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Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.

How to Be a Supercommunicator

Featuring Charles Duhigg

How meaningful are our discussions with others? Are we truly listening to the other person? What are supercommunicators? Zachary and Emma speak with Charles Duhigg, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of “Supercommunicators: How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection.” Supercommunication methods, listening skills, and tools for measured responses are discussed here today.

Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript

Charles Duhigg: The measure of whether this conversation is successful is not how much you persuade the other person. It’s a 3 to 5 percent shift. That is not a huge shift. In politics, it’s enormous. But again, the goal of a conversation is not to convince the other person they are wrong and you are right. The goal of a conversation is to understand the other person better to have some type of connection with them, even if that doesn’t transcend to changing their mind.

Zachary Karabell: What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, joined as always by my co host, Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And What Could Go Right? is our weekly podcast where we look at what could go right, we look at what’s going on in the world that is leading to a more constructive present and presumptively and presumably a better future in a world where we spend a lot of time looking at all the things that are going wrong in the present and what could lead to a less constructive future.

And one of the things that we have touched upon over our seasons of this show is political polarization and the degree to which people are sailing past one another in arguments of heat and passion, but really not listening or capable of listening or willing to listen or able to ask questions of people for whom they may disagree strongly or whose views they may find antithetical.

And we’re going to look today at someone who’s written a book about the ability of certain people to communicate more effectively than many others. And that there are tools that we can all integrate to communicate more effectively, to be heard and to hear, to speak and to listen, to have actual conversations where both parties or a group come away from that conversation feeling a greater sense of connection or a greater sense of understanding. So Emma, who are we going to talk to today?

Emma Varvaloucas: So today we’re going to talk to Charles Duhigg. He is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter. Actually, he’s won a ton of prizes, but that’s the most well known one.

He is the author of two previous books that you may have heard of because they were massive bestsellers, The Power of Habit and Smarter, Faster, Better. And he currently writes for the New Yorker magazine. But today we’re going to talk to him about his new book, which is called Supercommunicators. So hopefully all three of us are going to be super communicating for the next 45 minutes.

Right, Zachary?

Zachary Karabell: Absolutely. Let’s do it. Charles Duhigg, it is a pleasure to have you on What Could Go Right?, and given that you may not know the general warp and woof and arc of what we do, it’s an attempt to have conversations from a perspective of how can we make things better? How are we making things better?

How is the world that we are in the continual process of shaping and writing in various and sundry micro and macro ways is going to be the future that we wanted to be around in the future that we fear it’s going to be. And that doesn’t mean that we don’t address difficult things or hard things. It’s just the sensibility of how we address difficult things and hard things, rather than from a perspective of like trying to do it from a little more of a take a deep breath and let’s think through these things.

It’s funny with your new book about supercommunicators. There’s a degree of trepidation as someone conducting the interview that everything I’m going to say now is essentially going to be graded.

Charles Duhigg: No, no, not at all.

Zachary Karabell: At the end of this, I’m going to be like, I’m either going to pass as a supercomputer or I’m going to get a little note to self saying, aw.

Charles Duhigg: I mean, it’s interesting because one of the things that we know about supercommunicators is that, and actually one of the things we know about humans in general, is that if two people have a conversation or three or four or five have a conversation, and you ask them afterwards, tell me what you talked about. People will have real trouble remembering the precise content of the conversation, right? If you ask them, Tell me how you felt during that conversation, they can track the emotional ups and downs very, very closely. And I think this gets to something kind of deeper, which is to say, the best conversationalists and the best conversations are not as such because we’re so eloquent or because we say everything exactly right, or because we do such a good job at explaining our own thoughts, it’s more because we create a sense of connection with the other person, and it’s that connection that we remember much, much more than any particular witty line that anyone said.

So I’m sure you’re going to do just great.

Zachary Karabell: Oh, thank you.

Emma Varvaloucas: Vote of confidence for you, Zachary.

Zachary Karabell: A big, a big weight off of my shoulders.

Emma Varvaloucas: You have to tell us now, of course, the techniques for forging that connection. I feel like it’s one of those things that probably comes naturally to a certain percentage of people.

And maybe it’s one of those things like, no, okay. I guess I was thinking about it like walking or breathing. Like when you start thinking about it too much, like maybe it becomes unnatural, but I guess that’s not true. I guess it’s more of a learned skill. So.

Charles Duhigg: It’s actually very much the opposite. So it might be helpful just to sort of describe what a supercommunicator is.

And in fact, I can ask you guys a question that will sort of illustrate it, which is if you guys were having a bad day and you wanted to call someone who you just know would make you feel better, somebody who would kind of lift your spirits. Does the person you would call, do they pop into your mind?

Zachary Karabell: Maybe.

It’s been a while since I’ve felt the particular need to call and vent. But I mean, I think that’s also a life cycle thing. Not saying that it is a life cycle thing. I think for me, it is a life cycle thing. When I was a child, when I was younger, I would have done that more. Anyway.

Emma Varvaloucas: Zachary, are you telling us you don’t have bad days?

That can’t be true.

Zachary Karabell: No, no, I’ve got plenty of bad days. I’m just not likely to, to vent about my bad days.

Emma Varvaloucas: Okay.

Charles Duhigg: Let me ask the question this way. Do you have friends you call that you like talking to? Who do make you feel good?

