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Supercommunicators: Book Review

Supercommunicators: How to Unlock the Secret of Connections, Charles Duhigg (2024). Duhigg confessed he was not very good at communicating with people and attempting to find the solutions mainly through interviewing experts came up with this book. It includes a lot of academic psychological analysis and terminology. In order to make this palatable, he relies on story telling. It starts with an FBI negotiator on hostage crisis, with suggestions like do not manipulate, ask a lot of questions, and empathize with them. “The most important goal of any conversation is to connect. … We need to do a better job of respecting each other. … If we aren’t having the same kind of conversations as our partners, at the same moment, we’re unlikely to connect with each other” (p. xv-xvii). The three conversations are: What’s this really about? How do we feel? Who are we?

One: The Matching Principle: How to Fail at Recruiting Spies. A story with CIA guy. Key point: connect. The idea is to synchronize with others. Duhigg talks about brain wave research using musicians. The electric pulses of musicians synchronize when playing a duet, begin breathing at the same rate, eyes dilate in tandem, and hearts beat together. Brains have aligned (called “neurally entrained”). People that can do this in conversation (that is: cause brains to align) were called high centrality participants or core information provider. A key was asking questions to make conversations go.

“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” (p. 21). In marriage, its symmetry, asking more questions, get aligned: called the matching principle (that is, what kind of conversation).

A Guide to Using These Ideas. Part I: The Four Rules for a Meaningful Conversation. Happy couples ask about feelings, goals, and emotions. The four rules of a learning conversation are: pay attention to the kind of conversation that is happening, share goals and ask what others are seeking, ask about others’ feeling and share yours, and explore if identities are important (p. 30). An aim might be to air complaints; mindset could be to hear each other. Do you want: help, to be hugged, or heard?

Two: Every Conversation is a Negotiation. Duhigg starts with a trial where the alleged is guilty according to the law but does not understand the crime. Most juries vote to convict. Most of the jury thinks so until a supercommunicator points out the unfairness and that the court system should focus on more important cases, illustrating a “quiet negotiation.” “Figure out what each person wants. … Some want morality and fairness. … guidance … compassion … go by the book … Determining how we will talk to one another and cooperate in making decisions” (p. 51).  

A doctor recommends that most men with low-risk prostate cancer not have surgery, but a large percent have it anyway. Objective medical advice did not always work. How to be more effective? Being an “authority” does not seem to work. Some keys: what mattered to the patients, based on values and impact on relatives, or emotional reassurance, or control.

The old standard of decisions was who would win and who would lose. Then the idea of win-win. Examples included the Marshall Plan or NATO, the ideal role for diplomats. Introducing new themes and questions are approaches. Analysis and logic of costs and benefits are important, then compassion, values, fairness, the logic of similarities (perhaps associated with Kahneman’s “thinking fast”). What proves persuasive?

Practical discussions need data and reasoning. Empathetic discussions focus on compassion and stories. Quiet negotiations are useful in meetings, like the matching principle (understanding mindsets).

A Guide to Using These Ideas: Part II: Asking Questions and Noticing Clues. How to signal what people want to talk about? Backchanneling is follow-up questions, showing an interest. Changing the subject indicates a readiness to move on. “Share your goals and ask what others are seeking” (p. 69). Open-ended questions include asking about someone’s beliefs or values or asking about a judgment or experience. Telling a story or making a joke suggests an “empathetic logic of similarities.” For emotional conversations listening is essential.

Three: The Listening Cure: Touchy-feely Hedge Funders. Emotional conversations can be useful. “If we acknowledge someone else’s vulnerability, and become vulnerable in return, we build trust, understanding, and connection” (p. 82). Perspective taking: seeing a situation from the other person’s perspective and show them we emphasize. … When you describe how you feel, you’re giving someone a map of the things you care about” (p. 85-6). How to make strangers into friends: “sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personalistic, self-disclosure” (p. 89). Asking about experiences is not controversial, but responses can be unemotional. Questions about beliefs, values, or meaningful experiences can be emotional. What to value in a friendship. Vulnerability can lead to “emotional contagion,” potentially synchronizing emotions: joy, love, anger, fear, and sadness. Asking reciprocal questions is a key, thinking about showing emotion. Anger and impatience are considered male emotions, related to self-confidence. Women are more likely “to suffer negative social and professional consequences” (p. 94). “In unsuccessful conversations, people talked mostly about themselves” (p. 96). Shallow questions allow vulnerable replies, although not expected.

Four: How do You Hear Emotions no one Says Aloud? How to make the Big Bang Theory characters likable and funny. This was difficult. The answer was: “The characters could be bumbling and graceless and socially incompetent—and as long as they obviously tried to match one another’s mood and energy … The audience could root for them” (p. 128).  

