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How to Become a ‘Supercommunicator’

We can all learn the techniques for saying the right thing and connecting with others. The key is to make sure you’re having the same sort of conversation as the person you’re trying to reach.

By Charles Duhigg
Feb. 16, 2024 11:34 am ET

When Nicholas Epley was in high school, he was such a bad listener that it almost ruined his life. A star football player in a small Iowa town, he was stopped for drunk driving one night and handed over to his parents rather than being arrested. They lectured him, and Epley ignored them. Then he got pulled over again. This time his parents sent him to a counselor who spoke to him in an entirely different way: She asked questions. “Why did this happen?” “What would have happened if you had been arrested?” “How would you feel if you had killed someone?”

For reasons Epley didn’t understand at the time, these sessions seemed to unlock something in him. “I couldn’t pretend I didn’t know the answers,” he told me three decades later. He started having more useful conversations with his parents, decided he would stop drinking and get serious about school. He discovered psychology courses in college and eventually became a professor of behavioral science. And he joined the forefront of a growing field of research into what makes someone an effective communicator: Why are some people better at connecting with others, hearing what’s unsaid and speaking so others want to listen? Can anyone learn to do this? 

In recent decades, our understanding of how people communicate has been transformed by advances in neuroscience and sophisticated psychological experiments. One finding is that some of us seem to be what I call “supercommunicators”—people capable of saying exactly the right thing, breaking through to almost anyone, figuring out how to connect in even the most unlikely circumstances.

We all know these people: The friends we call after a tough day, the colleagues we know will make a discussion easier, the neighbors gifted at building community. And we know how elusive those skills can be sometimes. We’ve all felt the sting of failing to hear what’s important, struggling to speak clearly, missing opportunities to connect.

But we can all become supercommunicators. As I’ve studied this subject over the last three years, I’ve learned some important lessons. One is the importance of understanding the different kinds of conversations that can emerge—practical, emotional and social. Each one, researchers say, uses a different part of our brains. If we aren’t having the same kind of conversation as our companions, we’re unlikely to connect.

I recognized this pattern in my own marriage. Some days, I would come home from work upset about something (“My boss is a jerk!”), and my wife would respond with practical advice (“Why don’t you get to know each other away from the office?”). But that would only make me more frustrated—emotional—because we were having two different kinds of conversations. Today we’ve learned the importance of matching each other’s approach, so that when I start complaining, my wife will often ask “Do you want me to help you solve this problem, or just listen?” That helps us become aligned—or, in the words of neuroscientist Uri Hasson at Princeton University, “neurally entrained.”

Matching our conversations can transform how we communicate. In one experiment conducted by Beau Sievers of Dartmouth College in 2018, researchers asked groups of strangers to answer questions about confusing movie clips and then studied the groups’ attempts at finding consensus. They found that some groups became much more synchronized: They began finishing each other’s sentences, and their neural activity became strikingly alike, as if they had all agreed to think the same way.

The scientists’ first hypothesis was that these groups contained a strong leader who made synchronization easier, but they found that groups with such leaders yielded the least amount of neural synchrony because one person dominated the conversation. Rather, the groups with the greatest synchrony had one or two people who tended to mostly ask questions—up to 10 to 20 times as many questions as the typical person. They also encouraged their group mates to speak more, repeated what others said and frequently adjusted how they were speaking to better match their companions’ moods.

These people were supercommunicators, and they had a profound effect on their groups. Sievers also found that they had much larger social networks than the average person and were more likely to be given positions of authority. Other people turned to them when they needed to discuss something serious or ask for advice. “That makes sense,” Sievers told me. “Because if you’re the kind of person who’s easy to talk to, then lots of people are going to want to talk to you.”

Numerous experiments have shown that when we align with someone through conversation, it feels good, in part because our brains have evolved to crave these kinds of connections. The desire to connect has pushed people to form communities, protect their offspring and seek new friends and alliances. “Sometimes, people just ‘click’,” Thalia Wheatley of Dartmouth wrote in the journal Social and Personality Psychology Compass in 2012. “As though tuned to the same internal frequency, they fall into effortless conversation, experience the same rise and fall of emotions.” That can help us understand each other, even when we come from different places and have different perspectives.