Zachary Karabell: Well, yeah, that, that.

Emma Varvaloucas: Charles, I, I can think of someone in particular for sure that anytime you have a conversation with her, you come out feeling like your cup has been filled.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah. And what’s that person’s name?

Emma Varvaloucas: Jasmine.

Charles Duhigg: Jasmine.

Emma Varvaloucas: Or Jazzy. We call her Jazzy. Yeah.

Charles Duhigg: So what does Jazzy do? Like when you call Jazzy, what does she do that makes you feel good?

Emma Varvaloucas: I would say that she’s a very good listener and she always shows that she heard what you said and then asks more questions about it and tries to, like, get at where you’re coming from.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah. Yeah. She sort of proves to you that she’s been hearing you that she has follow up questions. Yeah. And for you, Jazzy is probably a supercommunicator and you’re probably a supercommunicator right back, right? You’re probably someone that when she calls, she feels, she feels great talking to you. She feels a sense of connection.

Now, there are some people, all of us are supercommunicators at one point or another, right? All of us, sometimes we walk into that meeting and we know exactly what to say to win everyone over, or a friend calls and we know exactly what to tell them to make them feel better. Some people, though, can do this more consistently.

Some people can do this with almost anyone. And these are the folks that we think of as consistent supercommunicators. And when I started researching for the book, Supercommunicators, I assumed much like you that these were people who were born with something special, right? They were born with high charisma or they were extroverts.

But what the data tells us is exactly the opposite. That basically there’s a normal distribution of folks like this from all walks of life, that some of them are charismatic, but some of them are curmudgeonly. Some of them are extroverts, but some of them are introverts. And the reason why is because it’s just a set of learned skills.

It’s a set of tools that much like learning to read or learning to cook that when we learn those skills and they become habits and our brain is designed to make them into habits very quickly, that it helps us communicate with other folks. And that contrary to what you had mentioned before, one of the things that supercommunicators do really well is they think just a half an inch deeper about conversations.

Right. Instead of just going on autopilot, they think to themselves, like, what is this person really saying to me? Right. What are they really asking for? Oftentimes, if you ask supercommunicators, like, where you always good at communication, they’ll tell you no, that when they were in high school, they had trouble making friends.

And so they really had to study how kids talk to each other or their parents were divorced, and so they had to be the peacemaker between them. And so one of the things that’s important is that when we train ourselves to think a little bit more about the conversations we’re having, those conversations tend to get much, much better.

Emma Varvaloucas: I think that tracks. I think Jazzy used to get into fights in high school. That’s all I was going to say. And if she ever listens to me, Jazzy, I’m so sorry. Don’t kill me for saying that on a podcast.

Go ahead, Zachary. Sorry.

Zachary Karabell: I just wanted to step back for a minute and ask you how you went from book to book to book, right?

So you went from The Power of Habit to The Power of Productivity to The Power of Communication and I’m just wondering what your process was of going from thing to thing in this particular sequence, not that you knew what you were going to necessarily going to write when you wrote the first one, maybe you had it all charted out but i would think it’s more likely you went on to other things more serendipitously but i’m just curious as do you find a through line here? Is there a series of questions you’ve had for a long time?

Charles Duhigg: Usually I write these books in response to an issue that I’m having, right? I wrote The Power of Habit in large part because I was very successful professionally. But at the same time, I kept on having trouble making myself do the things that I felt like I should be doing, like eating more healthily or exercising in the morning.

And I was thinking to myself, if I’m so smart, like, why is it so hard for me to get myself to go running in the morning? And so I really wanted to understand the neurology habits. And so I started calling experts and asking them about it. And very similarly with communication and supercommunicators, one of the things that happened is that I fell into this bad pattern with my wife, which is that, and we’ve been married for 20 years very happily.

I would come home from work after a long day and I would start complaining to her about my day. And she would very reasonably respond with some practical advice. Like, why don’t you take your boss out to lunch and you guys can get to know each other a little bit better. And instead of being able to hear what she was saying, I would get even more worked up and be 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 good advice. And so I went to researchers and sort of asked them like, what is going on here? Like, this is someone who I want to connect with. And yet sometimes we find these times when it’s very hard for us to do so.

What am I doing wrong? And they said, well, actually, it’s kind of interesting because we’re living through this golden age of understanding the science of communication. In large part, because of advances in neural imaging and data collection, we can see what’s happening inside people’s brains as they’re having conversations for kind of the first time.

And they said, one of the things that we’ve learned is that we tend to think of a discussion as being about one thing, right? We’re like talking about my day or when you call Jazzy, you’re talking about a coworker, but actually every discussion is made up of different kinds of conversations and they tend to fall into one of three big buckets.

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

And what they said is all three of those conversations are legitimate and all three will actually happen in any given discussion. But if you’re not having the same kind of conversation at the same moment, you’re unlikely to hear each other. And so when I was coming home and I was complaining about my day, I was having an emotional conversation and my wife was responding with a practical conversation.

And as a result, we had trouble connecting. And so it was really out of my like own desire to figure out how to solve this problem that I found the topic that brought me to supercommunicators.

Emma Varvaloucas: So, of course, we have to ask now if that’s still happening with you and your wife, but I mean, the more important sort of question to that is, how does one fix that?

