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How to become a 'supercommunicator'

(Klaus Vedfelt/ Getty)
(Klaus Vedfelt/ Getty)

As humans, we have conversations all the time.

But research shows we actually aren’t very good at communicating.

Today, On Point: Journalist Charles Duhigg shows us not only how to become a communicator — but a ‘supercommunicator.’


Charles Duhigg, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist. He currently writes for The New Yorker magazine. Author of “The Power of Habit” and “Smarter Faster Better.” His latest book is “Supercommunicators: How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection.”

Also Featured

Mandy Orta, her best friend is a supercommunicator.

Reyes DeVore, Mandy’s best friend.

Book Excerpt

Copyright © 2024 by Charles Duhigg. All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher.


Part I

MANDY ORTA: She’s my best friend in the universe. Hands down. I think that there’s many times in my life that I would not have made the healthiest decisions for myself if she was not there to bounce some of my ideas and things back to me in a way that allowed me to see like a different angle of what it is that I was going through.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Would that we all had a friend like Mandy Orta has in Reyes DeVore. They met in Albuquerque, New Mexico back in 2014 and they’ve been best friends ever since. Mandy says the reason their relationship is so lasting? How they communicate.

ORTA: She’s one of the only people in my life that I can talk to about anything without judgment.

And I can honestly say that she and I have not had a fight. We’ve had many disagreements. We’re able to talk things out and to not necessarily be weaponized with our ideas or our perspective.

CHAKRABARTI: Reyes is the person Mandy calls when she needs advice, needs some love or when she just needs to vent.

ORTA: I think part of the reason why Reyes knows how to have the conversation or hold the space that I need is because we talk about it.

And I say, Hey, I need you to just listen, or I need you to hear this and tell me that I’m not going crazy, and I need for somebody to hold the space in it. And could you be that person? And so there is this element to our relationship that is very much centered on consent, active consent.

CHAKRABARTI: And because of that active consent, sometimes that means Reyes says no.

ORTA: You know what? I’m really hungry and I can’t really pay attention. Do you mind if I make a sandwich real quick? Hey, I’m actually thinking about this email and I don’t know if I’m necessarily going to be able to like, read your post, can you give me 20 minutes? And I think that a lot of times in our culture of politeness, it actually is cruel because we’re not clear with people.

Yes, I do want to pay attention to you and I can’t right now.

CHAKRABARTI: In short, Mandy doesn’t think of Reyes as just her best friend. She says Reyes is an all-around super communicator.

REYES DeVORE: I would like to say that I’m appreciative of her telling me that I’m a super communicator. I think that I’ve definitely done a lot of work to be better at communicating, but I always know that I could do better.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Reyes, of course. She says she was definitely not born a super communicator. It took a lot of work, experience, and therapy, she says, because good communication was not common in her family. What inspired Reyes to get better at it? Her son.

DeVORE: I’m the sole provider and caregiver for my son, who’s 16 now, and I’ve raised him on my own since he was, like, three, and that has caused me to continue to level up my communication. And so I’m always just reflecting on how I can just be a better and responsive communicator instead of just reacting off of my emotions right away.

CHAKRABARTI: And about her friendship with Mandy, Reyes says it’s not all one way. She thinks Mandy is a super communicator too. And Mandy agrees they are invested in that kind of communication, at least for each other.

ORTA: I think a lot of what Reyes and I do for each other is we’re very supportive in each other’s discernment.

That’s intentional listening, it’s thoughtfulness, it’s slow, and it’s deep.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Mandy Orta of Denver, Colorado, and Reyes DeVore of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Charles Duhigg joins us today. He’s author of Supercommunicators: How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection. And he joins us from Santa Cruz, California.

Charles, welcome to On Point.

CHARLES DUHIGG: Thanks for having me on. This is such a treat.

CHAKRABARTI: So do you think Mandy and Reyes, that their story would rise up to your definition of super communicators?

DUHIGG: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And in fact, almost all of us have a super communicator in our life. Meghna, let me ask you. If you were having a bad day and you came home and you wanted to call someone who you know would just make you feel better immediately, do you know who you would call?