Research shows that anyone can get better at aligning their communication to be understood, at listening closely and speaking more clearly, and at perceiving opportunities for connection. In particular, there are four skills that supercommunicators share that all of us can learn.

Ask Deep Questions

When we meet someone new, it’s natural to ask about facts of their life: What kind of medicine do you practice? Where’d you go to college? But those kinds of questions are often conversational dead-ends.

Rather, ask something that invites someone to talk about their values, beliefs or experiences—such as, How did you decide to go into medicine? What did you love about college? Deep questions are powerful because they invite us to share something authentic and potentially vulnerable. When we match that vulnerability—You decided on medicine after seeing your dad get sick? I became a lawyer when my cousin was unfairly arrested—we trigger instincts that make us feel more trusting and more eager to listen and share. “Vulnerability is one of our loudest emotions,” Harvard researcher Amit Goldenberg told me. “We’re hardwired to notice it.” 

Though such intimate interaction might seem awkward, dozens of studies have found that people who ask questions that invite vulnerable responses—and who match that vulnerability—are more popular among their peers, more often seen as leaders and are sought out more often for advice. In one experiment, researchers instructed participants to ask strangers and friends questions such as Have you ever committed a crime? The researchers found that “questioners assumed that asking sensitive questions would make their conversation partners uncomfortable and would damage their relationships. But in fact, we consistently found that askers were wrong on both fronts.” Asking deep questions is easier and more rewarding than we expect.

This explains why Nicholas Epley was so affected in high school by his counselor’s questions: They were deep. “It might seem hard to reframe questions in a way that’s vulnerable,” Epley told me. “But it’s actually pretty easy once you start looking for it. Like when I’m on a train, talking with people commuting to work, I might ask them, What do you do for a living? And then I might say, Do you love that job? or Do you have something else you dream of doing? And right there, you’re two questions in, and you’ve gotten to somebody’s dreams.”

Prove You Are Listening

Many people don’t know how to show they’re listening. And speaking is such a cognitively intense activity that, often, speakers don’t notice how listeners are reacting.

So, to prove we’re listening, we need to show it after a person finishes talking. One way is known as “looping for understanding”: Ask a question (preferably a deep question). Repeat back, in your own words, what you heard. Then—this is important—ask if you got it right.  

Techniques like looping “at the beginning of a conversation forestalls conflict escalation at the end,” found a 2020 study by researchers from Harvard and the University of British Columbia. People who prove they are listening are seen as “better teammates, advisers” and “more desirable partners for future collaboration.” Another 2018 study found that when someone proves they’re listening, it creates “a sense of psychological safety.”

In one experiment, researchers gathered dozens of gun-control advocates and an equal number of gun-rights activists and found that teaching the participants techniques like looping for understanding transformed how they spoke and listened. One participant, Melanie Jeffcoat, told a group how, when she was in high school, a gunman had opened fire, seriously wounding two students and killing a teacher. She had been terrified of guns since that day. Another group member, a gun-rights advocate, asked her a few questions, and said: “What I hear is that you’ve seen how badly guns can hurt people, can create memories that haunt us, and you don’t want anyone else to experience that. Did I hear you right?”

Jeffcoat told me that hearing someone prove he was listening changed her view of him. “Normally, this is someone I would have seen as the enemy,” Jeffcoat said. “But it felt so incredible to know he wanted to understand.” Next, the man told a story about hunting with his father, and Jeffcoat told him that it seemed like guns were an important part of that bond. Neither person changed the other’s mind. But they connected. “I walked away from it thinking, if we can do this on a large scale, we can change the world,” Jeffcoat told me.

Determine What Everyone Wants 

We often go into conversations with an intent: “I want to convince Jim to support my budget proposal.” But we often forget to pay attention to what others want, or fail to announce our own hopes.

