How to Have the Hardest Conversations—in Marriage, Politics, and Life

Charles Duhigg joins Derek to talk about the topic of his new book, ‘Supercommunicators’: the art of having difficult discussions

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Life is a series of conversations. Our relationships, friendships, marriages, breakups, makeups, hirings, promotions, and firings are mostly the story of two people talking. And many of these conversations are hard or uncomfortable. Sometimes we spend years refusing to be honest with the people we know the best because we’re afraid of telling them how we feel. What if we all had such confidence in our own powers of communication and understanding that we didn’t fear these hard conversations at all? What if we welcomed them?

Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit, has a new book out this week. It’s called Supercommunicators. Duhigg’s book is about how to talk when talking is hard. Today we talk about the art and science of difficult conversations, from romantic relationships to political persuasion, and what he discovered to be the most important principles of having a great and emotionally resonant discussion.

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In the following excerpt, Charles Duhigg and Derek discuss the genesis of Duhigg’s latest book.

Derek Thompson: It’s great to see you. So you’ve written a book about habits; you’ve written a book about productivity. What made you want to write a book about talking, effective communication?

Charles Duhigg: Yeah, it’s a really good question because what happened was that when I wrote The Power of Habits, it’s really about internally focusing. So was Smarter, Faster, Better, which is about productivity. I kept on hearing from people who said, “Look, I’ve read the advice and I’ve read the lessons and I use them, but most of my success each day is dependent on other people. I don’t know how to change other people’s habits. Tell me how to get this guy to stop bothering me.”

As I got deeper into this, I realized, well, actually what’s going on here is that most of our life is spent in social groups, right? Whether it’s our family or our workmates. So understanding how to connect with other people is a critical part of anyone’s success. Most of the connection that we do is through conversation. I also realized I was bad at it, so I decided to write a book about it.

Thompson: You took the words right out of my mouth. I was going to say, I remember from your previous books that The Power of Habit helped you cultivate better habits. The book about productivity helped you to recast the way that you think about productivity: not just about how to get the most things done in a day professionally, but how to live a life that is from a more wholesome perspective, more productive at doing the things you want to do with your family, with your loved ones. So before you wrote this book, how would you have graded your own communication skills? Where do you now see the biggest deficits in your communication skills, having gone and now written a 300-page book on the subject?

Duhigg: I would grade my own skills very poorly. There’s these two instances that stick out in my mind. The first is that I was working at The New York Times at that point, and they made me a manager. I was pretty much certain I was going to be an awesome manager. I’ve had managers before, I got an MBA from Harvard. I was like, “Oh, I got this.” I was good at the strategy part. I was terrible at the communication part. This was the consistent feedback I get is, “I talk to him and I feel like he’s not listening to what I’m saying, or he tells me stuff and I don’t understand what he wants.” This really caught me off guard because we’re journalists; we’re supposed to be professional communicators.

Then this pattern developed at home with my wife. We’ve been married about 20 years now, so this is probably married 15 or 16 years. I would come home from work after a long day, and I would start complaining about things, about my boss or my coworkers. She very reasonably would say something like, “Oh, why don’t you take your boss out to lunch, and you guys can get to know each other. Here’s a solution.” Instead of being able to hear what she was saying, I would get even more upset, and I’d be like, “You’re not supporting me. I want you to be outraged on my behalf.” Then she would get upset because I was yelling at her for no apparent reason.

This happened a lot to us, and I think it happens in a lot of relationships. Sometimes the gender roles are reversed. So I started calling up these psychologists and neurologists and others saying, “This is happening, and I don’t understand why. Tell me what’s going on.” That was kind of the origin of the book.

Thompson: The mismatch between “one partner or friend wants to vent” and “the other partner or friend wants to problem solve” is just one of the most classic mismatches in any conversation. I remember several years ago I read a paper, that now I haven’t been able to relocate, that said, there is an expectation, sometimes even a gendered expectation that some people, maybe disproportionately women, vent, while other people, maybe disproportionately men, problem solve. They said, that’s wrong. Everybody vents, and everybody problem solves.

The difference is that some people internalize versus externalize different parts of the process. So some people—again, I think this paper said disproportionately women, but I can’t be 100 percent sure, so I don’t want to represent that—but some people problem solve internally. What they externalize is the venting. They’ll figure out how to deal with their boss inside, alone, in the shower. What they want to do with their partner is just vent about what a jerk the boss is.

Duhigg: Is just complain and have someone say, “I understand you.”

Thompson: Other people are the total opposite. They externalize the problem-solving and it’s internally that they vent, inside their own head. They’re having this self-talk. Charles like, “God, my boss is such a fucking asshole.” That’s all inside. So it’s not as if some people vent and some people don’t vent. Some people problem solve, some people don’t. The difference is what part of the process we externalize. I was like, “Oh, that is such an interesting way of universalizing that experience.”

Duhigg: That ties really well into what all these experts told me when I called them, right? Because the way that they approached it, and I think they’re saying the same thing you’re saying, is they said, “Look, what we’ve learned about conversation”—and we’re living through this golden age of understanding conversation because of these advances in neuroimaging and data collection—they said, “What we’re learning about conversation is we tend to think of something as being one discussion, right? We’re talking about your day or we’re talking about trying to give you a solution to get along with your boss, but actually every discussion is made up of multiple kinds of conversations.”

Most of those fall into one of three buckets. I think that this corresponds to what you just said. There’s this practical bucket, which is the problem-solving bucket, logical. There’s the emotional bucket, where I tell you how I’m feeling, and I don’t want you to solve my problem, I just want you to empathize with me. Then there’s the social conversations, where we’re talking about how we relate to each other or how we relate to society.

I think what might be happening in the paper that you just mentioned is that we tend to fall into habits with which of those buckets we feel most comfortable in. So men very often are very comfortable in a practical bucket. That does not mean that they necessarily have more practical conversations. But it means that when they have emotional conversations, sometimes they pose it in practical language because that’s the language that they’re most comfortable in.

What these psychologists said and these researchers said is the reason I couldn’t hear my wife is because I was having an emotional conversation, and she was having a practical conversation. You have to be having the same kind of conversation at the same moment to really connect with each other. Sometimes that means not listening to all the practical words you’re speaking, but paying attention to the fact that you are actually discussing your emotions and you just don’t have the vocabulary for it.

This excerpt was edited for clarity. Listen to the rest of the episode here and follow the Plain English feed on Spotify.

Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Charles Duhigg
Producer: Devon Baroldi

Subscribe: Spotify

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