The Secrets of Great Conversation (with Charles Duhigg)
Feb 26 2024

51J7cB8MHdL._SY445_SX342_-198x300.jpg When EconTalk's Russ Roberts sat down with Charles Duhigg to talk about his new book on the art of conversation, Supercommunicators, Roberts tried to apply some of its lessons to his conversation with the author. The result is this special conversation between two people eager to connect and communicate. Enjoy.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Ron Spinner
Feb 26 2024 at 7:57am

What we’ve come to learn is that thinking about communication just half an inch deeper–thinking about what we’re going to say before we open our mouth, about how to show other people that we’ve listened to them–that’s what makes us a supercommunicator. 
That seems to be a subset of having self control. Which can be an important part of success in life.

Matt Ball
Feb 26 2024 at 8:03am

When I saw the title of this episode, I thought, “Is he deliberately following up Robert Wright with this?”

Then the debate with Bob came up.  🙂

Thanks for this episode – great stuff.

Shalom Freedman
Feb 26 2024 at 9:49am

This was one of most richly informative conversations I have heard on Econtalk.
Near the opening Charles Duhigg spoke about the great pleasure one can feel after having a meaningful conversation-and never having thought of it that way though having experienced it many times, it came to me as a revelation.
There were many other points of understanding in the conversation that I had never really thought about. The idea of breaking conversations down into three different kinds, the practical, the empathetic emotional and the social is another such idea.
I had not thought about the concept of ‘super-communicators before though some years ago Malcolm Gladwell wrote a strikingly original book about people who were something like super-connectors between all kinds of different individuals and groups.
When the concept was brought up I immediately thought that of all the people I have known and even known of Russ Roberts with his amazing ability to converse with so many different kinds of very learned people is the supreme super-communicator of all. He follows on of Duhigg’s important principles in that he is especially good at listening and trying to understand the person he is speaking with. He is always informed and knowledgeable about the work the person he is speaking with has done. He does something else which neither Duhigg nor he himself mentions in this conversation and he probably will not like hearing about it. In my opinion he often gives a sense of the work he is talking about and the person he is speaking with of being of greater value and importance than in my judgment they are. Everyone loves to hear how good they are and making them feel this makes the mutual appreciation greater and the communication easier.
He also of course often rephrases what the other person has said another of Duhigg’s principles for having a real conversation.
The distinction they both make between having a conversation and having a debate is an important one and one I had not thought about or understood. Clearly the focus for Russ is on Conversations for the Curious.
In speaking about the three contemporaries they would like to have dinner with I was surprised that Russ did not choose a great spiritual or intellectual figure. His answers however confirm something extremely interesting about him, his down-to-earth quality and again the broad range of his interests. I consider myself one of the lucky people who has been able to listen to and learn from his podcasts. They have enriched my understanding of so many worlds I would have known little or nothing about. I look forward to them each week and greatly appreciate being able to enjoy and learn from them.

Ben Service
Feb 26 2024 at 9:20pm

If you want a slightly different version of this interview then there is a Happiness Lab interview with Duhigg

It covers a lot of the same topics and Duhigg tells the same stories.  To me it is interesting in the way Russ and Laurie approach the same interview subject.  I pretty much always queue EconTalk to the top of the list but leave happiness Lab until later, I don’t know why, is it because Russ is male and Laurie is female and I have some bias.

I do feel for poor authors having to do the same or very similar long form interviews and they must love it when they can go off piste a bit, having said that Duhigg clearly loves what he does so maybe he doesn’t mind too much.  I enjoyed the last section where Russ did the practical example but maybe it is because both of them are excellent conversationalists.

Luke J
Feb 27 2024 at 12:06am

I’d have a hard time picking only three living dinner guests. Assuming Russ and his wife are pre-booked, my short-list also includes Julie Andrews, Mike Munger, Angela Duckworth, Ron Paul, Stephen Duber, John Donovan, Melvin Bragg, Dwayne Betts, and George Will.

If I could get them all, I  think that would be one hell of a dinner party.


Feb 27 2024 at 1:42pm

It’s only February and I can already pick my #1 episode for 2024.

The exchange between you two was an absolute delight, and the insights and advice provided were transformative.

The practical application of the concepts discussed, offering listeners a real sense of the ideas, was greatly appreciated.

I’m profoundly grateful for this episode

Feb 29 2024 at 6:44am

Duhigg’s followup question, “If you could choose between being rich or being famous, which one would you choose?” reminded me of Robert Frost’s provocative conundrum poem, “Fire and Ice,” on how you might choose to die:

   Some say the world will end in fire,
   Some say in ice.
   From what I’ve tasted of desire
   I hold with those who favor fire.
   But if it had to perish twice,
   I think I know enough of hate
   To say that for destruction ice
   Is also great
   And would suffice.

[Robert Frost, “Fire and Ice,” 1923.]

Sometimes given an either/or choice, both answers are good. Or both bad. Pros and cons for each. Yes, it can be a good conversation starter. But perhaps it’s worth remembering that this was not one of the original 36 questions posed by and evaluated by the experimenters.

Marian Vollum
Feb 29 2024 at 9:05pm

Econtalk has been a source of knowledge and interest for my husband and I for over 15 years. Russ, you are on my top three people I would like to host for dinner!

You might consider a dinner tour of the USA. If not, please let us know if you ever find yourself planning a trip that brings you near to Powell’s Bookstore.

Scott Gibb
Mar 1 2024 at 1:25pm

Great episode! Thank you.  I bought the book while listening to the show. I’m reading Chapter 1, The Matching Principle right now.  The matching principle is very similar to Adam Smith’s mutual sympathy of sentiments theory—what James Otteson summarizes so well in his couple of books on Adam Smith.  Of course Duhigg uses modern language; and offers new ideas and practical advice above and beyond Smith and Otteson.  This bolsters the case for Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) as being the most important work on human nature.  I just wish it were easier to read.  Books that summarize aspects of TMS are always welcome.

From a Smithin perspective, chapter 1 of Supercommunicators is a book on markets and trade, in which human exchange places with each other in order to understand and connect with each other.  Laughter being a sign of successful trade.

Mr. Duhigg – I’m curious where you surf in Santa Cruz?  I’m a UCSC alum.  Have enjoyed many good sessions in Capitola, Steamers, and Up North.  You might try Newport, Oregon in August.  Beautiful water and scenery.

Comments are closed.


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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: January 29, 2024.]

Russ Roberts: Today is January 29th, 2024, and my guest is journalist and author, Charles Duhigg. His latest book is Supercommunicators: How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection, and that is the subject of our conversation today. Charles, welcome to EconTalk.

Charles Duhigg: Thanks for having me on.


Russ Roberts: What is a supercommunicator?

Charles Duhigg: Well, I think one of the easiest ways to describe it is by describing someone that we all know, which is, if I was to ask you if you were having a bad day, is there someone you would call who you just know would make you feel better? You just know that they're the right person to call. Does someone come to mind for you?

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I think so. Other than my wife. I mean, my wife is the first person, but after my wife--I think wife is unfair. So, keep going. I can think of a couple of people.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah. So, whoever came to mind, those people are super-communicators for you; and odds are that you're supercommunicators back to them: that you know what to say to make them feel heard and to make them feel like everything is going to be okay, and that they've had this great conversation.

Now, there's some people who can consistently do that, right? They can do that with almost anyone. They are the person everyone calls if they know them. And those people, what we know about them is that they tend to not necessarily have any special inborn talents. In fact, one of the things that we know is that becoming a supercommunicator, or just communication in general, is not something anyone is born with more than anyone else. It is entirely a set of learned skills. Some people have learned those skills a little bit more deeply than others simply because they think about communication a little bit more. Those are the people who tend to become supercommunicators.

And what's interesting is if you look at the background of supercommunicators, they are not necessarily, or usually, the most charismatic people or the extroverts. In fact, many of them are folks who, if you ask them, say things like, 'I struggled to make friends when I was in high school,' or, 'I was scared. I was a really shy kid,' or, 'My parents got divorced and I was the one who had to be the peacemaker between them.' And those experiences often forced them to think about communication.

What we've come to learn is that thinking about communication just half an inch deeper--thinking about what we're going to say before we open our mouth, about how to show other people that we've listened to them--that's what makes us a supercommunicator. These are skills that literally anyone can learn and so that's kind of the goal of the book.


Russ Roberts: So, I'm a little bit skeptical about that, which we'll talk about that. I would say--the part I'm skeptical about is the learned part in the sense that I think you can be more reflective about how you converse and interact with human beings, your fellow human beings. I think it's hard for most people to get better at it. Your book is an attempt to do that, and we'll talk about how. I got some very practical things from it.

