The art (and science) of meaningful conversation

In this extract from Supercommunicators, bestselling author Charles Duhigg examines one FBI agent's powers of persuasion, and outlines the fundamentals of effective, meaningful dialogue.

Charles Duhigg

If there was one thing everyone knew about Felix Sigala, it was that he was easy to talk to. Exceptionally easy. People loved talking to him, because they always came away feeling a little smarter, funnier, more interesting. Even if you had nothing in common with Felix—which was unusual, because the conversation inevitably revealed all kinds of opinions or experiences or friends you shared—it felt as if he heard you, like you had some kind of bond.

That’s why the scientists had sought him out.

Felix had been with the Federal Bureau of Investigation for two decades. He had joined after college and a stint in the military, and then had spent a few years as an agent in the field. That’s where his superiors had first taken note of his easy way with others. A series of promotions soon followed, and eventually he landed as a senior regional administrator with a mandate to serve as an all-around negotiator. He was the guy who could coax statements from reluctant witnesses, or convince fugitives to turn themselves in, or console families as they grieved. He once persuaded a man who had barricaded himself in a room with six cobras, nineteen rattlesnakes, and an iguana to come out peacefully and then name his accomplices in an animal-smuggling ring. “The key was getting him to see things from the snakes’ perspective,” Felix told me. “He was a little weird, but he genuinely loved animals.”

The FBI had a Crisis Negotiation Unit for hostage situations. When things got unusually complicated, they called someone like Felix.

There were lessons that Felix would share with younger agents when they asked for advice: Never pretend you’re anything other than a cop. Never manipulate or threaten. Ask lots of questions, and, when someone becomes emotional, cry or laugh or complain or celebrate with them. But what ultimately made him so good at his job was a bit of a mystery, even to his colleagues.

So, in 2014, when a group of psychologists, sociologists, and other researchers were tasked by the Department of Defense to explore new methods for teaching persuasion and negotiation to military officers—essentially, how do we train people to get better at communication?—the scientists sought out Felix. They had learned about him from various officials who, when asked to name the best negotiators they had ever worked with, brought up his name, again and again.

Many of the scientists expected Felix to be tall and handsome, with warm eyes and a rich baritone. The guy who walked in for the interview, however, looked like a middle-aged dad, with a mustache, a little padding around the middle, and a soft, slightly nasal voice. He seemed . . . unremarkable.

Felix told me that, after introductions and pleasantries, one of the scientists explained the nature of their project, and then began with a broad question: “Can you tell us how you think about communication?”

“It might be better if I demonstrate it,” Felix replied. “What’s one of your favorite memories?”

The scientist Felix was speaking to had introduced himself as the head of a large lab. He oversaw millions of dollars in grants and dozens of people. He didn’t seem like the kind of guy accustomed to idly reminiscing in the middle of the day.

The scientist paused. “Probably my daughter’s wedding,” he finally said. “My whole family was there, and my mother died just a few months later.”

Felix asked a few follow-up questions, and occasionally shared memories of his own. “My sister got married in 2010,” Felix told the man. “She’s passed away now—it was cancer, which was hard—but she was so beautiful that day. That’s how I try to remember her.”

It went on this way for the next forty-five minutes. Felix would ask the scientists questions, and occasionally talk about himself. When someone revealed something personal, Felix would reciprocate with a story from his own life. One scientist mentioned problems he was having with a teenage daughter, and Felix responded by describing an aunt he couldn’t seem to get along with, no matter how hard he tried. When another researcher asked about Felix’s childhood, he explained that he had been painfully shy—but his father had been a salesman (and his grandfather a con man), and so, by imitating their examples, he had eventually learned how to connect with others.

As they got close to the end of their scheduled time together, a professor of psychology chimed in. “I’m sorry,” she said, “this has been wonderful, but I don’t feel any closer to understanding what you do. Why do you think so many people recommended we talk to you?”

“That’s a fair question,” Felix replied. “Before I answer, I want to ask: You mentioned you’re a single mom, and I imagine there’s a lot to juggling motherhood and a career. This might seem unusual, but I’m wondering: What would you tell someone who’s getting a divorce?”

Every discussion is influenced by emotions, no matter how rational the topic at hand.

The woman went silent for a beat. “I guess I’ll play along,” she said. “I have lots of advice. When I separated from my husband—”

Felix gently interrupted.

“I don’t really need an answer,” he said. “But I want to point out that, in a room filled with professional colleagues, and after less than an hour of conversation, you’re willing to talk about one of the most intimate parts of your life.” He explained that one reason she felt so at ease was likely because of the environment they had created together, how Felix had listened closely, had asked questions that drew out people’s vulnerabilities, how they had all revealed meaningful details about themselves. Felix had encouraged the scientists to explain how they saw the world, and then had proven to them that he had heard what they were saying. Whenever someone said something emotional—even when they didn’t realize their emotions were on display—Felix had reciprocated by voicing feelings of his own. All those small choices they had made, he explained, had created an atmosphere of trust.

“It’s a set of skills,” he told the scientists. “There’s nothing magical about it.” Put differently, anyone can learn to be a supercommunicator.

Who would you call if you were having a bad day? If you had screwed up a deal at work, or had gotten into an argument with your spouse, or were feeling frustrated and sick of it all: Who would you want to talk to? There’s likely someone that you know who will make you feel better, who can help you think through a thorny question or share a moment of heartbreak or joy.

Now, ask yourself: Are they the funniest person in your life? (Probably not, but if you paid close attention, you’d notice they laugh more than most people.) Are they the most interesting or smartest person you know? (What’s more likely is that, even if they don’t say anything particularly wise, you anticipate that you will feel smarter after talking to them.) Are they your most entertaining or confident friend? Do they give the best advice? (Most likely: Nope, nope, and nope—but when you hang up the phone, you’ll feel calmer and more centered and closer to the right choice.)