Meaning like, how do you know that somebody is in an emotional state and you’re in a practical one? And like, do you switch or do they switch? Or like, how does that work?

Charles Duhigg: Yeah, well, so the answer is no, it doesn’t really happen anymore because we ask each other questions and questions tend to be really important.

In fact, we know that supercommunicators, consistent supercommunicators, they ask like 10 to 20 times as many questions as the average person. And so now when I come home and I’m complaining to my wife, she’ll often say, like, do you want me to help you figure out a solution for this? Or do you just need to vent and get this off your chest, which of course, like is actually kind of nice to be asked because oftentimes I hadn’t thought about it until that moment. But sometimes it’s hard to ask that, right? Like sometimes you’re in a workplace or you’re saying like, is this a practical conversation or is this an emotional conversation is tough.

And so oftentimes in those moments, one of the best things that we can do is to ask a certain kind of question, which is known within psychology as a deep question. And a deep question asks someone about their values or their beliefs or their experiences, which can sound a little bit intimidating, but it’s actually as easy as you bump into someone and say, what do you do for a living?

And they say, Oh, I’m a doctor. You could ask, like, oh, oh, where do you practice medicine? But a deep question would be like to say, oh, what made you decide to become a doctor? Do you like being a doctor? Like, what’s your favorite thing about it? When you ask questions like that, what you’re doing is you’re inviting someone to tell you what they’re actually thinking about.

How they find meaning in this particular moment. And when they do so, they inevitably tell you what kind of frame of mind they’re in. The same person might answer that question by saying, Oh, you know, I became a doctor because like, I really wanted steady work. And I knew that there was always going to be demand for doctors.

So that that’s a person who’s in the kind of practical mindset or that same person in a different day might say, Oh, I became a doctor because I saw an uncle get sick. And I was so impressed by how they took care of him. And I wanted to be a healer myself. That person is much more in an emotional mindset.

And so once we train ourselves to look for these little clues that tell us where the other person is coming from, that’s when we are able to connect with them and have the same kind of conversation.

Zachary Karabell: What do you do about the challenge of connecting to someone whose views or ideas you find either distasteful, abhorrent, or problematic?

I mean, look, we’ve talked about this a lot in the show about political communication and there’s a whole set of people who have understandably in a highly polarized culture tried to find ways to help people who are otherwise feel antithetically opposed to one another to hear each other to communicate.

Even then, however, it is not always true that getting to know someone who you think you oppose makes you less likely to do so. Sometimes it makes you more likely to do so. So I’m just wondering about the challenges of, if you really ask enough questions and learn about where someone is coming from, that may not lead to more connection.

It actually could, in theory, lead to less.

Charles Duhigg: It’s very unlikely that that happens. Well, first of all, let me ask you. So you and Emma, I assume, talk on a regular basis. Is that fair?

Zachary Karabell: We do.

Charles Duhigg: Okay. And.

Zachary Karabell: Yes.

Charles Duhigg: Do you guys agree a hundred percent on everything?

Zachary Karabell: No, but if we had initially clearly disagreed profoundly on a few things, it’s unlikely that this particular professional relationship would have evolved in the first place.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah. Yeah. And conversations don’t mean that you become podcast co hosts with someone or that you become best friends, but the goal of a conversation is not necessarily to even find common ground. It’s not to convince the other person that you’re right and they’re wrong. It’s not to get them to like you or be impressed by you or think you’re smart.

The goal of a conversation is at its most basic level to speak in such a manner that I can understand you, I can understand how you see the world. And I’m speaking in a way that you can understand how I see the world. And that might not mean that we agree with each other. It might not mean that we like each other.

But the conversation is a success if I understand you and you understand me. And what we know is that if you genuinely understand how I see the world differently from you do, and you feel like I genuinely understand that about you, then we will feel a sense of connection. And it’s almost inevitable that we will find areas where we are aligned.

And we might walk away saying, that guy’s an idiot. I never want to hang out with him again. But that conversation is a success. And I would argue actually that the same way that you and Emma, there are things that you disagree with that probably are not foundational to your relationship. That many of the things that we do disagree with other people about, including politics or social politics or social identity, that oftentimes they are very small compared to all of the other things that we might want to discuss.

And that if your intention is to connect with someone, and you don’t have to connect with everyone, you can say like, I don’t want to connect with anyone who’s going to vote differently than I do. But if your intention is to connect with the people around you, your neighbors, or the people you see every day, or a family member who might disagree with you politically, there are skills and there are tools to do so that don’t require you to agree with them and also doesn’t require them to agree with you, but rather simply to understand each other a little bit better.

Emma Varvaloucas: Yeah, I think this is the same reason the depolarization organization, Braver Angels, when they host their debates between Reds and Blues, they always start with, you have to tell a personal story first, because that gives you that bridge. Charles, this is reminding me of the chapter in your book with the doctors and people who are hesitant to take vaccines.

I’m wondering if you could tell some of those stories because I think that’s going to speak to Zachary’s question.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah. And this is what we know about the single best way to help people see different perspectives. There was a series of experiments that were done trying to understand how to move people on the political spectrum, from being against gay marriage to for gay marriage. And they found the same thing that the doctors you mentioned that we talk about in the book about trying to help anti vaxxers, trying to, to encourage them to at least think about vaccination. When the pandemic first started and we first got the vaccines, the National Institutes of Health, their recommendations were that if you have someone who comes into your office and you’re a physician, who’s anti vax, what you should do is just give them the facts.