But, I want to talk for a minute about when you asked me to think of a supercommunicator in my life, two came to mind. And, I find it interesting, and I think it's very consistent with your point: I am not the only one who would list them.

In fact, one of them I would say, everyone thinks he's their best friend. That's not possible. Excuse me, everyone thinks they're his best friend, and that's not possible. But, he makes them feel so comfortable with the friendship and the relationship that it's very special, and I think that's a tremendous skill. The other one I'm thinking of, people call him all the time. Advice, problems, pressure, stress, insight; and he's really good at it.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah. And, it's wonderful to meet those people right?

One of the things that's interesting is that communication is humans' superpower, right? The reason homo sapiens have succeeded as a species so well is because we learned to communicate and because our physiology changed to allow us to communicate. So, as a result, through evolution, we've built a lot of neural pathways associated specifically with communication.

One of those is that when we communicate well with other people, when we connect with someone, it feels wonderful. It feels fantastic. The reason it feels so good is because evolution has helped reinforce the reward associated with that. Because, if you were the type of person who could communicate well with others, then you were more likely to build families together and societies together and to survive longer because you are able to do so.

So, this act of connection is actually something that, as humans, we crave--we crave from a neurological perspective. As a result, once we learn a little bit about how the brain processes communication and processes words and listening, then that helps explain why some of those folks, as you pointed out, are the ones that everyone thinks is their best friend. Which again, is probably not possible, but doesn't make it any less true for all the people who say it.

Russ Roberts: That's correct. The other thing I would add, and I'm curious your thoughts on this: Obviously much of human communication is nonverbal. It's our eyebrows, smiles we share. You write about laughter, that either we share or punctuate our reactions with.

The two people I'm thinking of are very good to talk to on the phone, not on Zoom. It's better to be on Zoom. It's better to be in person--much better to be in person--but I find it very helpful and powerful to talk to them on the phone without those verbal cues.

Charles Duhigg: Well, so what's interesting is when we say nonverbal, sometimes--

Russ Roberts: Nonverbal cues, sorry.

Charles Duhigg: When we say nonverbal, sometimes what we mean is non-linguistic, because there's a lot of emotion that can be conveyed or a lot of sentiment that can be conveyed through noises.

So, laughter is a good example, right? Laughter is a verbal activity, but it's not a linguistic activity. On a telephone you get a lot of that same non-linguistic activity. But, what's interesting is--and again, without knowing and studying these folks in particular, but I can say pretty confidently this is probably true--I'll bet you that if I was to study how they talk on Zoom versus telephone, what I would find is that their behavior changes slightly on the phone without anyone realizing it, including themselves.

So, one of the things that we know is that when we're talking on the phone, people tend to overemphasize their words a little bit more. They tend to highlight their reactions a little bit more strongly--for exactly the reason you just specified, which is: if we can't see each other, you can't see my lips. Sorry, sorry. If we can't see each other, you can't see my lips, and you can't see my expressions. And, in part of my brain, I realize that and I start accommodating it when we're talking to each other on the phone.

Now, again, this is completely subconscious for most people. And, in fact, the reason why these supercommunicators are probably so good at it is that at some point it has occurred to them, like, 'If I'm talking on the phone, I might want to behave a little bit differently than if I'm talking face to face.' Once they decided, made that decision, it just became a habit and they stopped thinking about it. So, they're not even aware that they're doing it now. But it's something that they probably practiced at some point--again, just half an inch more deeply than other people. And as a result, it's become this really powerful tool.


Russ Roberts: I would just add that, for years, EconTalk was not visual. It was a phone interview. People assumed that when it became visual, either for Zoom or face-to-face, which I've done a chunk of EconTalks face-to-face, that it would be better: you'd have a better conversation. I'd always say: That's not true. A lot of people are uncomfortable talking to a stranger face to face for the first time. The phone allows some anonymity and privacy that is comforting to many people.

So, Zoom in particular is hard because you can't really do banter; and you can't do banter because of the delay in the transmission. If you banter a lot, you override each other and you get crosstalk. And I try to avoid that here at EconTalk; and that's hard for me. I like to banter and interrupt and be interrupted and go back and forth with those non-linguistic verbal signs. But, it's very hard to do on Zoom, and on the phone it's much better.

Charles Duhigg: Well, it's interesting. So, when you go on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, even if you're in Philadelphia, even if you're in the same studio as her, she will insist that you sit in a separate room so you can't see each other. And that's because the audience is not going to be able to see you, so she wants to create the environment where people put that emotion into their voice rather than into their face. And, it works. It works.

Now, one interesting thing about this--and this has some salience for today in the Internet age--is that when phones first became popular, there were all these articles that appeared saying people will never be able to have real conversations on a telephone. Right? The fact that you can't see each other--it's going to be useful for, you know, like, sending grocery lists or stock trades, but no one is ever going to have a real conversation on the telephone.

What's really interesting is, there were some researchers who actually listened in to telephone conversations and they would transcribe them. And those people were exactly right: nobody was having real conversations on the phone. They did not know how to do it. They had not learned this kind of almost unconscious new rules for this mode of communication.

Now, of course, by the time you and I were teenagers, people were talking on the phone for seven hours a night and feeling like it was the most important conversations of their life.

And I think that there's an important lesson here, which is, throughout history, because, again, our brains are so well-designed to communicate, particularly when we think about communication--when we try and study it and learn from it, just even casually--because our brains are so well-designed to do so, we have the ability to adapt to new kinds of communication.

And, right now in the Internet age, we're living through essentially the birth of the telephone when nobody--but I look at my kids, I have a 12-year-old and a 15-year-old, and they have no problem communicating online. They know exactly that a snap is different from a text, is different from an email, is different from a post on Facebook; and they have a different lexicon for each one and different norms. Eventually, we'll get there where it'll feel as natural as anything else.

Russ Roberts: You mistakenly, by the way, threw in the word cellphone when you meant phone.

Charles Duhigg: Exactly.

Russ Roberts: Because cellphones are the way we do this thing.


Russ Roberts: Are you a supercommunicator? Did this book make you a better conversationalist?

Charles Duhigg: I certainly try and be one. So, part of the origins of this book were twofold. First is that I was working at the New York Times and they made me a manager, and I thought I'd be a great manager. I was like, 'Oh man, I got this.' I've had lots of bosses. I have an MBA [Master of Business Administration] from Harvard. I was, like, 'I got this.'

And then, it turns out, I was terrible at it. And, the part that I was terrible at--I was fine at logistics and planning and strategy. It was the communication part that I was really bad at, and I was supposed to be a professional communicator. And so, that was kind of a wake-up call.

But then, I started thinking about my own communication. I realized there was this pattern I'd fall into with my wife all the time, which is: I would come home from work and it would be a long day and I would be frustrated and complaining about my boss or my coworkers. And, she would respond with this very practical advice where she would say, 'Why don't you take your coworkers out to lunch or get to know them a little bit better?'

And, instead of being able to hear what she was saying, I would get even more upset. And, I would say, 'You're supposed to have my side on this. I want you to be outraged on my behalf.' And, she would get upset because I was overreacting. And so, I went to these experts and I asked them, 'What's actually going on here? Why am I having this problem?'

Russ Roberts: And, explain.

Charles Duhigg: So, what they told me was they said: Look, what we've learned in the last decade about communication is that we tend to think of a discussion as being about one thing. But, in fact, every discussion is made up of multiple different kinds of conversations. And, in general, they fall into one of three big buckets. There's these practical conversations where we're trying to make plans or solve problems. Then there's emotional conversations where I might bring up a problem and I don't want you to solve that problem for me. I want you to empathize. I want you to be there emotionally for me. And then, there's social conversations which are about how we relate to each other and how we relate to society, and others relate to us.

And they said: The key is, if you're not having the same kind of conversation at the same time, you're unlikely to really hear each other and connect.

So, when I came home from work, I was having an emotional conversation, and my wife was responding in a very appropriate way but she was having a practical conversation. And that mismatch meant that we couldn't really hear each other. And so, now we have learned how to do that better.

Russ Roberts: And, that's a fabulous example. One of the things I find fascinating in that particular type of interaction is that: you come home with a frustration that happened at work or with a friend--it doesn't matter what it is--and you vent it, you share it. And, the other person can sometimes respond with, 'Oh, it's not so bad'--

Charles Duhigg: Yeah--

Russ Roberts: which is a variant on the solving the problem. In other words, something went wrong at work and your spouse says, 'It's not so bad. It's a small thing. Don't worry about it.' And, that should be comforting, but it's not often because it's diminishing exactly what you're talking about, which is that I want affirmation. And, in fact, the attempt to diminish the problem--which is very reasonable by the way, and in some settings totally appropriate, even in a venting conversation: you could be reassured, say, by that, 'Oh, it's not so bad.' But, sometimes that is not what you want to hear.