CHAKRABARTI: I’m about to disappoint you, Charles.



CHAKRABARTI: Because that’s not really my style. If I’m having a crud-tastic day. I put on my headphones and go on a really long walk.

DUHIGG: (LAUGHS) That’s totally fine. Many people who are listening, they probably have someone that they call and my guess is that there are people who make you feel better.

They might not be coming to mind right now. But for you and for everyone who’s listening, who had someone pop into their mind I’m going to reach out to my friend, Jim. He’s the person who makes me feel better. That person for you is a super communicator, and you’re probably a super communicator back to them the same way that Reyes and Mandy are super communicators for each other.

Now what’s interesting though, is that there are some people who can do this consistently. There’s some people who can connect with almost anyone. They’re consistent super communicators. And one of the reasons I wrote this book was because I wanted to understand what they’re doing. And what I learned is it’s just a set of skills that literally any of us can learn to help us connect when we want to.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so what I really need to know then, Charles, is how do you define super communicator? Because thus far, it sounds like it has a lot to do with active and thoughtful listening. But, quite frankly, before our dog died, I had some of my best conversations with my dog. Because he was an amazing listener.


CHAKRABARTI: I think a lot of people feel that way about their pets because they’re the only creatures in their lives that will listen without judgment. So that’s why I want to know. There has to be something more to super communicators than simply just like deep listening.

DUHIGG: That’s true. That’s true. And although I’m sure your dog was amazing.


DUHIGG: And that it felt like he was listening really closely, I’m not certain he was really understanding what you were saying to him, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a meaningful relationship.

So a super communicator is someone who knows which questions to ask to help you understand what you’re going through, right? There’s someone who shows you, proves to you that they’re listening. They prove that they are processing what you’re saying. They’re giving you feedback, and they’re matching the kind of conversation you have, but equally, they’re also sharing themselves.

And this is the difference between you and a relationship with another person, and the relationship with your dog. Although your dog probably does share themself with you, or did. A human tends to share themselves equally. And so there’s a lot of what’s known as authenticity, reciprocation of authenticity or reciprocation of vulnerability.

And in general, what a super communicator really does is they show you that they want to connect with you. And they spend time thinking about how conversations work. It was interesting, something Reyes just said, that she didn’t feel like she was a great communicator until she really had to communicate with her son.


DUHIGG: What we know about these consistent super communicators is that oftentimes if you ask them, were you always good at communication? They say things like, no, I had trouble making friends in high school. And I really had to study how kids talk to each other or my parents got divorced and I had to be the peacemaker between them.

And it’s that thinking about conversation, thinking about communication, that makes us better at it.

CHAKRABARTI: But, so then that sounds like this is more than just what someone experiences when they buy an hour of someone’s active listening and therapy, right? Because a lot of what you’re describing is what a good therapist would do, right?

Just prove that they’re listening, help you understand what you’re going through. So I’m gathering that good therapists are hopefully also super communicators. But it sounds like there’s even more than that to it.

DUHIGG: Absolutely. And I think that a really great conversation, that conversation that we walk away from, just feeling fantastic.

That’s different from a session of therapy. It’s also different from an interview, right? Where we’re going in and we’re just asking questions, but we’re not necessarily, we’re not necessarily sharing ourselves in equal proportion with the person that we’re talking to. What super communication does is it helps us achieve what’s known as neural entrainment.

What we now know, and this is really just a product of the last 10 years, because of advances in neural imaging and data collection. When you’re in a conversation with someone, a great conversation, your bodies and your brain start to match each other. Without noticing it, your eyes start to dilate at the same rate. Right now, even though we’re separated by thousands of miles, our breath patterns are matching each other, and our heart rates are likely matching each other.

And most importantly, the activity within our brains is becoming more and more similar. When I describe something to you, or you describe something to me, our brains start to look alike. And if you think about it, that makes sense, because if I tell you about an emotion that I’m feeling or an idea that I had.

The reason why that’s effective is because you actually experience a little bit of that emotion, or you experience that idea. And so as our brains become more and more similar, as we achieve what neurologists refer to as neural entrainment, we feel genuinely connected to each other. And that sense of connection is at the core of being a super communicator.

