April 3, 2024

Four Techniques To Help You Be a Better Communicator

Ever had a tough conversation with someone where you walked away feeling like you weren't on the same planet, let alone the same page? You aren't alone. A recent study found that 70% of employees avoid difficult conversations. But turning away from conflict is bad for personal health and workplace culture. Plus it's expensive. Ineffective workplace communication costs US employers $2 trillion dollars a year. In his new book, Supercommunicators: How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection, journalist Charles Duhigg explains why good conversations are so hard, and provides concrete, science-backed tools to get your messages heard.

The number one rule of good communication: connection. Science repeatedly demonstrates that human connection matters. It drives health and happiness, and fosters the relationships that fuel collaboration, innovation and inclusion. And conversations are the currency of connection. In a divided and polarized world, our ability to talk to people who disagree with us is our best hope to protect a civil and productive society.

The most connective conversations, Duhigg writes, are learning conversations, where we open ourselves to the perspectives of others with a goal of truly understanding them. The goal isn't consensus, but a willingness to hear and process divergent points of view. And his examples are thorny: from polarizing discussions of gun control to racial tension, marital strife and ethnic differences in communities ripped apart by war. These are the very conversations we tend to avoid, mostly because we don't know how to have them.

In a book full of interesting insights, Duhigg prescribes four techniques to fundamentally change your approach and ensure a conversation that helps people understand each other, no matter how prickly the underlying issues might be.

Share Your Goals And Objectives

Imagine your very frustrated child comes home from school, upset about a playground encounter with a friend. He wants to wallow but you offer advice. You forgot the wise, time-tested advice to ask “would you rather be heard, helped or hugged?” The encounter ends with an angry child and slammed door. Duhigg reminds us that this brilliant question is not solely for kids - it’s universal. The fastest way to derail a conversation is to have two (or more) different intentions.

Duhigg describes three types of learning conversations. The first is a practical, decision making conversation. Tactical, informational or strategic, it’s grounded in the need to do something. He calls this the “What’s this really about” conversation. The second is an emotional conversation (“How do we feel”) and it might be the hardest. It tees up a hot topic that requires cooler heads. Emotional conversations may involve tough family issues, polarized political issues or challenging performance reviews. The third type is focused on social identities. These involve perspectives that diverge widely based on experience, education and upbringing. In the workplace, these “who are we” conversations often revolve around DEI. It’s unusual for a single conversation to fit squarely into one of these categories, but understanding each helps you to approach any discussion with the right mindset.

Lay The Groundwork

No matter what kind of conversation you are having, preparing is critical. An often overlooked step, it's often the only way to understand everyone’s intentions. This can be as simple, Duhigg explains, as asking people to jot down what they hope to accomplish. Whether they seek a specific decision, an exploration of options, or an open-ended brainstorming session, when people articulate their goals, they set the stage for more effective outcomes, especially in practical, decision-making contexts.

In emotional and social contexts, preparation may be even more crucial. Understanding what people want helps you gauge both their aspirations and their moods. In these cases, preparation means taking time up front to address the potential and the pitfalls of the proposed conversation: why this topic at this time, what benefit will it bring, what can go wrong, and what the parties will do if it devolves. Considering and agreeing to these parameters up front goes a long way to helping people venture into vulnerable territory.

Ask Good Questions And Listen With Care

Duhigg cites an established study made famous by The New York Times article,“The 36 Questions that Lead to Love.” A group of psychiatrists explored whether a set of deep, emotional questions could accelerate connection among pairs of strangers. Their questions were so effective that one pair got married. But even the unmarried pairs forged fast, trusting relationships by asking questions that brought out their innermost thoughts and perspectives. Turns out, shared emotions are contagious, paving the way for more meaningful connection.

Good questions – deep, open and generative rather than closed or shallow – make these shared emotions possible. As Duhigg writes, “the difference between a shallow question and one that sparks an opportunity for emotional connection is vulnerability.” Vulnerability is a vital ingredient for a learning conversation because it unlocks emotion and connection.

To ask someone to be vulnerable, however, means not only listening attentively, but proving you are listening. He offers a powerful technique - looping for meaning - to help you both listen more effectively and reassure your conversation partner. It starts with asking a deep question and listening to really understand the answer. But looping for meaning requires two more critical steps: playing back what you heard in your own words, and asking if you got it right. These last two steps not only intensify your learning (after all you have to pay attention to play back someone’s point) but they signal your curiosity and interest in truly understanding the other person.

Learn To Read The Non-Verbal Clues

Terence McGuire, a NASA psychiatrist interviewing aspiring astronauts, was struggling to find emotionally intelligent candidates who could function collaboratively in confined spaces. So he tried something new. He told stories, from sad to funny, professional to quite personal. And he watched closely for an applicant's response - how they laughed or showed emotion in response to his comments. Their ability to match his conversational energy - showing the appropriate emotional response to his stories - was a strong and reliable indicator that the astronaut would be good at engaging and reading others. The approach worked and McGuire’s success rate took off.

A good conversation is like a dance. It takes two to tango and a conversation simply fails when only one party does the work. Whether it's a business meeting, a heart-to-heart or a heated debate, finding a way to match mood and to reciprocate feelings makes a significant difference. It's not about agreeing with what someone is saying, but rather mirroring their openness, affect and energy. But here's the catch: matching isn't mimicry, it’s attunement. You must focus on not only what someone is saying but how. With attention to detail, and a strong dose of compassion, it's about meeting them where they are, making space for each voice, and taking the conversational journey together.

The most important message in Supercommunicators is simple: successful conversations – even really hard ones – can only succeed with time, intentionality and practice. And while Duhigg's book seems to imply that these are individual skills you can work on alone, they're not. Good communication is a collective skill building journey. You can't practice these skills in a mirror. The key to having successful conversations is the messy, emotional and often freighted experience of the conversations themselves. You will only get better if you throw yourself into the ring: real life conversations in real time. You will make mistakes. But armed with these techniques and a few fellow explorers, it will only get easier. You too can become a supercommunicator.

First published on Forbes.com.

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