And, I find that--it's very interesting, right? And it's very hard. I think this goes in both directions with spouses, by the way, obviously, not just me to my wife, but my wife to me, and I assume other people. It's very hard to read the subtle cues of what the other person needs in that moment.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah. And, that's kind of what Supercommunicators is about, is how to identify what conversation is happening and then how to match the person or invite them to match you.

And, to the example that you just raised: so, you're right that there are times--so I think when saying, 'Oh, this isn't such a big deal' is appropriate, is: you come to me and you're upset and I engage with you in an emotional conversation. I affirm you. I show that I'm listening. And my wife does this all the time--like, oftentimes when I come home complaining, she says, 'Look, do you want me to help you think of a solution for this, or do you just need to get this off your chest?'

And, it's actually very edifying for me to hear that. Right? Because sometimes until that moment, I haven't even asked myself that question. And then, I can say, 'Oh, no, no, I just want to complain. I just want to complain.'

And then, after I complain for a little while, then she or I can say, 'Well, look, let's figure it out. Is this actually a big deal? Now let's move to the practical conversation.' Because you're exactly right. Diminishing it is not--is a practical conversation. But because we move together, we feel like we're connected; and we, in fact, are.

Russ Roberts: But, diminishing actually should be a good emotional response: 'Don't be so worked up about this. It's small.'

Charles Duhigg: Except that it ties into another factor, which sometimes comes up, particularly when we're having a conflict, which is this issue of control.

So, one of the things that we know about married couples in particular--but this is true for any conversation in which you disagree with someone, in which you have any conflict--is that conflict is such a scary thing that our first instinct is to try and find something we can control. And, oftentimes the easiest thing to control is the person sitting across from us.

So, we'll say things like: If you only listen to what I'm saying, then you'll agree with me. If you only understand all the facts, then you'll think that I'm right. I want to control how you see this. I want control what you listen to.

Or, people will say things like: I'm only going to talk about this for five minutes. Or: You can't bring up my mother. I'm not going to talk--like, this has nothing to do--right? We're trying to control the other person.

Sometimes people will say something like, 'This really bothers me,' and we'll try and diminish him. We'll try and say, 'Oh, no, it shouldn't bug you as much as it does.'

We're trying to control your emotional reaction.

So, trying to control someone else is toxic. Like, we know that it destroys a conversation.

A much better thing, though: You can't ignore this instinct for control. So, a much better thing is to find things you can control together with the person you're talking to.

And, there's usually three that present themselves.

Usually we have the opportunity to control when this conversation is happening. Right? So, instead of fighting at 2:00 in the morning: Let's wait until we're both well rested in the morning. We can control the timing. Oftentimes we can control ourselves and make that obvious by saying, like, 'Look, I'm going to take a breath before I answer your question, and I just want to think about it.' And so that we're controlling ourselves, which feels better.

And, Number Three is controlling the parameters of the fight itself. There's this thing called 'kitchen sinking'--which again, completely toxic--which is we start by arguing about where we're going to go for Thanksgiving, and then it becomes about, like, your mother hates me, and you don't earn enough money, and if you are home, it becomes--a fight about one thing becomes a fight about everything. That's really, really bad. So, controlling the parameters of the fight and saying, 'Look, we're just talking. I am not going to bring up your mother. You shouldn't get upset about that. We're just going to talk about Thanksgiving.'

The thing is that when you control these three things--the environment, yourself, and the boundaries of the disagreement--you are cooperating with the other person. Suddenly, you're on the same side of the table and you're deciding to control things together. Now, that does not mean you're going to agree with each other, but it does mean that it's going to be easier for you to find places where you can agree.


Russ Roberts: I think that's incredibly profound. It may sound trivial to some listening at home, but I think it took me a long time to realize how important control was in my life and to be sensitive to my own needs for it, and to realize it. I don't think about what I could do to control things, like myself, that could subdue that. I just sort of recognize that, 'Oh, my control urge is out of control here. I need to subdue it.' But, I think there's practical ideas of partnering with your combatant, whether it's your spouse or a friend or colleague at work, because what often is--I think this is actually one of the deepest things about the human experience--our drive for autonomy and agency is so strong.

I see it in my year-and-a-half-old granddaughter, who, when you do not give her the oatmeal in the format that she desires, gets extremely mad. She likes oatmeal; she wants to eat it. But your telling her how she's going to eat it--meaning she wants to eat it with her hands instead of the spoon, or vice versa, whatever it is, your cutting it up for her thinking, I'm doing her a good service--she's done with it. This is not the oatmeal, this would be the banana or whatever it is that you cut up.

And, I think it is--I haven't read much about it, but I know in myself that way too many of the times that I get frustrated, annoyed with the people around me, it's simply because I don't have control. It could be when dinner is going to start. It could be the trip to the airport. I've gotten better at both of those. After 69 years, I've gotten a little better at it. But just the ability to recognize when your own personal need for control is presenting and to realize that that's what's on the table and not whatever appears to be the issue--is just control--is very, very powerful.

Charles Duhigg: No, I absolutely agree. In the book, there's this story of this experiment that was done where they brought together gun rights advocates and gun control activists. And, the goal was not to see if they can get them to agree with each other: the goal was just to see if they could have a civil conversation. Right? And so, they taught them some skills, and one of the skills in particular is really powerful that we can talk about called looping for understanding.

But, the most important thing that I think they did--and this is what looping for understanding does--is they emphasized: your instinct is going to be to try and control this conversation. You've had this conversation a thousand times. You're very practiced at it. You know the traps, you know the contours. And so, your instinct is going to be to try and control it. Do the opposite. Just give in to what--and, that doesn't mean you have to change your mind. It doesn't mean you have to agree with the other person, but let the other person have their say in the way they want to have it, and they will be more willing to listen to you have you say in the way you want it.

And, it's kind of magical, right? It is such a small shift. And, it used to be that, I think, particularly in the United States, but around the world, we used to teach communication in schools; and we would teach that the goal of communication is not convincing someone else you're right. The goal of communication is simply understanding what they're trying to say.

America used to be filled with these reading circles where basically people would debate ideas. America, in many ways, was born in conversation. The Constitutional Convention was people who hate each other coming together and having conversations until they forged a constitution.

But, I think what's profound about that is that in today's world, we sometimes forget that the goal is understanding. We think the goal is winning. Certainly, on Twitter, that's true.

And, yet, if we change our mindset and we say: Look, my only job here is just to understand what the other person is saying and then help them understand what I'm thinking and what I'm feeling, then suddenly it becomes much easier to just listen. Because, you're not giving anything up.

Russ Roberts: Well, listeners always ask me--encourage me--to have more guests on that I don't agree with. And, I recently had Robert Wright on the program. Many, perhaps, listeners of this conversation will have heard that. And, that was sort of a conversation on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but it was more of a debate. He made his points, I made my points. We correspondingly responded to each other. We didn't respond a point at a time. We made long lengthy speeches.

I think it was somewhat interesting. It was a fascinating intellectual challenge. But, it was not a conversation. It was more of a debate.

I don't like debate, generally. I like conversation. And, conversation means trying to understand partly what the other person's thing. And, I'd say it a little differently. I'd say it's trying to learn something. It might be about what you're trying to say. It might be about what I actually believe and where my own shortcomings are.

Debate doesn't let you do that. Debate says: Don't give in, crush them. Don't concede anything. Never admit that you might not be right; and say the cleverest, most difficult thing to respond to. And, I generally don't like that. I don't think it's educational.

And, I think the power of conversation is that it's educational. And that is why--I'm going to turn to looping, now, and listening--I think you mentioned it a few minutes ago. That's why I think listening is so important and looping is an important skill. So, talk about what looping is and how [inaudible 00:25:34] with listening.

Charles Duhigg: Absolutely. Absolutely.

And, I'll mention one thing that--because I think this is a pretty profound distinction that you brought up between debate and conversation. And, the thing about debate--look, there's always a place for debate. Not everything has to be a conversation. When I say to my kids, 'I want to have a conversation about your rooms,' what I'm not really saying is I want to have a conversation about rooms, right? I'm telling them, 'I want you to go clean your rooms.'

But, the thing about a debate is that a debate is designed to convince the audience. It's two ideas being presented side by side so that the audience can determine which one they think is most true.

If a debate is happening without an audience, then it's a missed opportunity because it should be a conversation. Because in a debate, you're not going to convince the other person that you're right. It might be interesting, but a conversation allows us to say. I want you to understand me deeply enough. And this is where looping for understanding comes in.