And at a core, at the core of making real meaningful relationships with other people.

CHAKRABARTI: It’s interesting. I want to agree with you about the fact that we may be, you and I, across 3,000 miles may be experiencing some of that neural entrainment. I guess I completely see. And you write in the book in detail how that happens when people are face to face, or even over the phone having a conversation, but you were right about an interview.

Not being really conducive to perfect super communication because it’s an art. We’re also experiencing an artificial construct within the confines of what radio demands of us. Because even as you’re talking and I’m trying to do my best to listen as deeply as I can, Charles, my eyes continuously have to dart over to the clock to be sure that I don’t run over the segment.

I raise that because it seems like it takes a kind of focus, as well, a mutual focus between two people, which, and we’ll come back to this later in the show, is harder than ever in the world we live in now.

DUHIGG: That’s exactly right. There is this need. And let me just say, I actually think that you do a great job of focusing, even if you’re looking at the clock.

I never feel like you’re looking at the clock. I feel like you’re participating in this conversation. And I think that you’re exactly right. That one of the things that makes a conversation work is that we are both paying attention, deep attention, to what’s happening in that conversation. Particularly in conversations where there’s conflict, this is really important.

One of the things that happens when we’re having a tough conversation, when we disagree with each other, or we’re just talking about something that’s difficult to talk about. Is that there’s always a suspicion in the back of my mind that you’re not actually listening to me. You’re waiting your turn to speak.

And so one of the things that super communicators do really well is they prove that they’re listening, right? They show that they’re processing what you said. They ask follow up questions. They loop back to something you mentioned. There’s actually a technique for this known as looping for understanding.

And that’s really powerful, because it makes us feel listened to.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Today, Charles Duhigg joins us. He’s author of the book, “Supercommunicators, How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection.” And we have an excerpt of it, by the way, at onpointradio.org. And I should also mention that Charles has won the Pulitzer Prize, plus a whole wheelbarrow full of other major journalism awards.

He currently writes for the New Yorker magazine. And actually, Charles, that leads me to ask what got you interested in writing about super communicators? Because I was just looking back at some of your recent-ish articles in the New Yorker, and they’re about artificial intelligence, about superPACs, things like that.


CHAKRABARTI: Super communicators seems a little, a different interest.

DUHIGG: Yeah, it’s true. It actually started because I fell into this bad pattern with my wife. I would come home from work after a long day and I would start complaining about my day. And my wife would offer this very practical advice. She would say something like, why don’t you take your boss out to lunch?

And you guys can get to know each other, which was good advice. But instead of being able to hear her advice, I would get even more upset. I would say something like, why aren’t you supporting me? You’re supposed to be outraged on my behalf. And then she would get upset because I was attacking her for giving me perfectly good advice.

And we’ve been married for 20 years, and I didn’t understand why I kept falling into this same pattern again and again. And so I went to experts, and I asked them, what’s going on here? And what they said is actually, as I mentioned before, we’re living through this golden age of understanding communication.

And one of the things that we’ve learned is that though we tend to think of a discussion as being about one thing, right? We think it’s about my day or about our kids’ grades. Actually, every discussion is made up of different kinds of conversations. And in general, those conversations, they tend to fall in one of three buckets.

There’s these practical conversations, where we’re making plans or solving problems together, but then there’s emotional conversations where I might tell you what I’m feeling, and I don’t want you to solve my feelings. I want you to empathize. And then there’s social conversations, which is about how we relate to each other in society, the social identities that are important to us.

And they said, what we figured out is that most miscommunication occurs because people are having different kinds of conversations. When I came home from work, I was having an emotional conversation and my wife responded with a practical conversation. And those are both perfectly legitimate types of conversations, but because they were different conversations, we couldn’t really hear each other.

CHAKRABARTI: I completely empathize with your wife though, Charles. (LAUGHS)


CHAKRABARTI: Because with family members, it’s a bit sticky, right? Because you really want to like, help them not go through the difficulty that they want to talk about, right? I don’t want you to have to ever experience this again, so I want to help you solve it.