So what are they doing that makes you feel so good?

This book attempts to answer that question. Over the past two decades, a body of research has emerged that sheds light on why some of our conversations go so well, while others are so miserable. These insights can help us hear more clearly and speak more engagingly. We know that our brains have evolved to crave connection: When we “click” with someone, our eyes often start to dilate in tandem; our pulses match; we feel the same emotions and start to complete each other’s sentences within our heads. This is known as neural entrainment, and it feels wonderful. Sometimes it happens and we have no idea why; we just feel lucky that the conversation went so well. Other times, even when we’re desperate to bond with someone, we fail again and again.

For many of us, conversations can sometimes seem bewildering, stressful, even terrifying. “The single biggest problem with communication,” said the playwright George Bernard Shaw, “is the illusion it has taken place.” But scientists have now unraveled many of the secrets of how successful conversations happen. They’ve learned that paying attention to someone’s body, alongside their voice, helps us hear them better. They have determined that how we ask a question sometimes matters more than what we ask. We’re better off, it seems, acknowledging social differences, rather than pretending they don’t exist. Every discussion is influenced by emotions, no matter how rational the topic at hand. When starting a dialogue, it helps to think of the discussion as a negotiation where the prize is figuring out what everyone wants.

And, above all, the most important goal of any conversation is to connect.

This book was born, in part, from my own failures at communicating. A few years ago, I was asked to help manage a relatively complex work project. I had never been a manager before—but I had worked for plenty of bosses. Plus, I had a fancy MBA from Harvard Business School and, as a journalist, communicated as a profession! How hard could it be?

Very hard, it turned out. I was fine at drawing up schedules and planning logistics. But, time and again, I struggled with connecting. One day a colleague told me they felt their suggestions were being ignored, their contributions going unrecognized. “It’s incredibly frustrating,” they said.

I told them that I heard them and began suggesting possible solutions: Perhaps they should run the meetings? Or maybe we should draw up a formal organizational chart, clearly spelling out everyone’s duties? Or what if we—

“You’re not listening to me,” they interrupted. “We don’t need clearer roles. We need to do a better job of respecting each other.” They wanted to talk about how people were treating one another, but I was obsessed with practical fixes. They had told me they needed empathy, but rather than listen, I replied with solutions.

The truth is, a similar dynamic sometimes played out at home. My family would go on vacation, and I would find something to obsess over—we didn’t get the hotel room we were promised; the guy on the airplane had reclined his seat—and my wife would listen and respond with a perfectly reasonable suggestion: Why don’t you focus on the positive aspects of the trip? Then I, in turn, would get upset because it felt like she didn’t understand that I was asking for support—tell me I’m right to be outraged!—rather than sensible advice. Sometimes my kids would want to talk and I, consumed by work or some other distraction, would only half listen until they wandered away. I could see, in retrospect, that I was failing the people who were most important to me, but I didn’t know how to fix it. I was particularly confused by these failures because, as a writer, I am supposed to communicate for a living. Why was I struggling to connect with—and hear—the people who mattered most?

I have a feeling I’m not alone in this confusion. We’ve all failed, at times, to listen to our friends and colleagues, to appreciate what they are trying to tell us—to hear what they’re saying. And we’ve all failed to speak so we can be understood.

Every meaningful conversation is made up of countless small choices.

This book, then, is an attempt to explain why communication goes awry and what we can do to make it better. At its core are a handful of key ideas.

The first one is that many discussions are actually three different conversations. There are practical, decision-making conversations that focus on What’s This Really About? There are emotional conversations, which ask How Do We Feel? And there are social conversations that explore Who Are We? We are often moving in and out of all three conversations as a dialogue unfolds. However, if we aren’t having the same kind of conversation as our partners, at the same moment, we’re unlikely to connect with each other.

What’s more, each type of conversation operates by its own logic and requires its own set of skills, and so to communicate well, we have to know how to detect which kind of conversation is occurring, and understand how it functions.

Which brings me to the second idea at the core of this book: Our goal, for the most meaningful discussions, should be to have a “learning conversation.” Specifically, we want to learn how the people around us see the world and help them understand our perspectives in turn.

The last big idea isn’t really an idea, but rather something I’ve learned: Anyone can become a supercommunicator—and, in fact, many of us already are, if we learn to unlock our instincts. We can all learn to hear more clearly, to connect on a deeper level. In the pages ahead, you’ll see how executives at Netflix, the creators of The Big Bang Theory, spies and surgeons, NASA psychologists and COVID researchers have transformed how they speak and listen—and, as a result, have managed to connect with people across seemingly vast divides. And you will see how these lessons apply to everyday conversations: our chats with workmates, friends, romantic partners and our kids, the barista at the coffee shop and that woman we always wave to on the bus.

And that’s important, because learning to have meaningful conversations is, in some ways, more urgent than ever before. It’s no secret the world has become increasingly polarized, that we struggle to hear and be heard. But if we know how to sit down together, listen to each other and, even if we can’t resolve every disagreement, find ways to hear one another and say what is needed, we can coexist and thrive.

Every meaningful conversation is made up of countless small choices. There are fleeting moments when the right question, or a vulnerable admission, or an empathetic word can completely change a dialogue. A silent laugh, a barely audible sigh, a friendly smile during a tense moment: Some people have learned to spot these opportunities, to detect what kind of discussion is occurring, to understand what others really want. They have learned how to hear what’s unsaid and speak so others want to listen.

This, then, is a book that explores how we communicate and connect. Because the right conversation, at the right moment, can change everything.

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