Russ Roberts: And just one other point: Debate is a form of performance. It can be very entertaining: I say something clever and you have a repost that shoots me down, and you have a fact that I didn't know and I can't answer it. And, it's a duel. It's a form of intellectual fireworks. Sometimes it's fun to watch. It is not a form of human connection, which is what your book emphasizes. For that, you have to have conversation.

So, I could enjoy debating you. There are people I enjoy debating and we spar, and it's like sparring. You beat the other person up or they beat you up. And, my joke with Robert Wright, by the way, afterwards was everybody who agreed with me before this episode is going to say that I was the winner. And, everyone who agreed with you before the episode is going to say, 'Boy, you really showed him.' And then, he said something even cleverer, more interesting. He said this--I think it was all off the air--he said, 'Yeah, and they're going to also say, 'Why did you let him get away with that point? Why didn't you answer that one?'--

Charles Duhigg: Right--

Russ Roberts: 'He was wrong and you let him--.' And, that's about sports. That's about entertainment. But, connecting to another human being requires listening and not just waiting your turn to make your killing point.

Charles Duhigg: Yes.


Russ Roberts: So, now talk about looping. Sorry about that.

Charles Duhigg: No, no, no. I think this is really--and I would love to talk more about it because one of the things I think is interesting is in religious traditions, how much conversation we see and how little debate we see, because the goal is to understand.

But, so, looping for understanding is this technique that is designed to exactly do what you just suggested, which is: Oftentimes, how do we prove to someone that we're actually paying attention rather than waiting our turn to speak? Right? Particularly when we're having a tough conversation, when it's something where everyone's back is up a little bit?

We think that sometimes we can show we're listening by, like, nodding and smiling. But the truth is--and studies after studies show this, including by this guy Michael Yeomans at Imperial University in London--speaking is such a cognitively intensive activity that when we're doing it, we basically don't notice what other people are doing. We're kind of focused on our own words and inside our own head.

And so, somebody could be showing you that they're agreeing with you and you're just going to completely miss it. So, the way that we show we're listening--the way that we prove we're listening--is what we do after someone stops talking.

And, what's particularly important is just these three steps, looping for understanding: You should ask a question--and some questions are more powerful than others, and we can talk about that. Then you should repeat back in your own words what you just heard the person say. And it's important to do it in your own words. Show them you're processing. And then, step number three--and this is the step everyone always forgets--is: Ask if you got it right. Because, what you're doing at that point is you are giving them permission to tell you that you've understood or to correct you if you haven't.

And, if I do that, if I prove to you that I am listening, what study after study shows is that you are going to become more likely to listen to me in return. Even if you don't know what looping is, you're going to use the same technique back on me. And then we're actually listening to each other. Then we know the other person isn't just waiting their turn to talk.

Russ Roberts: And I think two things happen there that are important. One is: I might learn something. But the second is just this human connection that I think is greatly underrated in 2024 in the digital world most of us spend a lot of our time in. Some of my favorite moments in life--I've said this on the program before--were conversations that I didn't expect to get into, often with strangers. And we're going to come to that in a minute--why conversations with strangers can be more powerful than conversations with people that you know better than strangers, your friends, your family, and so on.

But, I think there's a delight in looping and in listening. And it's a gift. It's me saying to you, it's not, 'Oh, now that I've really heard you, now you're going to be more sympathetic to my point of view, and I'll win.' Which is I think what can often happen. It's just simple; it's: 'I'm giving you something: my attention.' And, nodding and smiling is one way; and not talking, that's another way; but showing that I've actually understood you is much more powerful.

Charles Duhigg: Well, and I think that there's a sort of a self-hack that happens here, which is that: sometimes I'm in a conversation and I genuinely do want to listen, but I'm so riled up that I'm already thinking up the counter-arguments in my head. Right? It's so easy to stop listening.

And, the thing that I love about looping for understanding, and again, it's, like,--it becomes totally instinctual; I actually do it all the time now without even thinking about it. But, the thing is that once it's in the back of your head, you're telling yourself, if someone's talking, 'My job is to listen closely enough that I can repeat back what they're saying to me.' And, it's kind of like a self-hack where you're tricking yourself into listening more closely when you want to listen. Because sometimes it's hard. Sometimes it's hard to put our own thoughts aside.

And, I think that it does feel wonderful. It feels wonderful to feel, like, we're being heard.

Russ Roberts: You are heard, you are seen. And, it's the equivalent--I never thought about this--it's the equivalent of taking notes, right?

Charles Duhigg: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: Most of us don't take notes unless we're a reporter. We don't take notes on the conversations we have. And, this is a form of note-taking. It's not verbatim, but it's saying: I am sufficiently attuned to you.

In fact, it's really better than taking notes because taking notes requires a whole separate kind of part of your brain. And, I've often wondered whether it's good for students to take notes in a lecture, for example, as opposed to giving the lecture their full attention. But, it's a form of mental note-taking.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah. And, studies show, again, if you do looping for understanding that you're going to recall more of what's said.

Now, one thing you raised--so I mentioned that the first step of looping is asking these questions, right? Before you repeat back and you ask if you got it right. And, one thing that is important is that some questions are more powerful than others. And, within the psychology literature, these are known as 'deep questions.'

And, a 'deep question'--it sounds more intimidating than it actually is--a deep question is just something that invites the other person to talk about their values or their beliefs or their experiences. And, a deep question can be as simple as talking to someone and when they say, 'What do you do for a living?' 'I'm a lawyer.' 'Oh, what made you decide to go to law school? Do you love practicing the law? What's the best case that you ever had?'

Those are pretty easy questions to ask. They don't feel overly intimate or overly intrusive; but all three of them are deep questions because what they're doing is they're asking, what were the values that led you to law school? What are your beliefs that being a lawyer reifies? What are your experiences in trying cases that were meaningful to you?

And, when we ask deep questions, what happens is that people often will share a vulnerability with us. Not a huge vulnerability, right? Not anything that feels uncomfortable to share, but something meaningful about themselves. And, our brains have this instinct towards emotional reciprocity, which is: when someone exposes something vulnerable to us, if we are vulnerable back with them, if we say, 'Oh, the reason I love my job is because of X and Y,' not only do we feel closer to each other: we trust each other more.

It's an almost inborn instinct that when we share, when we reciprocate vulnerabilities, we trust and like the other person more. And, that doesn't mean I'm going to loan you money, but it means I'm going to trust during this conversation that you're listening to me and that you can share things with me that are important.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. I want to talk about 'deep questions,' so let's dig in a little bit. I apologize, Charles: I'm going to take probably a little more airtime in this section--

Charles Duhigg: No, I love it--

Russ Roberts: than I might in an average episode because I've spent a lot of time thinking about this enterprise called podcasting, and as, of course, as a form of conversation. So, I appreciate you letting me vent.

Charles Duhigg: No, I love it. And, by way, that was a very supercommunicator move to tell me what kind of conversation you're moving into. I love it.

Russ Roberts: So, when I prepare for an interview, I make a list of questions. And, I never assume I'm going to just go down the questions and just ask them and let the guest respond. I assume we're going to have side-digressions and we'll diverge, and I won't get to some of them, because I try to make sure I have too many, in fact. But, what I find often in my daily life--and I think of myself as an interviewer more than a conversationalist in some settings--but, I meet a stranger, say, and I want to find out about them. So, I ask them questions. I think I tend to do more of the list than the real conversation.

So, I meet someone at a--let's just say at a party. So, I ask a standard set of questions--and I have a long list, so it's not going to be a quick conversation. I have plenty to ask about.

So, I'll say, 'Where are you from?' And, they'll tell me, and if I've lived in that place, I have something to say and I add that in. 'What do you do?' And, they'll tell me, and I'll ask you something about that experience.

But I tend to go down the list mentally without thinking about it, and I don't always ask the deep questions. I think the most valuable thing I got out of your book is the understanding that these smalltalk questions--where are you from, what do you do? How long have you been here in Jerusalem? Where'd you live before? Where were you born? Where'd you grow up? Et cetera, etc. These sort of, they're polite, they're nice, but the idea that you could go deeper without demanding intimacy, without demanding vulnerability by saying, 'Oh, how do you like being a lawyer?' usually isn't in my toolkit. Which is interesting and a failure.

And so, I'm deeply grateful for that because I think those are deep questions. They do allow people to share things. Sometimes they don't want to and they won't, but sometimes they will, and then it allows you as the conversationalist to respond, 'Yeah, I hated being a lawyer, too,' or whatever is the thing that comes up. And, the deep question idea is just--it's deep. Sorry.

Charles Duhigg: Well, thank you. I appreciate that.

Well, and I should give credit to Nicholas Epley at the University of Chicago who has done a lot of the seminal research in this.