That is literally the most —

DUHIGG: It’s exactly true.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, that’s the motivation that I have with my offsprings. My older one now, she, for a couple of years, she’s been like, Mama, I do not like to talk with you because you’re always just trying to solve the problem. And Dada just listens. He’s really good at just listening.

And I’m like, but I don’t want you to hurt anymore.

DUHIGG: Yeah, I was just thinking, even though you have that instinct, what I find is I do the same thing with my kids. It doesn’t really work, right?


DUHIGG: Even if I propose a solution to them, they don’t hear the solution. And so within psychology, this is actually known as the matching principle.

And what it says is that successful communication requires having the same kind of conversation at the same moment. And then we can move from type of conversation. We can start emotional and then we can get practical. I can say, do you mind if I share some solutions with you that might help?

And then we can get social and then back to emotional. But what’s important is that even though our instinct is to help, to solve a problem, if someone else is having an emotional conversation, if they’re in an emotional mindset, they’re literally not going to be able to hear your solutions, they’re just going to get more frustrated.

CHAKRABARTI: Too bad, because I’ve got great solutions, but I’m just kidding, I’m just kidding. (LAUGHS)


CHAKRABARTI: Obviously, I’m not doing it right, because it’s not working. But so I want to, we’re going to come back to this about trying to understand what the needs of the person are in the flow of a conversation, because it’s really important in terms of building our own skills to become better communicators.

But before we do that, in the book, you’ve got some really terrific examples of types of people, or people that you talk to who are super communicators who, you make it clear. We’re not talking about political oration that transcends time. Or we’re not necessarily talking about the very, very energetic extrovert who knows how to work a room wherever they are.


DUHIGG: That’s exactly right. In fact, one of the stories in the book is about a CIA officer.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, tell me about that one. I love that story.

DUHIGG: This guy, Jim Lawler, he’s a wonderful guy. He’s now retired from the CIA, but when he was first hired and he’s 30 years old, they sent him over to Europe to recruit spies.

And he was terrible at this job. Like literally he would go to parties at embassies, and he would try and buddy up with people. And they say would say things like, I know you’re trying to recruit me. If you keep doing this, I’m going to report you to the authorities and you’re going to get deported.


DUHIGG: He was so bad at it. And eventually he met this one woman, who was she was visiting Europe. She worked for the foreign ministry in her home country in the middle East. And he tried to try to recruit her. And she just, everything he did didn’t work. And then one night he took her to dinner and he just decided this isn’t going to work.

I give up. He says to her, I think I’m probably going to get fired tomorrow because I’ve been here for a year, and I haven’t managed to recruit anyone. And I just feel so disappointed in myself. Like I feel like I’m letting myself down. For her, that seemed similar to what she was feeling.

Cause she was wanting to be, to create change in her home country that had undergone this religious revolution. And she didn’t know how to. And she felt like she was disappointing herself when it came to fighting the radicals. And it’s only when he was honest and authentic with her that she heard what he was saying.

And she said, I can help you. And she ends up becoming the best asset in the Middle East for the next 20 years. But the only reason she could trust him, that they could hear each other is because they were both honest and authentic, because they engaged in this reciprocity. And because they showed that they were listening to each other by matching each other.

And that’s how he learned to become a super communicator.

CHAKRABARTI: And it was spontaneous for him though. It wasn’t calculated.

DUHIGG: It wasn’t calculated. And it oftentimes can’t be calculated, right? The truth of the matter is, if you’re having a conversation with someone and you know that they’re trying to manipulate you, they ask where you went on vacation.

Cause really, they just want to tell you where they went on vacation. You don’t feel closer to that person. It has to be authentic. Our brains are wired to detect inauthenticity. And so it’s when we make an authentic connection, when we’re honest and truthful about ourselves. That’s when the other person feels like they can trust us.

That’s when they feel like they can really hear us.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So this is really important. And you talk about it a lot in the book, there has to be a certain mutuality to it, right? Because when you talked about looping earlier, when I first heard about looping, a while ago. I’ll be honest. It just set off every skeptical alarm in my very jaded brain.


