your follow up questions clearly demonstrate that you heard and understood what I say.

Charles Duhigg: And in fact, there’s some really interesting research by Michael Yeomans, who’s at the Imperial College in London, to exactly that point. If we ask someone a question, they answer it, and then we ask a follow up question, they believe that we have heard what they said. And that’s all it takes.

Matt Abrahams: So, before we end, I like to ask questions of my guests in rapid fire format. The first question I make uniquely for you and the other two are consistent across all the guests. Are you up for that?

Charles Duhigg: Yeah, absolutely.

Matt Abrahams: We’ve talked about question asking and answering. I’m curious, do you have a favorite deep question that you ask, like your go-to question if you need to have one?

Charles Duhigg: I don’t. Sometimes people bring up things that have happened that it could be easy to shy away from. My father passed away six years ago, and I found that one of the things that happened afterwards was I went back to work, and everyone would say, “I’m sorry. My condolences,” but no one would ask me questions about my dad. And I was desperate to talk about my dad. All I wanted to talk about was what he was like and what his funeral was like. It was the most meaningful and, in some ways, the most interesting thing that had happened to me in years, in months.

And so, one of the things that I try and do is I try and listen for people telling me something about who they really are or their emotional life or something that’s happened and then feeling the freedom and that it’s a gift to ask them about it. And sometimes they say like, “I don’t want to talk about this,” or “It’s just too recent, it’s too raw,” or like, “Oh, you’ll be bored by that.” But the asking, I think, indicates something to them that I want to know, and it opens the door for a more deep relationship.

Matt Abrahams: Comparing the asking of questions like that to a gift I think is a really nice comparison that can help liberate many people to follow what you do when you see it as a gift and as an opportunity to invite more detail. People can always rebuff it, but many people accept it.

Charles Duhigg: And even if they rebuff it, they’re not offended by the question. They understand that you want to connect with them. And they might not be ready at that point, but they’ll remember that when they are ready.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. Question number two — and you have spoken to many people and observed many people, so I would be very curious — who is a communicator that you admire and why?

Charles Duhigg: I think the easy answer is to say like Barack Obama or Bill Clinton, these people that are — even Ronald Reagan known as the Great Communicator.

I mentioned before Nick Epley who’s at the University of Chicago. So, there’s this interesting thing that I’ve met a number of people who work with Nick Epley or know him, and they talk to him once a year or once every two years, and they all say the same thing to me. They all say, “He’s just the nicest guy. I love talking to him.” And then I say, “Are you close to him?” “Oh no, no, no. I see him at the holiday party once a year. But I feel so warm towards him.”

And when I called Nick for the first time, I found that’s exactly what happened. And the reason why is because inevitably he says something vulnerable about himself. I called him up to talk about his research, and within five minutes we were talking about kids that he had adopted from Ethiopia and how proud he was to see his sons playing soccer. He’s very gifted at making you feel comfortable around him by being comfortable himself. And so, that’s one of the things that I’ve admired and tried to learn from him.

Supercommunication is not charisma, right? Oftentimes a supercommunicator, he’s not the funniest person you know or the smartest person you know. He’s the person you love talking to or she’s the person you love talking to the most. It’s the person you know if you’re having a bad day, and you think if I call this person they’ll make me feel better.

Matt Abrahams: Being present, showing that vulnerability seem to be key components of that. Final question for you: what are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Charles Duhigg: So, certainly listening. Having enough self-knowledge to recognize different kinds of conversations. So, if you’re having a practical conversation with someone, if you’re talking about a budget, and they say something like, “I didn’t get a chance to work on this this weekend because there was a lot going on,” being able to hear that and say, “Oh, this is actually also —,” they’re inviting me into an emotional conversation. I should ask about what happened this weekend. And they might not want to talk about it, but letting them know that I’m there to have that conversation if they want to.

And then the third one, I think, sharing who you are, sharing how you see the world, that is interesting to other people. And inevitably, you are the expert on your own experiences in a fascinating way.

Matt Abrahams: What I heard from you is, we have to be present and listen, we have to understand the context and the conversations we’re having, and we have to bring ourselves to those conversations. And I feel very similarly. It starts with being other-focused, understanding what the other person needs, what’s relevant and important to them. You’re in service of the audience you’re speaking to.

I’m a big fan of structure and having a way of packaging the information so that somebody can receive it well and have it be memorable. And then it needs to be engaging. It needs to have some hooks in it to really help people take what you’re saying. So, very similar ideas. And I think ours together would create a great dish, whatever that recipe makes.

Charles Duhigg: I think so, too. I would eat that.

Matt Abrahams: Yes, yes. Charles, this was fantastic. You are clearly a supercommunicator. I wish you well with the book. I’ve enjoyed getting to know you. And I think the advice that you provide in terms of trying to align not just neurologically but align to the conversations we’re having, to listen, to be present, to loop and show and demonstrate that, incredibly beneficial. Thank you.

Charles Duhigg: Thank you for having me.

Matt Abrahams: Thank you for joining us for another episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast from Stanford GSB. To learn more about effective communication, please listen to Episode 92 with Dan Pink, Episode 82 with Nancy Duarte, and Episode 103 with Carmine Gallo.

This episode was produced by Jenny Luna, Ryan Campos, and me, Matt Abrahams. Our music is from Floyd Wonder. Please find us on YouTube and wherever you get your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. Also, follow us on LinkedIn and Instagram, and check out for deep dive videos, English language learning content, and our new stuff.

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