And, one of the things that I heard you just say--and tell me if I'm getting this wrong--is that oftentimes--and this happens a lot in conversations--oftentimes that you fall into the role where you are asking questions and the other person is responding. And, that's probably because you're really practiced at asking questions, right? You're really good at it. You have a podcast. And, this dynamic can emerge where, like, I ask a question, you answer, but then you don't ask the question back. And, the nice thing about deep questions is exactly what you just said. A deep question creates a platform for answering the question you just asked, even if the other person doesn't think to ask it.

So, if you share something meaningful about yourself--'I hate being a lawyer because of X'--then it's so easy for me to say, 'Oh, I hated being a lawyer, too,' and essentially answering the same question that I just asked you. But it doesn't feel like I was just waiting my turn. It's not like, 'Where did you go on vacation?' because I really want to tell you where I went on vacation. Right.

But, a deep question--we tend to ask questions about facts, and those tend to be conversational dead ends. But, if we ask questions about 'What do you make of that?'; if we ask questions about 'Why is this important to you? What was your experience around it?' then, when they answer, we can also answer that same question, and it feels very natural. And, that's when the conversations start. That's what allows you to go back and forth and really get into a conversation.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. One of the stranger moments for me in a conversation is when I ask somebody something and in my head I say, 'Your turn,' and they don't. They don't play. Either they're not interested in you or they're uncomfortable. And so, I just ask another question. I've got plenty.

But, you're right: sometimes you can volunteer your own answer.

But, in some settings, it's awkward. Like, the vacation one is a good one just because there's so little at stake at it. And I can reveal that in our conversation, Charles. Sometimes I say, 'Where are you going on vacation this summer?' And, they tell me. And then they don't ask me about my vacation. It feels weird to say, 'Well, I'm going to--wherever.' And so, a lot of times I'll just ask another question: 'Where'd you go last year?' Or, 'Have you been there before?' Or, 'What's your favorite thing that you did there?' Or, 'What's a highlight?' Some people don't converse well.

Charles Duhigg: I think that's right. I mean, some people just haven't thought about--again, as I mentioned: kind of, the difference between supercommunicators is they've often just thought, like, half-an-inch more about communication, and they're usually showing us that they want to connect with us, which is an important part of that. And, some people just haven't thought about it.

Now, what I would say is that if you say, 'Where'd you go on vacation and they answer and they don't--and it feels awkward to respond--it's probably because you were, again, asking about a fact. But, that next question you asked, 'What do you like about that place?'--when they answer that question, it's much more natural for you to say, like, 'Oh, yeah, no, I've been to Hawaii, too. I thought Maui was amazing, wasn't it? I had such a great time there, and I'm so sad that what happened with Lahaina.'

So, when we ask a 'deep question,' the response that people give us usually tees-up us to answer that same question. And, again, it's because of this emotional reciprocity, is that if I ask you about a fact--you're exactly right--and you answer the fact question, it feels weird for me to answer the question I just asked because there is really no factual reciprocity expectation in human communication. But, if I ask you something about a deep question and you respond with something that reflects how you feel about the world, reciprocity actually dictates that I should do the same thing. And so, it feels very natural to react that way.


Russ Roberts: Well, we're going to talk some more about deep questions, but I want to derail you for a second and digress and ask you a meta-question about supercommunicators.

One of the supercommunicators I know, that when you asked me if I knew one, he and I talk a lot about human interaction, communication. And he's more, I think even more of a student of it than I am. I do pay attention, but I think for him, it's a form of entertainment. And potentially it's a form of disengagement. Because I wonder if, for him, he sometimes rises above the conversation--mentally, not physically--mentally, and is looking down on it going, 'Well, this is hilarious. This is going really badly.' And he knows why. Or, 'It's going really well and I'm getting what I need out of this,' and so on.

And, I think there's a huge challenge, which--this is one of my challenges to your book--spontaneity.

Doing these things naturally is very important. And, I think if you do it too thoughtfully, you are going to fail. And so, I think there's an art to making these habits, habits rather than strategies. So, that's one criticism I would have of your book. Respond to it.

Charles Duhigg: No, I think it's a great point. And it's important to create a distinction here, which is: when are we thinking about communicating?

So, oftentimes when I say this, people think, 'Oh, in the conversation, I ought to be thinking about how this conversation is functioning.' And, that's not right. Actually, that's when your instincts take over--these instincts that evolution has honed so well. And, in many ways, the point of Supercommunicators is to teach you how to listen more closely to your instincts.

The thinking happens before you speak and after you speak; or before the conversation and after the conversation.

To your point you raised about, you write up a bunch of questions for each interview and you don't use all of them. There was a study done by these professors from Harvard Business School where they had all these students write down three topics. They said, 'Look, you're going to have a conversation with a stranger'--this, of course, is completely-anxiety producing for most people--'Write down three topics that you're going to discuss.' It took, like, 10 seconds. It was, like, things like: The TV show I saw last night; and the game this weekend.

And then they said, 'Okay, now put that piece of paper in your pocket and go have these conversations.'

And, what they found was two things. Number One: people inevitably almost never discussed the topics they had written down. Number Two, the conversations went much, much better because people were much, much less anxious.

But, the point here is: The work was not done in the conversation. The work was done before the conversation. Just 10 seconds of work.

And, to your point, my guess is that for that friend that you're mentioning, most of the time, they are completely in that conversation. They are in the moment. The same way that even though you wrote down 30 questions for this conversation, we've only gotten to five of them, you're in the moment in this discussion. But, it's the preparation before and after that allows you to be in the moment. Right? That the prepared mind is--what is it, that luck comes to the prepared mind. That, when I say we should think more about communication, I don't mean we should think in the conversation. I mean, we should do things like read books or reflect back on conversations and think about, 'Oh, here's a technique I should practice until it becomes automatic.'


Russ Roberts: So, I want to go deeper into 'deep questions.' And I'm going to ask you some, and then you can respond if you want. It's up to you, and ask me some.

But, one aspect we haven't talked enough about is vulnerability. We alluded to it, and it's something I think about a lot, and you write about a lot. And, the power of deep questions is, I think, as defined deep--not meaning what's the meaning of life, but deep, meaning getting at things that are below the surface is to create vulnerability--is to make vulnerability possible. And, that creates that connection that I think is so powerfully human.

And, I want to go back to this chitchat with a stranger. You know, I say, 'Where are you from?' I've lived in a zillion places, so usually I can say something about where they were from, but let's say I don't.

And then, I say, 'What do you do?' And then they tell me, and I'm thinking, 'Well, that's not interesting. I don't have a single thing to say about it.' And, that's the wrong model. The right model, which I think you've taught me, is 'Well, how do you feel about that?' And, 'Tell me more about it,' and 'Tell me what you like and don't like about it.' And, that allows that person to share things that might be very powerful even though the actual job description is not something that interests me or that I have any thoughts on, but I will have thoughts, perhaps, on what they share when I ask a deep question. And, I think that's really very cool.

Charles Duhigg: That's exactly [?]. And, one of the things that I think you just teased out is everyone is a fascinating expert in themselves. And, if I can get you talking about yourself, it's going to be an interesting conversation. And, you're exactly right, that vulnerability is part of that.

Now, I think people sometimes misunderstand vulnerability because they think that it means that you have to expose something that could be used against you. But, if I ask you, 'What do you love most about Jerusalem?' and, you answer that question, that's actually exposing a vulnerability to me, because it's something I could judge. Right? You say, like, 'Oh, I love the people and I love the food.' And, in a terrible world, I could be, like, 'I've been to Jerusalem, and those people are terrible. They're so mean. It's horrible. And, a falafel who--likes falafel.' Right?

So, by stating a preference, by stating a value or a belief or describing an experience and why it was meaningful to us, we are actually exposing a vulnerability.

Now, we might not care what the other person thinks. We might not care that they disagree with us or think that it matters at all, or you don't care what my opinion on Jerusalem is because you live there and I don't. But, it's the act of exposing that vulnerability that, if I reciprocate it, if I say, 'Oh, it's interesting you mentioned that about the people because I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the thing I loved most about it was the people.' Or if I just say, 'I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico and the people weren't what I loved, but I loved the landscape.' Now, I'm also exposing a vulnerability to you.

Again, I don't care if you would take advantage of that vulnerability or your judgment, but the fact that I allow you to judge me means that we feel closer to each other. It creates trust between us when we don't abuse it. And, there's a part of our brain that's really well-designed to be on the guard for betrayal. And, when someone exposes a vulnerability and we don't match it, it feels like a betrayal and it feels alienating.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's like going skinny-dipping by yourself with somebody else.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.

Russ Roberts: It's different than two people skinny-dipping.