CHAKRABARTI: Because I have run into situations where people are looping back and you’re just like, “You must think I’m an idiot.” Because you’re just repeating something I said 20 seconds ago and being like, I hear you say that I’m just repeating something that you said 20 seconds ago.

I’m like, this is dumb. So it’s that hair wired sort of BS trigger, but people try that all the time. They try that all the time as a means of saying, I hear you, I’m going to help you. They’re not hearing anything. I think that ‘I hear you’ or ‘feeling heard’ language is so overused because we’re supposed to feel satisfied with quote-unquote, just feeling heard.

DUHIGG: And it’s important to describe what exactly what looping for understanding is. And in the book, the way that we talk about this is this story about an experiment that was done a number of years ago, a couple of years ago, when they brought together gun rights advocates and gun control activists, and they didn’t want them to actually agree with each other.

They just wanted to see if these folks could have a civil conversation and they taught them this technique, looping for understanding. And I’m going to explain it and explain how it’s different from what you were just describing, because there’s three steps to looping for understanding.

The first is you should ask someone a question. And there’s a kind of question that’s really powerful known as a deep question that we can talk a little bit about. But then the second step is once they’ve answered that question, repeat back what you heard them say, but in your own words. Don’t just say, what I hear you saying is …

Rather than say, it seems like what’s really bothering you is this.

And then the third step is to ask if you got it right. And this is the one we usually forget. To say what I heard you saying is that it’s not that you want people to listen to you, but that they want, you want them to show that they’re processing it, that they’re actually paying attention and they’re thinking about what you’re saying.

Am I getting that right today? Does that sound like? When we do that, when we do these three steps. What we’re doing is we’re not just mimicking back what someone has said, rather we’re trying to match them. We’re trying to show them that we’re processing what they said. And when we ask if we got it right, one of two things can happen.

Number one, they can say, no, you didn’t understand me, which is great. Or number two is if we did understand them, we’re asking them for permission to acknowledge that we were listening. And when we do that, they become much more likely to listen to us in return.

CHAKRABARTI: This requires actually caring about the other person.


CHAKRABARTI: I know it sounds like the dumbest observation to have, but again when you’re describing what really effective and meaningful looping back is, it’s something that I can imagine.

I know works between two people who care about each other, but again, maybe I’m just being too cynical, but I oftentimes see these techniques deployed, by politicians, even by us, journalists, in trying to get someone to tell us their story. But that’s not the same thing as what you’re talking about.

DUHIGG: And what’s important is you don’t have to have a conversation with everyone, right? Sometimes we get in the Uber, and we just want to check our phone. We don’t want to talk to the driver. But the goal of Supercommunicators, the book, is to give people the skills so that when they do want to have a conversation, they know how to do it.

And you’re exactly right. There are times in this life where we want to pretend we’re making a connection with someone, but we’ve got so much stuff going on inside of our head that we can’t really listen to what they’re saying or we’re just trying to be polite and that’s fine. But much of what we actually care about in life, much of the most meaningful moments we have, are when we do have a conversation with someone.

And I don’t necessarily need to care about every aspect of your life. But in this conversation, I believe that you deeply care about what I’m talking about, right? Because you want to learn, you want your listeners to learn, you want it to be a good show. So you do care. And as a result, you do pay attention and you make me feel listened to. you show me that you’re listening to me.

And that doesn’t mean that necessarily we’re going to be best friends forever, although I’m happy to be a friend with you. But it does mean that in that moment, you’re trying to show me that you’re listening and you’re trying to ask me questions. And I’m trying to ask you questions and show you that I’m listening to you, that help the other person explain who they really are, to say something real and meaningful and deep.

CHAKRABARTI: What does the super communicator get out of it?

DUHIGG: It’s interesting. There was this study that was done by Harvard that’s still going on. It started almost 100 years ago, where their goal was to try and figure out what makes people live longer and happier and be more successful in life. And they followed thousands of people around for almost a century.

And what they found is that the best predictor of whether you’re happy and healthy and successful, however you define success, at age 65 is having at least a small handful of close relationships at age 45. It didn’t matter if you had more or less money. It didn’t matter if you had more or less education.

