Book Notes #118: Supercommunicators by Charles Duhigg

Supercommunicators by Charles Duhigg provides practical strategies to enhance communication skills and influence others effectively.

Title: Supercommunicators: How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection
Author: Charles Duhigg
Year: 2024
Pages: 320

Communication is a superpower and the best communicators understand that whenever we speak, we’re actually participating in one of three conversations: practical (What’s this really about?), emotional (How do we feel?), and social (Who are we?).

If you don’t know what kind of conversation you’re having, you’re unlikely to connect. 

Supercommunicators know the importance of recognizing—and then matching—each kind of conversation, and how to hear the complex emotions, subtle negotiations, and deeply held beliefs that color so much of what we say and how we listen.

Our experiences, our values, our emotional lives—and how we see ourselves, and others—shape every discussion, from who will pick up the kids to how we want to be treated at work. 

In Supercommunicators, we can learn why some people are able to make themselves heard, and to hear others, so clearly.

Come inside a jury room as one juror leads a starkly divided room to consensus. Join a young CIA officer as he recruits a reluctant foreign agent. And sit with an accomplished surgeon as he tries, and fails, to convince yet another cancer patient to opt for the less risky course of treatment.

In Supercommunicators, Charles Duhigg blends deep research and his trademark storytelling skills to show how we can all learn to identify and leverage the hidden layers behind every conversation.

With his storytelling that takes us from the writers’ room of The Big Bang Theory to the couches of leading marriage counselors, Duhigg shows readers how to recognize these three conversations—and teaches us the tips and skills we need to navigate them more successfully.

As a result, I gave this book a rating of 9.5/10.

For me, a book with a note 10 is one I consider reading again. Among the books I rank with 10, for example, is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.

3 Reasons to Read Supercommunicators

Practical Conversations

Supercommunicators offers practical techniques that can be immediately applied in various real-life situations. From crafting engaging stories to simplifying complex messages achieving better outcomes in their personal and professional lives.

Emotional Conversations

By mastering the principles outlined in Supercommunicators, readers will feel empowered and confident in their ability to connect with others and convey their ideas effectively.

Social Conversations

Through effective communication, readers can foster deeper connections with others. Supercommunicators shows the skills to build meaningful relationships, inspire action, and make a positive impact on the world around them.

Book Overview

Supercommunicators by Charles Duhigg is a book all about improving how we communicate with others.

The main idea is that we always have three 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 This Really About? The Decision Making Mindset

The first way we approach conversation is through what we call the “decision-making mindset.” This mindset kicks in when we’re focused on practical matters, asking ourselves, “What’s This Really About?”

For example, when someone asks, “How can we improve Sam’s grades?” our brain’s frontal control network, which is like the command center for our thoughts and actions, becomes active. We start making decisions, sometimes without even realizing it. We evaluate not only the words being said but also the underlying motives or intentions. Questions like, “Is this conversation serious or casual?” and “Should I offer a solution or simply listen?” arise.

The “What’s This Really About?” conversation is crucial for planning ahead, weighing options, engaging in intellectual discussions, and deciding what topics to focus on, our objectives for the conversation, and the best approach to take.

How Do We Feel? The Emotional Mindset

The second way we engage in conversation is what we refer to as the “emotional mindset.” This mindset comes into play when we’re discussing our feelings – essentially asking ourselves, “How Do We Feel?” It taps into various neural structures such as the nucleus accumbens, the amygdala, and the hippocampus, which shape our beliefs, emotions, and memories.

When we share a humorous anecdote, argue with our partner, or feel a surge of pride or sadness during a conversation, we’re operating within the emotional mindset.

For instance, when a friend vents about their boss and we sense they’re seeking empathy rather than advice, it’s because we’re tuned into understanding “How Do We Feel?”

Who Are We? The Social Mindset

The third way we engage in conversation is what we call the “social mindset.” This is when we talk about our relationships, how others perceive us, and how we see ourselves in the social sphere.

These are essentially discussions about “Who Are We?” When we gossip about work dynamics, discuss mutual acquaintances, or delve into how our backgrounds shape us, our brains are in what neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman calls the default mode network.

This network is responsible for how we think about others, ourselves, and our place in society.

Research published in the journal Human Nature in 1997 revealed that a whopping 70 percent of our conversations revolve around social topics.

This means that during these discussions, our social mindset is always influencing what we hear and what we say.