Charles Duhigg: Yes, it's better the second way.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.


Russ Roberts: I'm going to tell you what I like about Jerusalem, by the way. I'm going to tell you the first thing that came into my mind. I'm going to let you respond to it. Because it's funny--it's a small thing, and I don't think about it as a vulnerability, but it could be, you're right. I like the color of the sky on Friday afternoon as the Sabbath's about to arrive. The city slows down. It gets quieter, and the sky turns this particular color of sort of a pink blue wash, and you can't quite see where the blue and the pinks start and end. And I feel serenity. And, when I share that--I never thought about it--is that really a vulnerable? Am I really making myself vulnerable for telling you that? But you could respond, 'Well, that's kind of a petty thing. That's what you like?' It's not the only thing I like about Jerusalem, but it's the first thing that came to mind. You can react to that.

Charles Duhigg: Or I could bring up Gaza--right?--and say, like, 'Oh, it's so nice you like that, I guess.'

But, what's really interesting about what you just said is that if I engage with it--well, first of all, you just told me so much about yourself, not just about why you like Jerusalem. You told me that you have this appreciation for aesthetics and beauty, that serenity is something that's important to you. And, the fact that you mentioned that this happens during Shabbas, before, suggests to me that a connection with the spiritual is important to you. You've told me so much about yourself.

Now, if I heard you say that, what I could say is, I could say: In Albuquerque, we had these beautiful skies. I could also say: I used to live in Egypt, and the thing that I loved about Fridays in Egypt, it was exactly what you just said, was that everyone would go to mosque on Friday. This whole city, which is this crazy chaotic city, would shut down, and then the smog would stop, and you would just hear these birds along the Nile. It was magical. It's like the things that people have been listening to for thousands and thousands of thousands of years. Our ancestors heard those same birds.

And, I think that it's a moment of connection that we both--what we're really saying to each other is: here's some things that we share. We share this love of nature and our connection with a place that we're in, and we both care deeply about where we are, and we try and find the positive aspects of it. Because I know life in Jerusalem is tough. Life in Cairo is tough, but the thing that you mentioned is this wonderful, sublime moment.

Now, I've spent a lot of time in Jerusalem, and I love Jerusalem, and I love being in Israel. But, let's say I never had, which many people in Cairo never have. Just the fact that we both can share that we've had a similar experience in completely different places, that's meaningful, that allows us to connect.

Russ Roberts: And, we all get to enjoy that sunset, by the way.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: It's not personal to me. It's not like, 'Oh, I had a great plate of falafel, and the people who go to that restaurant know that it's really good.' There's something really beautiful about that. And I didn't mention that silhouetted against that sky in my mind is a palm tree. There are a lot of palm trees in Jerusalem, which you wouldn't necessarily think you'd associate Jerusalem with palm trees. But, it turns out, out my window in my living room facing west is--excuse me, facing east. So, I'm not getting the literal sunset, I'm getting where the sun is no longer at, is this wash, and there's a palm tree silhouetted against it, which is also a beautiful thing.

Charles Duhigg: It's beautiful.

Russ Roberts: I'll say one other thing. When you said Gaza, in your attempt to be witty, Charles, I had a stab of anxiety. It's like, 'Oh, am I going to have to talk about that?' And, I have to figure out how I'm going to say it, and it's intense. And, I'm just talking about a sunset, and you're bringing up Gaza?

Charles Duhigg: Exactly.

Russ Roberts: Just interesting, right?

Charles Duhigg: That's that vulnerability. And, again, you don't care really what I think, but just the fact that I brought up this topic that is so antithetical to what you're describing to me, to the beauty of this moment, it causes that stab of anxiety because what you brought up is vulnerable. It's vulnerable in a very small way, but that vulnerability is still real. And, it might be useful to talk about what's happening in our brains when we're having that conversation.

Russ Roberts: I love the Cairo story.

Charles Duhigg: Oh, thank you.

Russ Roberts: Even if it's not true. I assume it's true.

Charles Duhigg: It's a hundred percent true. It's a hundred percent true. My wife and I lived in the Middle East for a number of years, and I will actually say we would escape to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv from Cairo because it was, like, 'Oh, it just felt so good to get out of the traffic in Cairo.' When Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is your luxury getaway, you know that you're living in a tough place.

Russ Roberts: Especially on the traffic front. Traffic is pretty bad here at times.


Russ Roberts: I want to continue with the vulnerability issue because I think, as I mentioned, I think many of the best conversations--more than best conversations--many of my favorite moments in my life were conversations with strangers.

And, I hadn't thought about it until I read your book and until we're talking now, they were about people sharing things that are very personal, unbelievable moments. I'd like to talk about them, but I'm not going to because I don't want to try to think about what the person told me that I shouldn't repeat or not.

But, that's why they're special, is because of the vulnerability. And, when you've tasted that, you'd like more of it. And, one way you might, and I put the emphasis on might, do--get more, have more real conversations as opposed to empty chitchat is to, first of all, ask those deep questions.

But, as you point out in the book, a lot of the moments in people's lives when they have these vulnerable, deep, connecting conversations are very artificial. They're in lab experiments or a workshop at work where you've got to interact with a colleague like a ropes thing, and now you got to talk about your childhood and you reveal stuff, and then you get closer.

And, it could sometime actually work, but it's very hard to replicate that in everyday life, and I think--as opposed to in the study or in the experiment or the workshop. And, one of the sort of in-between ways is this idea, which I'm intrigued by, of the 36 Questions that lead to love. So, tell our listeners what that is; and then I thought we'd ask ourselves a few of them and see where we go.

Charles Duhigg: I love it. I love it. This is a wonderful idea.

So, there's this couple, they're married, who are researchers, psychology researchers, Arthur and Elaine Aron. And, they were trying to figure out, basically they wanted to find a way-- a technique--that could encourage strangers to become friends.

And so, what they did is they set up a room and they would bring two strangers in together, and they gave them a bunch of questions to ask each other. And, eventually, they settled on 36 of the best questions. But, what would happen is they would say: Okay, ask each other these questions and then answer back and forth. I ask you, and then you ask me, and we go through all 36. It usually took about 60 minutes--or actually about 45 minutes, but sometimes it went to 60. And then, they would go ahead and watch the conversation and they would say, 'Thank you so much. You're free to go home.'

And, everybody who participated thought that was the experiment. But it's what happened next that was important. Seven weeks later, the Arons hunted down everyone who had participated in that. And, this is pre-Internet, right? This is during a time when finding other people is really hard because you have to, like, look them up in the phone book. There's no Facebook. So, they hunt down everyone who had participated and they asked them, 'Did you go hunt down the person you did that conversation with?' And, 70% of the people who had participated found the other person somehow, after the experiment. Sometimes they would wander through dorms looking for them. Sometimes--because they weren't all students--sometimes they would call the 12 people with a similar name in the phone book until they got the right one.

One of them ended up getting married. One of the couples, one of the pairs who had met each other this way got married.

And this became known as the Fast Friends Protocol. And, it's been fairly influential in psychology. And, as you mentioned, leads to these articles like "The 36 Questions That Lead to Love." And, what I love about this procedure, the Fast Friends Procedure, is that some of the questions are crazy. Some of the questions are questions you would never ask someone at a party. Like, when's the last time you cried in front of another person? That's a tough question to ask. But, a lot of them--and again, they had to experiment to figure out which questions worked--a lot of them are things that are deep without appearing deep.

Like, if you could have a dinner party with anyone from history, who would you invite? It turns out that's an enormously revealing question. I can tell you so much about myself by mentioning the three people I would invite. Because the difference between saying I would invite Winston Churchill versus I would invite Barack Obama versus I would invite Jesus, that tells me so much about that person. And, that's kind of why I love this experiment.


Russ Roberts: So, let's take a crack at it.

Charles Duhigg: Okay.

Russ Roberts: The first question--there are 36 of them in the article. It's a website; it's easy to find. Just Google '36 Questions that Lead to Love.' We'll put a link to it. Some of them, I'm sure, get more and more personal. I didn't even go past the first five because I thought they were great and we'd have a good conversation about the first five; and I want to try to do that in the time that we have left. We'll see where we are.

If you could invite anyone to dinner--and I want to do living people--

Charles Duhigg: Okay.

Russ Roberts: And, you might want to think about it for a minute. If you could invite anyone to dinner, who would it be? It's the first question.

Charles Duhigg: And, let me mention, one thing that is important about these is that it's back and forth. So, they've done the same experiment where someone answers all 36 questions in a row and someone else listens, and then the next person answers all 36 questions in a row, and people do not feel closer afterwards. It's all about the back and forth. Okay, so I'm going to answer the question, then I'm going to ask you to answer it as well.

