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  1. The Weekend Interview
13 April 2024

Charles Duhigg: “We’ve forgotten the rules of communication”

The author and journalist on how to build a rapport with people.

By Sophie McBain

Before he started work on his new book, Supercommunicators: How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection, the American journalist Charles Duhigg wrote down all the times he’d communicated badly in the previous year. He had become a senior editor at the New York Times and felt he’d “dropped the ball” as a manager. His colleagues were getting frustrated because they felt he wasn’t listening when they came to him with problems. He’d vent to his wife and she would give him good advice, but the truth was he was looking for sympathy, not solutions. Then his sons would want to talk to him, and because he was distracted with work he’d tell them he didn’t have time to talk. “And then you look back and you’re like, ‘How did I do that? I’m never going to have that specific opportunity again.’”

Duhigg used to feel that working as a journalist meant he was good at communicating, but looking at his list he realised that he had a problem with it. He was struggling to connect to some of the people he cared about most deeply. He began digging around the research and talking to experts – psychologists, therapists, professional negotiators, former CIA agents – to try to understand: why do some people find it easy to build a rapport with almost anyone, while so many of the rest of us flounder?

“Initially I thought that a supercommunicator is someone who’s really charismatic, or they are really outgoing or an extrovert, or they have no inhibition, that they are special in some way… Then I started talking to researchers and it turns out that the ability to connect with other people is not dependent on your personality, or what characteristics you have, it’s not something anyone is born into, it’s just a set of skills,” Duhigg told me when we met at his publisher Penguin’s offices in London. “As easily as you can learn to bake a pie, you can learn to become a supercommunicator.”

Duhigg was amiable and disarming: “I hope it’s OK if I ask you a few questions, too?” he said – and within minutes we were comparing experiences of living in Egypt, where he’d worked in the late 1990s and I’d lived almost 20 years later. It occurred to me that this was a man who follows his own advice, and that, if I didn’t keep my wits about me, I’d return from our interview with only my own life story on tape.

Supercommunicators are good at listening, they ask elucidating questions and are sensitive to others’ moods. They encourage people to open up by being open and vulnerable themselves. They are good at understanding what kind of conversation another person wants to have, and how to adapt their skills appropriately: it’s different talking to a friend who wants practical help and one who needs someone to confide in; and a work meeting to discuss sales figures will be different from one to discuss issues around race and identity.

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Ultimately, there are three kinds of conversation, Duhigg writes: the “what’s this really about?” chat, when we’re discussing practical matters and intellectual concepts, the “how do we feel?” chat when we’re talking about our emotional lives, and the “who are we?” chat, which is about our social lives and identity. It’s not always easy to tell which one you’re having: a doctor talking to a vaccine refuser about getting a Covid shot is unlikely to persuade them by bombarding them with statistics and facts, because at heart this is a “who are we?” conversation, an attempt to build a bridge between a medic and someone who mistrusts the medical establishment.

Is there a link, I wondered, between rising political polarisation and soaring levels of loneliness in the US and UK? Duhigg believes they are symptoms of the same problem: “We’ve forgotten the rules of communication, we’ve forgotten the science of communication, and we don’t have a chance to practise it as much.” He pointed to schools no longer teaching communication, social skills atrophying during lockdown, and the shift in American life as churchgoing declined and participation in social activities such as bowling leagues fell. “But the good news is, this is totally reversible,” he said. “If we just learn some basic principles, and we say, ‘I’m going to try out these three tools over the next week,’ our brain will quickly make them into habits.”

Duhigg is, he said, an unapologetic optimist. He doesn’t buy the popular idea that the internet and social media should be blamed for our fractured politics and individual failures to connect. “When telephones first existed, everyone had the same concerns that they have about the internet now. There were studies about 100 years ago with researchers saying people would never have a real conversation on the telephone because they can’t see each other. And what’s interesting is that they were right, at that moment.

“If you look at transcripts from early telephone conversations, people didn’t know how to use them. They used them like a telegraph, they would send grocery lists. But by the time we were teenagers, you and I could talk on the phone for seven hours at a time, right?”

In the same way, Duhigg argued, we’re still learning how to communicate well online. He sees little merit in losing hours on TikTok or YouTube, lured in by algorithms designed to addict us, but believes tech also offers novel opportunities to stay in better touch with friends. “Let me ask you a question: if telephones didn’t exist, do you feel like you would be closer or less close to your friends?” he asked. Less close, I conceded.

Duhigg’s sons are 12 and 15 and “their digital communication is so good. They show that they’re listening to one another, they comfort each other, they know how to use emojis to have these emotional conversations,” he said. While in the UK there is a growing parent-led movement to keep teenagers away from smartphones and social media, Duhigg argues it is “unrealistic” to tell young people phones are bad and they should use them as little as possible. Instead, he thinks parents should nudge their children to use their phones in a healthier way. When one of his sons seems glued to social media, he might encourage him to play a video game with his friends instead. “Because I’m, like, I don’t want to take away this digital thing that you love. But there’s a way to channel it to being with your friends, communicating with your friends.”

Duhigg, who grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the seventh of ten children, studied at Yale, got an MBA from Harvard Business School and worked in private equity – until he realised that the highlight of his day was listening to the nonfiction podcast This American Life. As a journalist, he reported from Iraq for the LA Times, which although it felt like fascinating, important work it was also, because of the dangers, “the most selfish thing I’ve ever done in my entire life”. After getting married, he pivoted to business journalism, and in 2013, wanting to earn some extra cash before his first child arrived, he published his first book The Power of Habit, which argued that the key to success was building good habits. It became an international bestseller, and in his subsequent books Duhigg has repeated its formula, explaining concepts in psychology and cognitive science through personal stories.

“I love telling stories, I love reading stories, I love trying to figure out why stories work or why they don’t,” he said. “I could be fascinated with that question for the rest of my life, and never fully solve it.”

That’s another key to communicating well: “If you’re exposed to an idea, no matter how powerful the idea is… you will think, ‘That’s really interesting,’ and then you will forget it. An idea absent a narrative cannot stick in your brain. But if you take an idea and you embed it in a story, you’ll remember it forever.”

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This article appears in the 17 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran