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  • Published: 27 February 2024
  • ISBN: 9781847943835
  • Imprint: Random House Business
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 272
  • RRP: $36.99


The Power of Conversation and the Hidden Language of Connection


If there was one thing everyone knew about Felix Sigala, it was that he was easy to talk to. Exceptionally easy. People loved talking to him, because they always came away feeling a little smarter, funnier, more interesting. Even if you had nothing in common with Felix—which was unusual, because the conversation inevitably revealed all kinds of opinions or experiences or friends you shared—it felt as if he heard you, like you had some kind of bond.

That’s why the scientists had sought him out.

Felix had been with the Federal Bureau of Investigation for two decades. He had joined after college and a stint in the military, and then had spent a few years as an agent in the fi eld. That’s where his superiors had first taken note of his easy way with others. A series of promotions soon followed, and eventually he landed as a senior regional administrator with a mandate to serve as an all-around negotiator. He was the guy who could coax statements from reluctant witnesses, or convince fugitives to turn themselves in, or console families as they grieved. He once persuaded a man who had barricaded himself in a room with six cobras, nineteen rattlesnakes, and an iguana to come out peacefully and then name his accomplices in an animal-smuggling ring. “The key was getting him to see things from the snakes’ perspective,” Felix told me. “He was a little weird, but he genuinely loved animals.”

The FBI had a Crisis Negotiation Unit for hostage situations. When things got unusually complicated, they called someone like Felix.

There were lessons that Felix would share with younger agents when they asked for advice: Never pretend you’re anything other than a cop. Never manipulate or threaten. Ask lots of questions, and, when someone becomes emotional, cry or laugh or complain or celebrate with them. But what ultimately made him so good at his job was a bit of a mystery, even to his colleagues.

So, in 2014, when a group of psychologists, sociologists, and other researchers were tasked by the Department of Defense to explore new methods for teaching persuasion and negotiation to military officers—essentially, how do we train people to get better at communication?— the scientists sought out Felix. They had learned about him from various officials who, when asked to name the best negotiators they had ever worked with, brought up his name, again and again.

Many of the scientists expected Felix to be tall and handsome, with warm eyes and a rich baritone. The guy who walked in for the interview, however, looked like a middle-aged dad, with a mustache, a little padding around the middle, and a soft , slightly nasal voice. He seemed . . . unremarkable.

Felix told me that, aft er introductions and pleasantries, one of the scientists explained the nature of their project, and then began with a broad question: “Can you tell us how you think about communication?”

“It might be better if I demonstrate it,” Felix replied. “What’s one of your favorite memories?”

The scientist Felix was speaking to had introduced himself as the head of a large lab. He oversaw millions of dollars in grants and dozens of people. He didn’t seem like the kind of guy accustomed to idly reminiscing in the middle of the day.

The scientist paused. “Probably my daughter’s wedding,” he finally said. “My whole family was there, and my mother died just a few months later.”

Felix asked a few follow- up questions, and occasionally shared memories of his own. “My sister got married in 2010,” Felix told the man. “She’s passed away now—it was cancer, which was hard—but she was so beautiful that day. That’s how I try to remember her.”

It went on this way for the next forty- five minutes. Felix would ask the scientists questions, and occasionally talk about himself. When someone revealed something personal, Felix would reciprocate with a story from his own life. One scientist mentioned problems he was having with a teenage daughter, and Felix responded by describing an aunt he couldn’t seem to get along with, no matter how hard he tried. When another researcher asked about Felix’s childhood, he explained that he had been painfully shy—but his father had been a salesman (and his grandfather a con man), and so, by imitating their examples, he had eventually learned how to connect with others.

As they got close to the end of their scheduled time together, a professor of psychology chimed in. “I’m sorry,” she said, “this has been wonderful, but I don’t feel any closer to understanding what you do. Why do you think so many people recommended we talk to you?”

“That’s a fair question,” Felix replied. “Before I answer, I want to ask: You mentioned you’re a single mom, and I imagine there’s a lot to juggling motherhood and a career. This might seem unusual, but I’m wondering: What would you tell someone who’s getting a divorce?”

The woman went silent for a beat. “I guess I’ll play along,” she said. “I have lots of advice. When I separated from my husband—”

Felix gently interrupted.

“I don’t really need an answer,” he said. “But I want to point out that, in a room filled with professional colleagues, and after less than an hour of conversation, you’re willing to talk about one of the most intimate parts of your life.” He explained that one reason she felt so at ease was likely because of the environment they had created together, how Felix had listened closely, had asked questions that drew out people’s vulnerabilities, how they had all revealed meaningful details about themselves. Felix had encouraged the scientists to explain how they saw the world, and then had proven to them that he had heard what they were saying. Whenever someone said something emotional—even when they didn’t realize their emotions were on display—Felix had reciprocated by voicing feelings of his own. All those small choices they had made, he explained, had created an atmosphere of trust.

“It’s a set of skills,” he told the scientists. “There’s nothing magical about it.” Put differently, anyone can learn to be a supercommunicator.

Supercommunicators Charles Duhigg

The bestselling author of The Power of Habit shares the secrets of good conversations and successful communication

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