Like if you can tell them what the science says, then they’re going to change their mind. They’re going to see the wisdom of getting a vaccine. And every single doctor who actually worked with patients said, that’s the worst advice possible. Like these are not people who are making this choice out of ignorance.

They have spent hours and hours and hours researching online. They have a dozen reasons to be against the vaccine. And so eventually NIH, with guidance from these physicians, change their recommendations and said, okay, what you should do is this thing called motivational interviewing. And this is what’s working in a political setting, also. Ask them to tell you personal stories about how they see this issue, and simply listen and then ask follow up questions. Do not try and convince them of anything else. Do not do anything besides try to understand how they see the world, particularly rooted in their personal experience, because we’re all experts on ourself.

And then if you’d like to tell a personal story about yourself and go ahead and say, this is a personal story. This isn’t, I’m not talking about studies. I’m just talking about myself. And in fact, in the book, we talk about this one woman, Dr. Chimay, who works in Oregon and a patient comes in and he says, I don’t want to get the vaccine because I’m very religious and I wash my hands and I wear the mask and I think God will take care of me.

If God wants me to be healthy, I will be healthy. And she asked him a couple of questions and she says, Oh my gosh, it’s so impressive how personal your relationship with God is. And then she says, Sometimes as a physician, I’m very thankful because God helped us find these vaccines. And this is just talking for me, one of the things that’s been hard for me is that sometimes I know that you’re a grandfather, that you have grandkids, and I’m sure you love your grandkids the same way I love my kids and you worry about them. Sometimes kids come in and they’re already sick and they ask for help. They ask for the vaccine and it’s too late for me to give it to them.

But thank you so much for coming in today. I feel like I learned so much about you. And then she leaves the room. And five minutes later, that guy asks for a vaccine.

And the same thing happens with political conversations. There was a series of experiments that were done in California where they were trying to move people’s opinions on gay marriage.

And they went into Republican areas and they talked to people who were opposed to gay marriage. And instead of trying to make a plea to them, instead of trying to make the case for gay marriage, the pollster simply asked them how they felt about this issue. If they knew anyone who was gay, how they felt about marriage, like why marriage was important to them.

And then they would engage in things such as proving that they’re listening. You know, they would ask deep questions. They would prove that they’re listening through a technique known as looping for understanding that we can talk about. And what they found was that once people felt like they had been listened to, when the pollster would then say, I hear what you’re saying about marriage, right?

Like, I think the marriage is this sanctified relationship between people. And actually I myself, I am gay and I want to have that sanctified relationship with my husband. I want this to be something that we can pledge ourselves to each other for the rest of our lives. It’s at that moment that people became more understanding and also malleable in their political holdings.

We actually saw a 3 to 5 percent shift in the political opinion among that group, which is in politics is like off the charts.

Zachary Karabell: I wonder if that goes the other way to issues that for the group that may have been advocating gay marriage would probably have a harder time. Seeing like what if a group of very staunch Second Amendment absolutists, and I say absolutists in a neutral way, meaning someone who really believes that the Second Amendment should extend to almost no government oversight and or regulation of the right to bear arms in whatever form that you choose. Could you imagine a similar scenario where a group animated by that as a strong, both moral principle and constitutional right, sways a group who believes that there should be far more regulation?

Charles Duhigg: There’s actually a chapter in the book about precisely that, about an experiment that was done that brought together.

Zachary Karabell: I apologize for having missed that chapter.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah. An experiment that brought together gun rights advocates and gun control activists. And again, what they found was the measure of whether this conversation is successful, is not how much you persuade the other person, even in the case that I just mentioned with gay marriage, it’s a 3 to 5 percent shift.

That is not a huge shift. In politics it’s enormous, but that means that for every hundred people that they spoke to three, maybe five of them changed their mind a little bit, but again, the goal of a conversation is not to convince the other person they are wrong and you are right. The goal of a conversation is to understand the other person better, to have some type of connection with them, even if that doesn’t transcend to changing their mind. And I guarantee you, having had these conversations myself, with second amendment activists, you walk away from them, not necessarily thinking like, Oh, we should have no regulations on guns, but thinking like, I understand why this person is so passionate about guns.

They grew up, I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The people I grew up around, guns were integral to their relationship with their father. I have a number of relatives who go deer hunting every single year, and this is one of the most important moments in their year is to go deer hunting. And they feel strongly about their right to own rifles that allow them to do that.

And that doesn’t mean that I think that they should be unregulated. It doesn’t mean that I agree with them or that I vote the same way they do, but it does mean that I understand why they feel the way they do. And when you understand why someone, how someone sees the world, it’s harder to demonize their perspectives and force them into a caricature.

Emma Varvaloucas: They become a lot more rational in your mind.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah. Yeah.

Emma Varvaloucas: So I want to loop back to looping back for understanding. I actually have a bone to pick with it, but first, can you explain what it is? And I know you’ve done it to me at least once in those conversations.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah, I apologize. It’s almost so automatic because it sort of just becomes a habit. So looping for understanding is this technique for showing that you’re listening to someone, and it’s particularly important in conflict conversations.