So, definitely Barack Obama would be on that list, right? I would have him up there. Alive, people who are alive. It's such a good question because I actually don't know. I don't know. Oh, Jennifer Egan, who's an author who I just love her work so much, and probably George Saunders, who's also an author whose work I love. So, it'd be a weird conversation.

Russ Roberts: I'm a big fan of George Saunders.

Charles Duhigg: Oh, are you?

Russ Roberts: "A Swim in a Pond in the Rain" is, I think, a masterpiece. I want to recommend that to listeners. He would be a great dinner companion.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah, actually, I've had dinner with him and he is wonderful. He is just such a fantastic person. Okay, so now you have to tell me who are your three.

Russ Roberts: So, one of the reasons I didn't want to do this--I had second thoughts--is I don't know, who am I going to say for this? I've had dinner with many people I'd like to have dinner with. I've been blessed. And, I've also, it's another way--it's not just dinner--conversations. I've talked to many of my idols. I've been lucky in this program, but I realize there's one I haven't spoken to that I really want to get. And, my chances of getting him went from zero to 1% in the last month. And, that's Bill Belichick. I would really like to pick Bill Belichick's brain. I've written about him. He's an economics major--undergrad. I want to know how much that influenced his thinking as a coach. And, he's now unemployed. Usually you just say his job is 365 days a year. But, hey, now, I got a shot. So, listeners, anybody out there knows Bill, please put us in touch.

Charles Duhigg: Can I ask something? Have you emailed him just to say, like, 'Hey, I'd love to have a conversation with you'?

Russ Roberts: I've not emailed him directly in a long time. I may have emailed him a long time ago and I had something I thought he would be interested in, and I think I probably didn't have his email. That's the bigger problem. I don't know where to start. I would email him in a second because the other one would be, the three guests I'd like to have that I've never had who have not said no to me. So, they're still plausible guests: Bill Belichick, Tom Stoppard, the playwright, and Mark Knopfler, the guitarist. And, I've made some attempts at reaching the last two, not successfully, but if they're listening and they'd like to be on the program, please write me at

Okay, we're going to go onto the second one.

Charles Duhigg: Okay. I love it.

Russ Roberts: Unless you want to ask a follow-up.

Charles Duhigg: No, no, no. No. This is great.

Russ Roberts: Would you like to be famous? In what way?

Charles Duhigg: Oh, I'm very curious how you answer this question. I would like to be moderately famous. In fact, my wife, sometimes her coworkers are, like, 'Oh, your husband, he's well-known.' And, she says, 'Yes. He is moderately famous among a very small group of people.' So, I know people who are famous. I know people who are genuinely famous. Their names are recognized; and there is definitely a burden associated with that. It makes you less trusting of other people. But, on the other hand, the thing about fame that I have found, even a limited fame, is that it just opens up so many opportunities. It's a form of influence and of access that can be really, really rewarding. And so, there's a degree of fame that I really enjoy. And then, if it ever got to be too much where it burdened my children, then it would be too much. What about you?

Russ Roberts: So, I feel very similar. This is a good matching exercise for us. I am moderately famous among a small group of people. I'm sure when I was younger, I wanted to be more famous. I'm glad I'm not. There's a great essay by Tim Ferris on the cost of fame, which we'll link to, that is hair-raising. It is spectacular.

And, a handful of times in my life, someone has asked me if I'm Russ Roberts because they heard my voice and they recognize--they're EconTalk listeners. And that's a thrill. I get tremendous, irrational amount of pleasure from that. And, it's a handful. It doesn't happen very often, but it makes my heart sing, which is somewhat embarrassing. This is a vulnerable admission because it's a weird thing to get pleasure from. But, I'm glad we have listeners who care, who pay attention.

Charles Duhigg: Can I ask you a follow up-question?

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Charles Duhigg: And, one thing I want to point out that's happening right now, which for listeners, hopefully this is true, is that that as you and I are discussing this, we're becoming neurally synchronized, right? In fact, we've been neurally synchronized for a while. And, although we can't tell our eyes are dilating at similar rates and our breath patterns are probably matching each other, even though we're separated by thousands of miles and our thinking is becoming very alike, the listeners' thinking is also becoming alike. As we're asking and answering these questions, they're probably answering the same question for themselves inside their own head. And, this is an interesting thing about conversations is that sometimes just listening to a conversation allows you to participate in the conversation, even though we can't hear what you're saying. And, that's really powerful.

So, here's my follow-up question, and this is actually even a more vulnerable one. If you could choose between being rich or being famous, which one would you choose?

Russ Roberts: Well, neither appeals to me. Now. It would have--again, when I was younger, both would have probably appealed to me and it would be a dilemma. Neither is of any--I'm financially comfortable. I'm rich by many people's standards and not at all by others, which is the nature of money. And, as you say, I'm famous among a small group of people.

The reason I'm laughing at this is that my dad never liked Woody Allen. And, one day somebody asked my dad who Woody Allen was, or some Woody Allen reference came up, and they said, 'Oh, is he famous?' And, my dad would say, 'Among a small group of people in the New York area.' Which was not true; but that was what he thought he deserved. And, I'm sorry if Woody Allen is listening. He'd be fun to interview, too, by the way. Maybe even more fun to have dinner with.

So, that doesn't appeal to me. Does that appeal to you? What would you pick? Obviously, it's really embarrassing because you think it's a question.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah. So--and, I will say, I have been poor. I've been very, very poor--like, poor enough that I once started a company, before I became a journalist, I started a company and there were periods when I would sell blood to make payroll, and it gave me a very, very deep appreciation for having money. Like, I think that--

Russ Roberts: Fair enough--

Charles Duhigg: And so, I've actually really enjoyed having money, to be honest. Like, before I wrote The Power of Habit, which is the first book I wrote, I didn't have any. Like, I was a journalist. I'd gone to Harvard Business School; I was the lowest paid member of my class. And my wife and I were pregnant, and I had $40,000 in savings--like, from saving for a decade. And, in New York City, you can't live like--there's no way we would ever be able to buy a house. And so, that's one of the reasons I decided to write a book, was because I needed to earn some money.

And, I will be honest with you--and it's not like we're fantastically rich or anything like that--it is such a source of comfort for me not to worry about money every night. And, there were periods in my life when I did. So, I think, like, from a happiness place, if I had to choose between famous and rich--and again, like you, I probably wouldn't choose either--but if I had to choose, from a happiness perspective I'd probably say fame because it gives you this access, but from a--being able to sleep at night is such a gift, I think it'd be money.


Russ Roberts: So that's one of the weird things about having these 36 Questions with each other, is that there are a lot of people listening. And, it's fun to say, 'Oh, rich and famous, neither one appeals to me.' I guess when I think about it more honestly, I'd pick rich. Okay. There are things that if I had to be twice as rich or twice as famous, I'd pick twice as rich. Not so much for the security, but for the things it would let me do. And, the things that fame gives you, I think are mostly creepy and can corrode your soul if you're not careful. And so can money, I guess.

Charles Duhigg: And this is an interesting thing that you just mentioned, that it's a little weird doing this in front of all these other people. Right? And so, our instinct is to say, 'I don't want to be rich or famous.'

But, what we do know is that the people listening, when we are vulnerable, they probably like and trust us more.

And, I'm going to ask the listeners out there--who we can't talk to right now, but please email us and tell us if we're getting this wrong or right--that by being honest and vulnerable, we probably engender more admiration than what would be the admirable thing to say, which is, like, 'Oh, money and fame, I don't care about either of them.' Right? And, I think that this gets to what we were talking about: that vulnerability is just really powerful because it helps us connect with other people. [More to come, 1:09:56]

Russ Roberts: Were you making fun of me when you said--

Charles Duhigg: I was not. I was not.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I think you were. Okay. I'm just kidding. Let's move on.

I know you have a hard stop coming up, so I want to make sure I get some of the good questions. So, I'm skipping one, which is before making a phone call, do you ever rehearse what you're going to say? And, I'd say, when I was younger all the time; if it was calling a woman, absolutely. And, other than that, pretty much not. And, you can answer that quickly if you want. You want to answer that quickly?

Charles Duhigg: I do it all the time. I do it literally all the time.

Russ Roberts: Why?

Charles Duhigg: Because oftentimes I am doing these interviews and I'm, like, 'Oh my God, I get one chance to get this person to tell me something interesting.' So I practice a lot.

Russ Roberts: Well, that's the equivalent of: when I used to, at the start of this program, I would ad-lib the introduction. And they're horrible. And, I realized fairly early on that people stopped listening and switch the channel--go to listen to some other podcast. So, I script those. I read them. And sometimes they're long. So, I guess that's the equivalent.