Misunderstandings often arise when people are engaging in different types of conversations. Imagine you’re expressing your feelings while I’m offering practical solutions – it’s like we’re speaking different cognitive languages.

That’s why, when you vent about your boss driving you crazy and your wife respond with a practical suggestion like inviting them to lunch, it can lead to conflict instead of connection.

You might just be seeking empathy rather than a solution.

When we match someone’s mindset, a permission is granted: To enter another person’s head, to see the world through their eyes, to understand what they care about and need.


Chapter One: The Matching Principle
How to Fail at Recruiting Spies

A Guide to Using These Ideas, Part I
The Four Rules for a Meaningful Conversation

Chapter Two: Every Conversation Is a Negotiation
The Trial of Leroy Reed

A Guide to Using These Ideas, Part II
Asking Questions and Noticing Clues

Chapter Three: The Listening Cure
Touchy-Feely Hedge Funders
Chapter Four: How Do You Hear Emotions No One Says Aloud?
The Big Bang Theory
Chapter Five: Connecting Amid Conflict
Talking to the Enemy About Guns

A Guide to Using These Ideas, Part III
Emotional Conversations, in Life and Online

Chapter Six: Our Social Identities Shape Our Worlds
Vaccinating the Anti-Vaxxers
Chapter Seven: How Do We Make the Hardest Conversations Safer?
The Problem Netflix Lives With

A Guide to Using These Ideas, Part IV
Making Hard Conversations Easier

A Note on Sources and Methods

Supercommunicators starts by explaining the importance of understanding your audience. He says that knowing who you’re talking to helps you tailor your message to them.

This means considering their needs, interests, and beliefs before speaking.

Next, Duhigg talks about the power of stories. He explains how stories can capture people’s attention and make them more likely to remember what you’ve said. He encourages readers to use stories in their own communication to make their messages stick.

Duhigg also discusses the role of emotions in communication. He says that tapping into people’s emotions can make your message more persuasive. He gives examples of how to do this effectively, such as by using vivid language and personal anecdotes.

One of the most important aspects of emotional communication is showing others we hear their emotions, which helps us reciprocate. There’s a technique for this—looping for understanding. Here’s how it works:

  • Ask questions, to make sure you understand what someone has said.
  • Repeat back, in your own words, what you heard.
  • Ask if you got it right.
  • Continue until everyone agrees we understand.

Another key point Duhigg makes is the importance of simplicity. He says that complex messages are harder for people to understand and remember. Instead, he advises readers to keep their communication clear and concise.

One of the reasons supercommunicators are so talented at picking up on how others feel is because they have a habit of noticing the energy in others’ gestures, the volume of their voices, how fast they are speaking, their cadence and affect.

They pay attention to whether someone’s posture indicates they are feeling down, or if they are so excited they can barely contain it.

Supercommunicators allow themselves to match that energy and mood, or at least acknowledge it, and thereby make it clear they want to align.

They help us see and hear our feelings via their own bodies and voices. By matching our mood and energy, they make it obvious they are trying to connect.

Overall, Supercommunicators is a practical guide to improving your communication skills. Duhigg’s insights are easy to understand and apply, making this book a valuable resource for anyone looking to become a better communicator.

What are the Key Ideas

The Power of Storytelling

Duhigg explores how storytelling can be a potent tool for communication, allowing individuals to convey complex ideas in a compelling and memorable way.

Understanding Your Audience

By understanding the emotions, values, and beliefs of their audience, communicators can tailor their message for maximum impact and resonance.

Simplify Your Message

Duhigg emphasizes the importance of simplicity in communication, encouraging readers to distill their message to its core essence for greater clarity and comprehension.

Leveraging Emotions

Emotions play a crucial role in communication, influencing how people perceive and respond to messages. Duhigg demonstrates how to tap into emotions effectively to connect with and persuade others.

What are the Main Lessons

Craft Engaging Stories

To captivate your audience, craft stories that resonate emotionally and illustrate key points effectively.

Keep It Simple

Avoid jargon and complexity, and strive for clarity and brevity in your communication to ensure your message is understood and remembered.

Evoke Emotions:

Use vivid language, personal anecdotes, and relatable examples to evoke emotions and create a deeper connection with your audience.

Practice Active Listening

Actively listen to your audience’s feedback and nonverbal cues to gauge their reactions and adjust your communication accordingly.

Adapt and Iterate

Continuously evaluate and refine your communication strategies based on feedback and results to improve your effectiveness over time.