When we do disagree with each other, one of the things that tends to make those conversations go poorly is that oftentimes, in the back of our brain, we suspect you are not listening to me, but you’re just waiting your turn to speak, and you suspect the same thing. And so looping for understanding is a way of proving I’m actually listening to you.

And it has three steps. There’s this first step, which is you ask a question, preferably a deep question. The second step is repeat back what you heard the person say in your own words, or ask a follow up question that shows that you’ve been paying close attention. And then thirdly, and this is the one that people tend to forget that’s most important, ask if you got it right.

Because in doing so, you’re actually validating whether, in fact, you heard the person accurately and sometimes we don’t. But you’re also asking for their permission to acknowledge that you’ve been listening. And what happens is that when we loop in a conversation, what we find is that the other person becomes much more willing to listen to us.

There’s an almost innate sense of reciprocal authenticity that pushes us to listen. But Emma, tell me your bone to pick. I’m interested.

Emma Varvaloucas: Going back to the time that I was training to be a hospice volunteer, they taught us a slightly more simplified version that when you are talking to people who are on hospice, you’re supposed to completely give them the floor.

So you’re not supposed to share your own personal experiences at all. You’re supposed to essentially repeat back what they said in order to validate their experience, which I think is totally fine in that context. The thing is, when I’ve interacted with people, my social circles and friends that also know this technique, it sometimes feels fake.

Like, it doesn’t feel like it’s coming from an authentic place that sometimes it feels someone repeats what I’ve said. And I’m like, yeah, that’s, that’s what I just said, but thank you for repeating that back to me. So am I just a curmudgeon or is there a way to do this to make it feel more genuine? I guess that’s the question.

Zachary Karabell: And actually, before you answer that, Charles, quick question. So is looping the same as mirroring? Because I’ve heard it described as mirroring, you know, when you.

Charles Duhigg: It’s not. And that gets to answering Emma’s question. Having talked to folks who work in hospice situations, that’s a very, very specific relationship, right, where you’re not actually necessarily trying to form a reciprocal relationship. You are there to serve the needs of someone who is close to death, so it has its own sort of set of mores and rules. But when it comes to other situations, right, where you’re exactly right, oftentimes, if someone does this poorly, it can feel artificial.

And the reason why is oftentimes, they are literally mimicking what we say, we’re like, Oh, I loved Aruba. And they say, what I hear you saying is that you loved Aruba, right? They’re not showing you that they’re listening to you. They’re showing you that they’ve managed to hold the last couple of words in their short term buffer memory.

The difference with looping for understanding and mirroring or mimicking is actually saying to someone, what I hear you saying is you like to go to places in the Caribbean. But you don’t like all of the Caribbean because there’s this thing that Aruba has that seemed really special to you, right? That’s why when we repeat back sort of what someone told us, we have to do it in our own words.

We have to show them that we’ve processed it. And the goal here is not simply to mimic. In fact, when we match other people’s conversations, when someone’s obviously an emotional mindset and we want to match them, right. Or we want to invite them to match us. There is a difference between matching and mimicry and the matching has to be authentic.

So if you’re listening to someone and they’re describing something and you’re processing it authentically, then what you ought to say is what it occurs to you, which is what I hear you saying is this. And that made me think of this other thing. And I’m wondering, how do you think about that? Am I getting right what you’re telling me? That feels like someone’s listening to you. Just repeating back what they said almost never does. And it indicates you’re probably not actually listening.

News Clip: It’s become through COVID, um, through just the rise of social media platforms, the way so many young people communicate. That’s okay, but it also has meant it’s people have lost the art of being able to communicate in person.

And I’m still a believer, maybe it’s old school, that that’s where some of the best conversations happen.

Zachary Karabell: So how does this work? A lot of what we’ve been talking about is a one on one communication dynamic, which is very different. And you alluded at the beginning to people who are very effective in meetings are very charismatic.

And you talk about that a lot in the book, too. So how is it different when it’s a series of people and you’re obviously not interacting one on one with each one of them. I mean, if it’s a meeting of 12 people, you’re not going to go around and kind of individually, because then it’s not a meeting. It’s a series of 12 one on one conversations, which would be very bad for a meeting.

So how does that work? Like, how does one communicate with a group?

Charles Duhigg: It’s the same basic principles. So what we know is that conversations with groups are basically the same as conversations with individuals. Although there’s oftentimes a higher cognitive load because there’s just a little bit more to pay attention to.

When you’re having a one on one conversation, one of the things that you’re doing is you’re creating a sense of psychological safety. And when it comes to groups and teams, that psychological safety becomes even more important, right? Because it’s so easy to disrupt psychological safety when you are talking to a group, because you can’t be aware of everyone’s reactions in a particular moment.

And so there’s a couple of things that we can do to create psychological safety within teams. And some work by Amy Edmondson, she’s at Harvard Business School now. Has been particularly insightful in this respect. And there’s two things in particular that we know are important. The first is something called equality and conversational turn taking.

And so to your point, Zach, if we are in a meeting of 12 people, it actually should be a little bit where everyone gets to have a one on one with everyone else. Right?

Zachary Karabell: Right.

Charles Duhigg: If someone’s not talking, we should draw them into the conversation as the team leader and say something like, hey Jim, I noticed you haven’t said anything in a little while. I’m wondering, what are you thinking about this?