Slightly shifting topics was the focus on picking astronauts for the space station: needing people who could get along it that alien environment, meaning the importance of emotional intelligence (the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions): staying away from depression, breakdowns in communication, being sensitive to others’ emotions. Laughing was one answer (connecting with others by mutual playfulness within the matching principle).     

Five: Connecting Amid Conflict. Groups wanted to have discussions on guns with enthusiasts and those wanting limitations. With a lot of prep work, it worked. The point was figuring out why there was a conflict and were there “zones of possible agreement.” This was a deeply emotional issue, likely generating anger rather than compromise. They were not “analytical robots” when this was an emotional issue. Duhigg’s point: “In a conflict, we learn why we are fighting by discussing emotions” (p. 139).

Gun-rights enthusiasts and gun-control activists met in Washington in 2018, with big crowds self-selecting in like-minded groups. Apparently, the key was listening to the other side and increasing trust. Repeating in their own words what was said was useful (looping for understanding), then asking questions. There can be emotional similarities. It worked reasonably well in the group setting with pre-set rules, but not that well on Facebook even though rules were stated.

Some married couples stay happy together because they are good at listening to each other. Most couples fought, had money tensions, health problems, and vacation disputes. Control can be important, especially self-control plus self-awareness. Looping for understanding and matching principle were considered important. Integrative behavioral couples therapy focuses on accepting a partner’s flaws.    

Part III: A Guide to Using These Ideas. Ask deep questions, like “what would be a perfect day” or “what’s the best part of your job?” Mood can be positive (upbeat or blissful) or negative (angry or frustrated); energy can be high (upbeat or angry) or low (blissful or frustrated). Looping for understanding is stressed. Reciprocating also includes looking for what someone needs, asking permission, and giving something in return.

Online talk should be polite, not sarcastic, focusing on gratitude, greetings, and apologies, while avoiding criticism.

Six: Our Social Identities Shape our Worlds. Rationales for anti-vaxxers include causing autism, physical deformities, or infertility. They were a profit-making ploy and increased susceptibility to disease. Vaccinations were recommended by the government. They did not trust doctors. Thus, vaccines were dangerous or a conspiracy. Social identities (how society sees them and how they see themselves) could be a key. People place value in social groups. They could see themselves as smarter, better at critical thinking, and focused on “natural health.”

Early experiments showed that people could be arbitrarily divided into groups, and they would bonds and demonize the other group.

It could become stereotypes and prejudice. There were social stereotypes like doctors as experts. There was a stereotype threat when taking tests like the SATs, especially against minorities and women. Priming before tests resulted in minorities and women doing worse. But primed in positive ways led to equal performance. Everyone has multiple identities for “who we are.”

Contact theory suggests that bringing people with clashing social identities together can overcome hatreds. This was done in a city in Iraq, filled with Christians and Muslims after ISIS militants attacked the Christian population, who got no help from the local Muslims. The idea was to test this on the soccer field (an example of equal footing and social similarities), which was voluntary but pushed to join Christians and Muslims to play together. One technique was motivational interviewing, to think about reasons for and against change. With considerable effort it worked reasonably well.

Seven. How Do We Make the Hardest Conversations Safer? Netflix gave employees considerable freedom to express different ideas and have different work patterns, as long as the work was done. Conversations could go bad when something offensive was said, or ignorant, or cruel. The result could be anger and alienation, an “identity threat.”  

“The problem of racism can be solved, in theory, with the right information, investment, strategy, and implementation. … Anticipating obstacles, planning for what to do when they arise, considering what you hope to say, thinking about what might be important to others” (p. 210). Talk about your own experiences, not generalizations (lumping people into groups). Acknowledge someone’s pain, rather than attempting to solve their problems. Guidelines: acknowledge discomfort, share experiences and perspectives, no blaming, shaming, or attacks, speak about your own views and experience, respect is essential (p. 220). Recognize your own biases.

Part IV. A Guide to Using These Ideas. A big list of factors. Are identities important? How will the conversation start? What are the obstacles? How are they overcome? What are the expected benefits? Encouraging speaking, listening is important. Draw out everyone. Consider multiple identities. Create in-groups. Manage it all.

Afterword. There was a life-long analysis of Harvard graduates. It was complicated. One guy who became a doctor seemed like a dud with severe mental problems. He recovered, literally in a tuberculosis sanitarium, became a happy productive success. A lawyer with a bright future became a self-centered failure. “Good relationships keep us healthier and happier” (p. 243). The end.

[Useful information. I might suggest reading up on propaganda, to avoid being gullible. You want to be happy and healthy while staying away from cults.]



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