Having close relationships is the thing that makes us happy. And what’s interesting is that makes sense. We have evolved to be a pro social species. If you think about it, communication is Homo sapiens superpower. It is the thing that has allowed our species to succeed so well. And so when you’re a super communicator, when you can connect with other people, when you can choose to have real and deep and meaningful relationships, that is the thing that not only makes you happy.

It’s the thing that makes you healthier as you get older. The surgeon general has said being lonely is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It’s the thing that makes you more successful, because you get exposed to opportunities that you might not otherwise see. Connecting with other people is in many ways the whole point of life.

It’s the thing that gives our life meaning.

CHAKRABARTI: And how do super communicators then protect themselves from becoming the victim of emotional vampires? Absolutely. It’s a good question, right? And part of it is making those choices that we discussed. So since I started writing this book, one of the things that I found is, oftentimes people ask me if you get into a taxi, do you have a great conversation with every driver?

And my answer is no, I’m exhausted. When I get into a taxi, usually I just want to veg out for a couple of minutes. And so part of this is not only listening to other people, but also listening to ourselves, right? You know that when you’ve had a tough day, you need to put on your headphones and go take a walk.

And that doesn’t mean that you’re anti-social. It doesn’t mean that you don’t, there aren’t people that you care about in your life. It means that you know how to listen to yourself and take care of yourself. But I also would guess that when you want to connect with your kids or your spouse or your friends, when that connection feels more valuable to you than just taking a break.

You have the skills to do that, and as a result that makes that connection so much more rewarding.

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) You overestimate my life skills outside of a radio studio, Charles.


CHAKRABARTI: But I am deeply honored that you think that I am as sophisticated in my communication in life as I am within the confines of these beautiful glass walls.

I want to ask you deep questions because you said that you can give us some examples. And I think that would be really helpful, because it sounds like it could be almost anything. But there are certain forms of questions which are much more effective in really spurring that deeper level of communication between people.

Give me some examples.

DUHIGG: That’s absolutely right. And a deep question, and what’s fun is a lot of what we know about this actually comes from research that’s been done by university of Chicago, but also by NASA. Interestingly enough. A deep question is something that asks me about my values or my beliefs or my experiences.

And that can sound intimidating, right? But it’s actually much easier than you would think once you start looking for it. Like for instance, if you bump into someone and you learn that they’re a doctor, the most natural thing you could ask is where do you practice medicine? But a deep question would be to ask, Oh, what made you decide to go to medical school?

Or do you love practicing medicine? What do you enjoy about it? Those questions are powerful. They’re easy to ask, but they’re powerful because they invite the other person to describe who they really are, to tell you what matters to them, what they care about. This is the difference between how we get from small talk to deep talk. It doesn’t mean that we have to cry on each other’s shoulders or be overly intimate.

It means that we have to ask questions that invite the other person to tell us something real about who they are. And those are deep questions and they’re enormously effective and really easy to ask.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So give me an example from the book about someone who you talked with who really knew how to ask the right deep questions.

DUHIGG: Yeah. Yeah. So as I mentioned, this is a big issue for NASA. Because a number of years ago, NASA started looking for a new kind of astronaut, because they were going to start doing these missions to the international space station, right? Missions that were going to take six months or 12 months.

And so they had to find astronauts who had emotional intelligence. Now the problem is when you make it to the final rounds of an astronaut interview, you are someone who can fake emotional intelligence really well, right? You’re amazing. You like have a PhD, you’re handsome or you’re beautiful.

You like, you’re in great shape. And the difference is that they couldn’t tell in interviews who actually had emotional intelligence and who was faking it. And so one of the things that the head psychologist for manned space flights started doing was he changed how he interviewed people. And he would do things, like he would ask them questions about if somebody had passed away in their life, how that felt. And then he would notice, to see if that person asked back about his own life.

And it’s that reciprocation that indicated that they had emotional intelligence.

CHAKRABARTI: Charles, hang on here for just a second. By the way, I will defend NASA and say that I hope they don’t actually do astronaut selection based on how handsome or beautiful a person is. But there’s a lot more to talk about regarding the benefits of super communicating, and we’ll do that when we come back.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.