And then the other thing that we know creates psychological safety in team settings is what’s known as ostentatious listening, which is exactly what I just described with looping for understanding. When you think about it, what you’re doing with looping for understanding is you’re proving that you’re listening.

And so in teams where the team leader says things like, What I hear you saying is, other people begin to mimic that same behavior. And when people both have the freedom to speak and feel like others are listening to their words, it makes it more likely that they will speak up. And that they’ll feel a connection to the other people in the room.

Emma Varvaloucas: Charles, I wanted to ask you about finding the balance. You know, there’s a lot in your book about making sure that you relate to people by sharing your own experiences. And that was interesting for me personally to read, in part because I’m a journalist. I do have a propensity to just like, let’s interview this person, you know, and, and forget that I probably should share my own stuff.

But part of why I do that is because I don’t want to dominate a conversation. In particular, someone sharing something, you know, sensitive or, or tough. So how do you go about that? Is it like, should it be like a 50 50 or how do you learn that particular skill?

Charles Duhigg: Well, I think that rather than looking for a particular ratio, I think the thing is, how do we show that we want to connect with the other person?

So there’s definitely a difference between interviewing someone and having a conversation with them. And the hallmark of a conversation is that there is this back and forth that we’re reciprocating interest and we’re reciprocating vulnerability and authenticity. And so if you’re just asking questions, you’re really not offering anything of yourself, but it feels very one sided to the person who’s being interrogated.

On the other hand, you’re exactly right. There’s times when someone says something like my aunt recently passed away. And the worst thing to say is, Oh, I totally understand what you’re going through. You know, my pet died seven years ago and it was really heartbreaking. That doesn’t feel like you’re actually listening. That feels like you’re trying to steal the spotlight for yourself.

And so one of the things that’s really important is to recognize that oftentimes we share things about ourselves. We engage in reciprocal vulnerability through showing our concern or asking a follow up question. And so if someone says, Oh, I recently had a death in my family. Simply saying, Oh, I’m so sorry. I know how hard that is. I’ve been through that myself. Tell me what’s going on. Like, tell me about it.

That is a way of sharing something of yourself without trying to steal that spotlight and dominate the conversation. And so I would say in many ways, if somebody is sharing something about themselves, where it feels authentically like your experience adds to and contributes to the conversation, and it offers you an opportunity for connection as opposed to an opportunity for battling over control, then I think that’s a very valuable thing to share.

Zachary Karabell: And what do you do about the, I guess the trust question, which is in many walks of life and unfortunately at times interpersonally, but more likely when you’re in a business context or a political context where there can be in the moment, a human tendency to actually want to connect or at least have the verisimilitude of seeming to connect.

The joke is always in Hollywood, you’ll go into a meeting and everybody’s like, Oh my God, I love it. That’s great. I hear you doing this. I’m so supportive. And then you walk away and you realize it was all, it was simply the desire and the moment to be seen that way, but it didn’t actually auger any agreement or any yes.

And we see that in meetings too, where someone will come in and, That’s a wonderful idea. It’s great. I really, I hear that. I can totally see it. And then you hear later on that that person completely torpedoed what you had said, or any variant thereof, and it happens all the time in politics, and people have like a great dinner, and the next day they’re just, you know, condemning each other in public.

How does that navigate or toggle with, That moment can seem connective, but then people go their particular ways and it’s almost can feel through a looking glass.

Charles Duhigg: Well, I don’t know how connective that moment really is. If someone’s being inauthentic with you and is lying to you, if you bring them something that is part of your creative output and they say, this is amazing, I love it.

And you know that they don’t think it’s amazing, that doesn’t seem like something that would actually be a real connection as opposed to someone saying, you know, I really liked this aspect of it. And this other aspect didn’t work quite as much for me, but I’d love to talk through with you what you were thinking about and understand a little bit more about what you were trying to accomplish here.

You mentioned politics and I write for the New Yorker and I write occasionally about politics. I will say when I talk to politicians, it’s not what they don’t talk about is they don’t talk about how we have authentic private conversations and then we stab each other in the back. What they actually talk about is they talk about the fact that achieving that private authentic conversation oftentimes makes it much easier for them to connect with each other publicly.

And I think we see that in the Senate all the time. In fact, we’ve seen it recently on some legislation that’s been passed. And so if you go into a conversation and you’re dishonest about yourself, you’re not being genuinely authentic, then it’s not surprising that the other person is probably not going to feel much trust towards you.

But if you are genuinely authentic and you try and connect with the other person and you show them you’re trying to connect with them, oftentimes what happens is even if you do have a difference of opinion, I don’t like act two, tell me what you were doing in act two, because I’d love to see this succeed. You feel a genuine connection with that person and a connection that transcends just the one meeting that you’re having.

Emma Varvaloucas: So Charles, I would actually love to hear out of all of the tools and techniques that you collected by virtue of writing the book, and especially since you said that you wrote the book because you wanted to improve this in your life, is there one that you struggle with the most that you were just like, I just can’t get the hang of this?