Know Your Audience

Conduct research and observe your audience to understand their preferences, needs, and perspectives before communicating with them.

My Book Highlights & Quotes

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.

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.

Miscommunication occurs when people are having different kinds of conversations. If you are speaking emotionally, while I’m talking practically, we are, in essence, using different cognitive languages. (This explains why, when you complain about your boss—“Jim is driving me crazy!”—and your spouse responds with a practical suggestion—“What if you just invited him to lunch?”—it’s more apt to create conflict than connection: “I’m not asking you to solve this! I just want some empathy.”)

When we match someone’s mindset, a permission is granted: To enter another person’s head, to see the world through their eyes, to understand what they care about and need. And we give them permission to understand—and hear—us in return. “Conversations are the most powerful thing on earth,”

We all send clues, as we speak and listen, about what kind of conversation we want. Supercommunicators notice these clues, and think a bit harder about where they hope a conversation will go.

The first step is trying to figure out what each of us wants from a discussion, what we are seeking from this dialogue. That’s how we get at the deeper questions beneath the surface.

Then, once we know what people want from a conversation, we next need to work out how to give it to them—how to engage in a quiet negotiation—so that their needs are met, as well as our own. That requires conducting experiments to reveal how we’ll make decisions together. This is the matching principle at work, recognizing what kind of conversation is occurring and then aligning with others, and inviting them to align with us.

Emotions shape every conversation. They guide what we say and how we hear, often in ways we don’t realize. Every conversation is, in some respect, a discussion about How Do We Feel?

Hearing people describe their emotional lives is important because when we talk about our feelings, we’re describing not just what has happened to us, but why we made certain choices and how we make sense of the world. “When you describe how you feel, you’re giving someone a map of the things you care about.

In contrast, questions that pushed people to describe their beliefs, values, or meaningful experiences tended to result in emotional replies, even if the questions themselves didn’t seem all that emotional. These kinds of questions were powerful because they often prompted people to reveal vulnerabilities. When someone asks “What do you value most in a friendship?” (question sixteen), it might not seem particularly emotionally probing, but it frequently draws unexpectedly revealing replies about past incidents of hurt or betrayal, or expressions of love for friends, or other anxieties or pleasures. Such questions make ever-deepening follow-ups (“What did you say after he broke up with you?”) easy to ask.

In the early 1990s, a series of experiments had shown that humans typically “synchronize their own emotions with the emotions expressed by those around them.” This synchronization is sometimes deliberate, like when we choose to empathize with another person; more often it is automatic, happening outside of our consciousness, causing us to tear up or get angry or proud on someone else’s behalf, whether we want to or not.

There is a cycle: Asking deep questions about feelings, values, beliefs, and experiences creates vulnerability. That vulnerability triggers emotional contagion. And that, in turn, helps us connect.

If you want to connect with someone, ask them what they are feeling, and then reveal your own emotions. If others describe a painful memory or a moment of joy, and we reveal our own disappointments or what makes us proud, it provides a chance to harness the neurochemicals that have evolved to help us feel closer. It creates an opportunity for emotional contagion. The How Do We Feel? conversation is a tool that functions by inviting others to reveal their vulnerabilities, and then being vulnerable in return.

This is how to ask emotional questions in the real world: Ask someone how they feel about something, and then follow up with questions that reveal how you feel. It’s the same framework for emotional connection described before, but in a slightly different guise: If we ask questions that push people to think and talk about their values, beliefs, and experiences, and then reciprocate with emotions of our own, we can’t help but listen to one another. “The best listeners aren’t just listening,” said Margaret Clark, the Yale psychologist. “They’re triggering emotions by asking questions, expressing their own emotions, doing things that prompt the other person to say something real.”

Some people, however, have a talent for detecting emotions, even when they’re unspoken. They exhibit an emotional intelligence that seems to help them hear what’s unsaid. We all know people like this: Friends who seem to intuit when we’re feeling down, even if we haven’t said anything; managers who sense when a kind word is needed, or a bit of tough love, to help us get over a hump at work. It’s natural to assume these people are unusually observant, or uncommonly sensitive. Sometimes they are. But years of research indicates this is a skill anyone can develop. We can learn to identify the nonverbal clues that indicate someone’s true emotions and use these hints to understand what they are feeling.

Laughter might seem like a strange place to look for emotional intelligence, but, in fact, it’s an example of a basic truth of emotional communication: What’s important is not just hearing another person’s feelings but showing that we have heard them. Laughter is one way of proving that we hear how someone feels.