When researchers at Harvard Business School reviewed data in 2018 from hundreds of recorded conversations, they found that participants often reported that they didn’t enjoy their talks because the signals they had sent to change topics went unheeded. “Although people filled their conversational speech with information about their topic preferences,” the researchers wrote, “their human partners failed to pick up on many of those cues (or ignored them).”  

The easiest way to figure out what people want from a discussion is simply to ask. Take the experience of Behfar Ehdaie, a surgeon at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York City. For years, Ehdaie was puzzled at the reaction of patients whom he advised to treat newly diagnosed prostate cancer without surgery or radiation. Because the tumors are often slow-growing, Ehdaie recommended to many patients that they do nothing except periodic blood tests and biopsies. “I thought these would be some of the easiest discussions of my life,” Ehdaie told me. “I figured they’d be overjoyed to hear they could avoid surgery.”

Instead, patients would listen to his advice—and then demand surgery. (It wasn’t just his own patients—studies have shown that prostate-cancer patients often opt for more aggressive treatment than needed.) So Ehdaie turned to communication experts at Harvard Business School, who told him he had been talking to his patients all wrong. They suggested Ehdaie start each conversation by asking “What does this cancer diagnosis mean to you?” 

One 62-year-old man surprised Ehdaie by describing how his father had died when he was young, “which was tough on my mom. I would hate to put my family through that,” he said. He talked about how he didn’t want to traumatize his kids. Ehdaie matched him by talking about the importance of managing his own emotions, as well as his family’s, and only then brought up the option of avoiding surgery in favor of “active surveillance.” The patient agreed within minutes. Since adopting this technique, the number of Ehdaie’s patients opting for surgery has fallen by 30%.

Pay Attention to More Than Words

Even before we learn to speak, we understand how to communicate through body language, vocal inflections, grimaces, sighs and laughs. “People’s emotions are rarely put into words,” wrote the psychologist Daniel Goleman. “The key to intuiting another’s feelings is in the ability to read nonverbal channels: tone of voice, gesture, facial expressions and the like.”

As we grow older, however, our capacity to notice others’ expressions and body language often atrophies. We start focusing on people’s words—It’s nothing. I feel fine—rather than their crossed arms, downcast eyes or monotone voice. But people need to detect each other’s emotions even when they’re unspoken.

In the 1980s, NASA set out to test potential astronauts for that talent to improve communication among crews spending long periods together in space. NASA psychiatrist Terence McGuire came up with a new test. Rather than simply ask astronaut candidates questions, McGuire told me, he started telling them jokes and sad stories and paid close attention to how each candidate reacted. McGuire would spill his papers in what seemed like an accident, then laugh loudly, and watch: Did the candidate laugh back or just chuckle politely? Later, McGuire would mention a death in his family and observe whether the candidate looked and sounded concerned and made gestures of comfort.

“Words, tones, postures, gestures and facial expressions,” McGuire wrote to NASA’s leaders, “can be a gold mine of information.” By the time NASA selected the class of 1990, McGuire had worked out exactly what he was looking for: Astronauts who made it clear they wanted to match his emotions. The candidates he endorsed took emotional communication seriously and became some of the most successful astronauts in NASA’s history, many flying multiple missions into space.

“The single biggest problem with communication,” said the playwright George Bernard Shaw, “is the illusion it has taken place.” But scientists have now unraveled some mysteries of conversation, and their insights can transform workplaces and relationships. Husbands and wives, parents and kids, political enemies or corporate rivals can learn to connect even when the gulf seems impossibly wide. Underlying this science is a big idea: Communication is a learnable skill. There are moments when a curious question, a silent laugh or an empathetic expression can carve a new path. We can all learn how to hear what’s unsaid and speak so that others want to listen. Because the right conversation, at the right moment, can change everything.

This essay is adapted from Charles Duhigg’s new book, “Supercommunicators: How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection,” which will be published by Random House on Feb. 20. He is previously the author of “The Power of Habit.”

Copyright ©2024 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

Appeared in the February 17, 2024, print edition as 'How to Become a ‘Supercommunicator’ Communicating With More Than Words'.

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