Charles Duhigg: No, I wouldn’t say that there’s one in particular. I think that in general, what we know about supercommunicators, consistent supercommunicators, is that all of the tools and the skills at their disposal that they practice, that they make into habits that feel very natural, they’re all serve one, the same goal. And that goal is to basically let the other person know, I want to connect with you, right? Communication is human’s superpower. It’s homo sapien superpower. It’s the reason our species has been so successful, is that we have the ability to not only use communication to form families and then villages and towns and then nations, but also because it means that I can take knowledge and I can transfer it to someone else without them having to experience the same things that gave me that knowledge.

And so this communication is so important. We’ve evolved to be very good at communication. We’ve evolved so that our brains can take these tools and these skills and make them into habits very easily. And as a result, when we practice them, they tend to become more and more natural and practice is really important. It’s an important part of any kind of skill that we want to develop, including conversation.

And so what I’ve found is that the most powerful thing and the thing that all these skills do is it sends a message to the other person that you want to connect with them and it gives you the ability to do so because it’s that wanting to connect, that thinking a little bit more about how to connect and the conversation you’re having that oftentimes leads us to having a more authentic connection.

Zachary Karabell: Where do you go from here next? Do you have some thoughts? I mean, did you know you were going to write this? You said that each of these had been to some degree an outgrowth of questions you were grappling with in your own career or personal life.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah.

Zachary Karabell: Has one arisen since you wrote this book that you’re now thinking and chewing on as the next Duhigg opus?

Charles Duhigg: I’m relatively recent in the process of it. So no, I’m pretty focused on trying to figure out how to communicate to people, that what we know about communication. And that seems like a worthy enterprise, you know, I mean, as you pointed out, we’re living through a time of polarization and we used to teach communication in schools, right?

Like when our parents went to school, they probably took something called like home ec or interpersonal relations. And as schools became more technical, those curriculums tended to fall out of what was included in the school day. There’s a cost to that, because communication is simply a set of skills that people can learn and can practice.

And to your point, Emma, sometimes when we first try and do something, it’s a little clumsy, right? The first time we try and like loop for understanding or prove to someone that we’re listening to them, it can feel a little clumsy. The first time we ask a deep question, it can feel a little unnatural. And so we have to practice it.

When we practice it is when it becomes more natural, when it becomes a habit. And so in general, the thing that I’m trying to focus on now is helping people understand that we can get better at communication. We can all become supercommunicators. People don’t want to be divided from their neighbors because of the lawn signs you have for particular candidates, right?

We want to be able to walk outside and talk to our neighbor and say like, Hey, what’s going on? How’s work? Have just a normal relationship. And throughout history, we’ve been able to do that. And sometimes we’ve recently forgotten how.

Zachary Karabell: You know, I do want to sort of celebrate that particularly because in many ways, and I hear this from my sons and their experience in classrooms, at least, it’s not even as if people are bad communicators.

It’s often that there’s such concern and anxiety that there’s going to be an uncomfortable argument that people become non communicators, let alone supercommunicators.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah.

Zachary Karabell: They’re not even having fights out of the fear of.

Charles Duhigg: They’re avoiding the discussion.

Zachary Karabell: And I wonder if that’s how you touch upon that, which is, I mean, there has to be some willingness in aspiring to being a supercommunicator to be willing to go through some uncomfortable moments, right, in communication.

Charles Duhigg: Oh, absolutely. And in fact, we know a lot about this because there’s been a number of experiments, particularly in the last four or five years about conversations about race or social identities. And one of the things that we know is that the best thing you can do to improve that conversation is at the beginning, acknowledge that it’s going to be somewhat awkward.

Right? Oftentimes when a conversation about race, if you start it by saying, I want to talk about this thing, I know it actually, it’s going to be hard to talk about and that’s okay. Like I’m willing to go through that awkwardness. And by the way, I might say the wrong thing, right? Like sometimes getting from my brain to my lips, it sort of gets screwed up, and I ask for your forgiveness in advance, and I promise if you say the wrong thing, I will do the same thing, that when we acknowledge that a conversation might be hard, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s completely easy, but it makes it easier, and that’s really important because that’s what allows us to connect with each other.

Zachary Karabell: Well, I want to thank you for attempting to connect with us for this conversation and for having the conversation with us. You’re a fascinating character and the work you’ve done is a delightful mix of simultaneously quirky, but clearly touching chords that are widely shared at moments that people seem to be open to hearing.

So I wish you the best with this particular endeavor, just like you’ve had some good traction with the past ones. I hope we all take your tools to heart. And integrate them as best we can, and we will certainly try to do so, Emma and I, in our conversations, and thanks for your work, Charles.

Emma Varvaloucas: Yeah, thank you, Charles.

Charles Duhigg: Wonderful, thank you so much, I really appreciate it.

Emma Varvaloucas: So that was a really fun conversation for me, because I’ve always been sort of obsessed with wanting to give people a really good conversational experience. That’s always been like a, I hate to sound arrogant, but I’m hope that I, it’s always been a natural talent of mine and something that I’d like to keep getting better at.

So it’s kind of fun to see the set of skills and tools that you can actually put into good use. My one question I think that remains is what happens when you get into a conversation where like you are a supercommunicator and the other person is like a sub communicator and then you just feel like you’re not connecting at all and you’re doing your best to try to draw them out and they just want to, you know, talk about the lunch that they had on Wednesday.

What do we do then?