Simply mirroring someone doesn’t prove that we genuinely want to understand them. If you laugh loudly, and I merely smile, it won’t feel like I want to bond. It will feel like I’m uninterested, or patronizing. What matters isn’t speaking and acting alike, but rather matching one another in ways that convey the desire to align.

A joke might not be funny, but if we both agree to laugh in similar ways, we’re signaling to each other that we want to connect.

One of the reasons supercommunicators are so talented at picking up on how others feel is because they have a habit of noticing the energy in others’ gestures, the volume of their voices, how fast they are speaking, their cadence and affect. They pay attention to whether someone’s posture indicates they are feeling down, or if they are so excited they can barely contain it. Supercommunicators allow themselves to match that energy and mood, or at least acknowledge it, and thereby make it clear they want to align. They help us see and hear our feelings via their own bodies and voices. By matching our mood and energy, they make it obvious they are trying to connect.

So instead of trying to decipher specific emotions, pay attention to someone’s mood (Do they seem negative or positive?) and their energy level (Are they high energy or low energy?). Then, focus on matching those two attributes—or, if matching will only exacerbate tensions, show that you hear their emotions by acknowledging how they feel. Make it obvious you are working to understand their emotions. And when you, yourself, are expressing your own emotions, notice how others are responding.

When we make it clear to others that we are trying to hear their emotions, when we genuinely try to match or acknowledge their moods and energy, we begin to reciprocate and entrain. We bond.

Every confrontation involves a range of feelings—anxiety, distress, a desire for retribution—that are natural. But these passions can make it impossible to discuss problems in a productive manner. “And if you don’t acknowledge the emotions, then you’ll never understand why you’re fighting,” said Heen. “You’ll never know what this fight is actually about.”

Emotional intelligence comes from showing someone we have heard their emotions. But when we’re in a conflict or a fight, simply showing often isn’t enough. In those moments, everyone is skeptical and untrusting: Are they listening, or just preparing their rebuttal? Something more is needed, an extra step. To convince others we are genuinely listening during an argument, we must prove to them that we have heard them, prove we are working hard to understand, prove we want to see things from their perspective.

So if a listener wants to prove they’re listening, they need to demonstrate it after the speaker finishes talking. If we want to show someone we’re paying attention, we need to prove, once that person has stopped speaking, that we have absorbed what they said. And the best way to do that is by repeating, in our own words, what we just heard them say—and then asking if we got it right. It’s a fairly simple technique—prove you are listening by asking the speaker questions, reflecting back what you just heard, and then seeking confirmation you understand—but studies show it is the single most effective technique for proving to someone that we want to hear them. It’s a formula sometimes called looping for understanding.

Among happy couples, however, the desire for control emerged quite differently. Rather than trying to control the other person, happy couples tended to focus, instead, on controlling themselves, their environment, and the conflict itself.

Emotions impact every conversation, whether we realize it or not. Even when we don’t acknowledge those feelings, they’re still there—and when they are ignored, they’re likely to become obstacles to connection.

It is not our differences that divide us,” wrote the poet and activist Audre Lorde. “It is our ability to recognize, accept and celebrate those differences.” The Who Are We? conversation explores how our social identities make us, and the world, a richer place.

Social identities can change how we act, even if we don’t intend them to, even if we wish they didn’t.

Don’t offer unsolicited advice or trumpet your wealth or connections. Seek out topics where everyone has some experience and knowledge, or everyone is a novice. Encourage the quiet to speak and the talkative to listen, so everyone is participating.

In a Who Are We? conversation, invite people to talk about their backgrounds, allegiances, how their communities have shaped them. (“Where are you from? Oh, really? What was it like growing up there?”) Then, reciprocate by describing how you see yourself. (“You know, as a southerner, I think that…”) Finally, avoid the trap of one-dimensionality by evoking all the many identities we all possess as a conversation unfolds: “I hear you saying that, as a lawyer, you support the police, but as a parent, do you worry about cops pulling over your kid?”

Supercommunicators is a comprehensive guide to mastering the art of communication.

Charles Duhigg’s insightful exploration of effective communication strategies offers readers of Supercommunicators a practical advice and actionable techniques to enhance their interpersonal skills and achieve their goals.

With its engaging storytelling and evidence-based approach, Supercommunicators is a must-read for anyone looking to excel in both their personal and professional lives.

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