Russ Roberts: Okay. What would constitute a perfect day for you?

Charles Duhigg: Oh, man. So, okay. I actually feel like I've had a lot of them recently. It would be with my family. Right? Maybe I would talk to a friend on the phone, but I would spend most of my time with my wife and my two kids. Maybe we'd go surfing, because my wife and I love surfing. We live in Santa Cruz, California, in part because we can surf here. And it would probably involve at least one really good meal that was also healthy. And then, I would be asleep by 9:30 and sleep through the whole night. And I'd get to read. What about you? What's your perfect day?

Russ Roberts: Well, the one that would come to mind--and what's interesting about this is that I think we have some illusions about our perfect day that when we actually have them, maybe they don't seem so perfect--but the first one that comes to mind is I'm sitting in a beach chair at Cape Cod or maybe in a part of California I'm not going to name because I don't want anybody else to go there beside me. Sorry, it's not crowded, and I love that. And, I'm reading with sunglasses because it's too bright. Sun's out, and I'm listening to the waves. And, I'm not swimming, by the way. My wife's swimming. She's having a great time. She's taking a: 'Do you want to take a walk on the beach?' 'No, I'm good.' I'll just sit in the chair and read a little bit. And, she takes a 12-mile walk or a 40 mile, she walks out of sight. She does come back, thank God. And, I'm still reading, and that's close.

But, the second is--which is really embarrassing and weird--is I had something close to a perfect morning this past Friday. My granddaughter was with us. She's a year and a half, as I said, and she was just wandering around. She's playing with some things. I got some pictures of her. I got some good news about something for my college, Shalem College. I got an interesting opportunity. I had an idea. And I realized: I'm having a Faustian moment. Now, Faust says to the devil, or the devil says to Faust: If you could--if you have to give me your soul, says the devil--if I can create a moment for you that you wish would last forever. And, I actually had a taste, I've had a few of those in my life. Many, if you're lucky, you have more than one, but this was one of them. It was sublime. And grandparenting is way underrated. I am shocked at how exhilarating it is.

Charles Duhigg: I cannot wait. I have to say as a parent, which I love, grandparenting seems amazing.

So, what I love about what you just said, and tell me if you think I misheard this, is that you mentioned, so the sublime moment. And, when that happens, and particularly when we allow ourselves to enjoy it, when we have the presence of mind to allow ourselves to say, like, this is a special moment and just enjoy it.

What you mentioned were these things that all have to do with connecting with other people. You are connecting with your granddaughter and getting to know her. You got some good news for your school, which probably is meaningful to you because it's going to help other people because you can think about those students who are going to benefit from it.

And, there's a lot of research to show this. You know, we talked about the importance of connection. But from a neurological perspective, but it's also from a psychological perspective--there was this, and I'm sure you're familiar with this--the Adult Study of Human and Happiness, which is one of the largest longitudinal studies, and that's like the fourth or fifth name it's ever been given. It actually started as the Grant Study. It was funded by a guy named Grant.

Russ Roberts: You write about it in the book.

Charles Duhigg: Yeah. And, there's some stuff about it in the book.

And, what's interesting is: it's been going on for almost a hundred years. They've been following thousands of people trying to figure out what causes longevity, happiness, and success. And, the only thing that they have found as a reliable predictor is that if you have a sufficient number of deep, meaningful connections at age 45, you'll be happy, healthy, and successful at 65. And, it doesn't have to be a huge number. Right? The number is different from person to person. But they have to be real connections. Because it is in connecting to other people that we tend to find what feels like happiness or what feels like the sublime or what feels like awe.

And, the fact that you mentioned, like this, something good for your school was so meaningful is really powerful to me because it suggests that, like, you feel this connection to all these students, some of whom you haven't even met, but you know that their lives will be better because this thing came through.

And, the more that we invest in that, the more that we--and the way that we create those connections is usually through conversation. It's through calling up a friend and having a phone conversation. It's by going to lunch with someone. It's by telling your colleague, like, we got this grant and it's going to really help people out.

We form connections through language, through conversation. And, that's why I think, like, Supercommunicators, that's why I wrote the book, is because all you have to do is think just half an inch deeper about these conversations work and they can get so much better. And, when they do, it can bring awe into our life. Which is amazing.

Russ Roberts: And, I think that Friday morning, my wife and I were interacting in a very natural, casual way. She maybe made something, an egg, for the granddaughter, and it was blissful in a way that is not what we would normally think of as bliss. And, I think some of it is literally a chemical reaction to seeing my granddaughter. When I see her smile, I sometimes notice how happy I am, which is fascinating to me. If you said, does it make you happy? I'd say, 'Well, yeah, I guess.' But, something physical, something dopaminical, something's going on there.

However, just to disillusion you a little bit, I think the school thing is mostly my ego, but I appreciate that and I do care, I do care deeply about my students.

And, it's January 29th. Yesterday was the first day of class. We've been out of school for three months because of the war, and it's incredibly emotional. And, we could go for an hour about what that's like and that roller coaster and having them back in the building. I'd say one thing, I saw a student today, I said, 'Are you're glad classes has started again?' And, she's Israeli, English is not her native language. She said, 'Wow. Yes.' I thought that sums it up, baby. That's perfect.

Charles Duhigg: And, I'm so sorry. It hadn't even occurred to me what it must be like for professors to have your campuses closed and to see your students being put as reservists or as enlisted.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Sixty percent of our students are in the army, until recently.

Charles Duhigg: That must just be so--I imagine it's challenging.

Russ Roberts: It's intense. It's intense.


Russ Roberts: I want to get one last question in--

Charles Duhigg: Sure--

Russ Roberts: which I was fascinated by as one of the questions. I'm skipping: When did you last sing to yourself? I don't know, yesterday. To someone else, yesterday, today. I sing a lot. You? Do you sing?

Charles Duhigg: In my head, not out loud because people have told me I shouldn't.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, that's not fair. It's an unfair question. I guess you'll learn something about the other person, maybe important.

But the one I--the next one is a later one I stumbled on it that was so fascinating. It ties into a recent episode with Brian Klaas. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?

Charles Duhigg: Oh, that's a good one. That's a really good one. And, I'm curious what it is for you, too.

I would say--so as I mentioned, I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I live in Santa Cruz now, but we moved here from Brooklyn, New York, and we were raising our kids in New York. And, the only thing I would change is if I could have grown up in New York, I think it would have been amazing. I was so bored in Albuquerque; and it was good that I was bored. But, like, there's so much for a smart kid and a curious kid to do in New York City, and I feel like I'm just so glad we gave that to our children for a little while. How about you?

Russ Roberts: I wouldn't change a thing and here's why. In the course--I bet you many times, in this program--I did for three years, consecutive years, I did a five-day silent meditation retreat. And, one of the things--I've never been in therapy, and so I'd never meditated before, either. And, one of the things that forced me to do was to confront some of the aspects of my personality that I was not aware of and where they came from and--the way you would, I think, in a serious therapeutic experience.

Since a 100,000-plus people are listening, I'm not going to tell you what the exact thing was, but I noticed--but, I might tell you, Charles, when we go for a drink in Cairo--one of the things I learned is that: Oh, that character trait I have, which I don't really love, my parents gave me that because of the way we interacted when I was in their home. And, a part of me says, 'I wish they hadn't done that.' But, the other part of me says, 'Good things came from that, not just bad things. And, if they hadn't done that, I wouldn't be me.' And, this is this idea that I learned from Brian Klaas about amor fati, of loving one's fate. And, I like my fate, so I wouldn't change it.

The things I don't like about it, that's a different, I guess, way to answer the question. Maybe a little more. What are the things about the way you were raised that you think were unpleasant? That might be a better question for me, but in a way, answering it. Nothing is sort of a cheap trick, but that's my thought.

Charles Duhigg: But, I think it's true and it's vulnerable. I think that anytime we say something true, we actually reveal more of ourselves, even if the answer doesn't seem like the answer. I was talking to someone the other day, who is a podcaster, and I asked them, what have you learned about communication since you became a podcaster? And, their answer was: 'Actually, nothing.' And, they were like, 'I'm sorry to not have a good answer for you because I don't.' But, actually, I learned so much about this person from them telling me that they were a good communicator before they did. Right? Like, I learned so much about their childhood. And, he actually said, he was, like, 'I've always been skilled at talking to girls.' And I was, like, 'Oh my God. If I could say that my whole life would be different.' But, I think that when we say something honest, even if it's not what the other person expects, even if it's sometimes not pretty, it is connection and it is real. And, that's kind of the goal, I think.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Charles Duhigg. His book is Supercommunicators. Charles, thanks for being part of EconTalk and thanks for connecting.

Charles Duhigg: Thanks for having me on.