Zachary Karabell: Yeah, it’s funny. I think I found myself more semi curmudgeonly at times listening to Charles insofar as I’m probably a little less optimistic about the constant capacity to communicate. I think it’s always there and we should always strive for it, but I’m not as convinced that they’re in the face of someone’s lack of openness to connecting at all, that there’s much you can do about that. And we didn’t really get into that in the conversation, so I’m not sure he would agree or disagree with that. It’s just that there always has to be some degree of reciprocity, even if one person is doing a better job creating that conduit or building those bridges than the other, because there clearly are times where no matter what you’re trying to do, no matter what questions you’re going to ask, and no matter how much you’re trying to be present, the person on the other side is not as on board for that.

Again, that may be a minority of the times, and it’s not a reason not to try, not to aspire, not to attempt, it’s just a reflection on kind of what you’re saying, Emma, that they’re, sometimes it just, it ain’t happening.

Emma Varvaloucas: So what I’m hearing you say is, I actually, I really did mean when I said it in the interview, I do have some friends that do that to me and it always feels a little bit more like corporate speak than it does like actual genuine connection.

But I’m thinking about some of the examples that Charles writes about in his book, like what comes to mind is this one chapter in Charles’ book where he’s talking about a jury and there’s a supercommunicator on the jury that ends up leading them in one direction for a unanimous vote when they didn’t think that they were gonna go in that direction at all.

And the point was less so of reciprocity, like it’s not like there was an even amount of communication on both sides, it’s just that it got them into a direction where they wanted to go, which I would say is a superpower. I think I would also wonder if that’s a form of manipulation and that whether all of these tools and techniques can be used for nefarious as well as positive ends.

Zachary Karabell: That’s definitely something to be mindful of. Like the Pied Piper presumably was a supercommunicator, maybe with his flute, but maybe with his dulcet words.

A hypnotist is, I guess, a form of supercommunicator. And some of the most, most destructive leaders in history have been able to sway people with their words.

So that’s clearly the case where it’s a tool. It may be a tool that can be abused. It may be a tool that can be used. And that’s a whole other series of conversations. It’s funny, we’re doing, in this reaction to this conversation, some of what we say we always do, which is there’s always a degree of, in the face of something overwhelmingly positive, we will also ask the questions and probe, in the face of something overwhelmingly negative, we will ask the questions and probe.

So, you know, I do think it’s important to kind of hold things up to critical scrutiny with an open heart to be swayed. We’re not dissin’ Duhigg. We’re simply asking some of the hard questions that arise for both of us around a conversation. And I do think a lot of his work is great. And it’s also fascinating to be able to touch popular chords of the moment, that kind of intuitive sense of what people are in need of and thinking about.

Emma Varvaloucas: Yeah, he has a talent for that. And yeah, I will say we are being somewhat critical, I guess, but at the end of the day, the feeling that you meet people in your life, that you walk away from a conversation with, that you feel really good about, like you really feel like you were seen and heard, like that is an amazing feeling.

And I definitely agree with what he said that we would all be better off if more of us knew how to do that. You know, I read this argument recently that particularly in marriage now, because the traditional roles aren’t as defined, one of the reasons why people are having a hard time getting married is because that communication gap has not been filled, that it requires a higher degree of communication than it used to. And I was very sympathetic to that argument. So maybe we should go back to the Home Ec days, but like a Home Ec 2. 0 communication sort of thing.

Zachary Karabell: Totally. Totally. Thank you for your time today. We’ll be back with you next week.

And thank you, Emma, as always.

Emma Varvaloucas: Thanks everybody.

Zachary Karabell: What Could Go Right is produced by the Podglomerate, executive produced by Jeff Umbro, marketing by the Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right, the Progress Network, or to subscribe to the What Could Go Right newsletter, visit

Thanks for listening.


Meet the Hosts

Zachary Karabell

Emma Varvaloucas


The Progress Report: Calm Amidst Chaos

Featuring Zachary Karabell & Emma Varvaloucas

In this week's Progress Report, Zachary and Emma discuss the recent assassination attempt on Donald Trump and its implications for society. They highlight the response from both leaders and ordinary Americans, noting the overall unity and calmness in the aftermath of the event. They also discuss other news stories, including Gambia upholding the ban on female genital cutting and the decreasing global poverty rates. The conversation ends with a positive note about the decrease in gun violence during the Independence Day weekend.

The Impact of Therapy Culture

Featuring Abigail K. Shrier

Does there need to be a change in the way we approach mental health and therapy? Zachary and Emma speak with Abigail Shrier about the evolving landscape of mental health narratives among younger generations. Abigail's new book 'Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren't Growing Up' challenges the orthodoxy that more therapy is the solution to our rising mental health problems. From the use of trauma as metaphor to the impact of therapeutic trends on adolescents, we explore how societal perceptions and parenting styles shape attitudes towards resilience, responsibility, and the pursuit of personal growth. The conversation explores the overdiagnosis and overmedication of children and adolescents, the impact of therapy culture on young people, and the need for a more balanced approach to mental health.

The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of New Media

Featuring Ben Smith

Has social media peaked? How is media different now compared to the early days of Twitter and Facebook? Are there too many social media options? Zachary and Emma speak with Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of Semafor, founding editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed, and author of "Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral." Journalism's recent online progression, social media fragmentation, and the Facebook news evolution are discussed here today.