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Supercommunicators: Tips for Having Better Work Conversations and Meetings

Five lessons for your work and personal life from the new book Supercommunicators, by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charles Duhigg.

It’s a great season for new book releases related to the future of work, and this piece is aimed at getting you up to speed on the central learnings from one published recently, Supercommunicators by Charles Duhigg. 

I asked Duhigg, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist who also wrote The Power of Habit, what the most important takeaway for people leaders from his new book is and he replied:

“There was an excerpt in The Wall Street Journal that makes for a pretty good summary of some of the key skills. But, in general, I would say: Leaders who want to connect with their teams should listen more and ask more questions (supercommunicators, we know from studies, ask 10 to 20 times as many questions as the average person), and in particular they should ask deep questions. Something that invites the other person to discuss their values, or beliefs, or experiences. There are a few examples in the Journal piece.

 “And then the other important thing (among many) is to show the other person or group you want to connect with them. The desire for connection is innate–but it can also feel vulnerable. When we show we want to connect—by asking someone about their life, by asking follow-up questions, by proving we’re listening, by sharing meaningful things about ourselves—it is a signal to another person that we want to make a real connection with them, and we almost always respond by accepting that invitation. Our brains, in fact, have evolved to nudge us that way.”

I read Supercommunicators this week, and a few other things relevant to workplaces stood out for me:

  • Prepping conversations beforehand makes them better. Researchers studying a group of investment bankers who had contentious, high-pressure meetings found that they could make them less fierce by asking everyone to write one sentence before each meeting explaining their goals for it. Duhigg recommends asking yourself a few questions in the moments before a conversation, such as “What are two topics you most want to discuss?” and “What is one question you will ask that reveals what others want?” (p. 71)
  • Shared laughter is a powerful strengthener of bonds between people. Laughter is powerful, Duhigg writes, citing a psychology researcher, “because it is contagious, ‘immediate and involuntary, involving the most direct communication possible between people: Brain to brain.’” (p. 113) People laugh to connect with other people, and it doesn’t need to be around things that are particularly funny. The researcher found that most times in conversation people are laughing at banal remarks such as “It was nice meeting you too.”
  • You can ask common questions slightly differently and create more space for connection. Rather than just “Where do you live?” or “Where did you go to college?” you can try “What do you like about where you live?” and “What was your favorite part of college?” (p. 97) “Those questions make emotional replies easier, and they practically beg the questioner to reciprocate—­ to divulge, in return, why they work here, what they enjoyed about college—­ until everyone is drawn in, asking and answering back and forth,” Duhigg writes.
  • “Looping” creates a foundation for understanding. This is when you repeat back in your own words what someone has said, and then ask them to confirm that you got it right. “Studies show it is the single most effective technique for proving to someone that we want to hear what they are saying,” Duhigg writes. (p. 142) It helps prevent things from heating up during hard conversions and people who practice looping are viewed as better teammates and advisors. 

Here’s one more takeaway from Supercommunicators that’s perhaps useful for your personal life and relationships: 

  • Researchers have found that happy couples get in sync about the purpose of the conversation they’re having at the moment. “On a very basic level, if someone seems emotional, allow yourself to become emotional as well. If someone is intent on decision-­making, match that focus. If they are preoccupied by social implications, reflect their fixation back to them,” Duhigg writes. (p. 21)  “Happy couples ask each other more questions, repeat what the other person said, make tension-­easing jokes, and get serious together. The next time you feel yourself edging toward an argument, try asking your partner: ‘Do you want to talk about our emotions? Or do we need to make a decision together? Or is this about something else?’”  

You can buy a copy of Supercommunicators from Bookshop or Amazon. And you can read our archive of book briefings for critical summaries of other books relevant to leadership and work.

Reading Supercommunicators reminded me of the work that Deb Roy is doing at MIT around constructive communications in the workplace. “It's extraordinary what will happen when you give people a space to share personal experiences and then create possibilities for people to listen and to hear one another's experiences,” Roy says.


Article by Kevin Delaney, CEO and editor in chief of Charter. Copyright 2024, Charter. This article is reprinted with permission from Charter. All rights reserved.



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