The Secret To Powerful Communication
You’re in a room, sitting in a chair.
In front of you, on the table, there’s a phone—the kind that plugs into the wall.
It’s ringing. No one else is there.
And the phone doesn’t stop ringing.
So you pick it up and you say hello.
After a long pause, you get a response.
It’s a guy. He talks slow and sounds like he’s in pain.
“I’m gonna do it.”
There’s a really long pause.
Then one word:
Now... you want to know what’s going on. So you ask,
“Where are you?”
“On a bridge.”
You think to yourself,
“This is not good.”
And then you think,
“Well, maybe it’s not a big bridge. That would be good.”
So you ask,
“How big is the bridge?”
Another long pause.
“A cruise ship went underneath it a few minutes ago.”
“A cruise ship?!?!”
“Yeah... I’d already be over the side, but I didn’t want to land on it.”
So this is you talking to this guy. What do you say next? Maybe one of the following lines?
“Hold on—don’t do it!” or
“Wait—think of all you have to live for!” or
“I understand how you feel. Things will get better. I promise.”
If you say any of those, chances are he hangs up—and you never find out whether he did it or not.
I’ve done over a thousand calls like this.
For five years. I volunteered for a suicide hotline.
Twice a month, I went to sit in a room for five hours and answer the phone when it rang.
When you sign up to be a suicide hotline counselor, before you start, you go through two full weekends of training.
They teach you how to talk, what’s good to say and what’s not so good to say.
During the training, I’d go home and I’d try what I learned on everyone I talked to.
I suddenly got a thousand times better at communicating.
It turns out that the same principles apply whether you’re trying to talk a guy out of jumping off a bridge or trying to make your spouse feel better after you said something stupid and insensitive.
The first step is always the same: connect.
You need to establish the strongest possible connection at the current moment in time.
(It doesn’t matter how connected you were yesterday.)
With the guy on the bridge, that begins with asking his name and telling him your name.
With your wife, you could skip the introductions, but—until she feels like you’ve really connected with her and with how she feels at this instant—you’re a stranger to her.
So how do you connect?
Well, 30 years ago, in Parma, Italy, a neuroscientist named Giacomo Rizzolatti made a discovery that totally changed how we think about this.
One day in the middle of a hot summer, he had a monkey sitting in a special chair in his lab.
A grad student was working on mapping out areas of the monkey’s brain.
They had some really thin wires connected to one specific cluster of nerve cells.
(The monkey was not harmed; this is basically what Elon Musk wants to do to all of our brains with his Neuralink startup.)
The wires ran from the pre-motor-cortex, an area that controls body movement, to a machine.
Whenever the monkey grabbed something with his hand and lifted it up, that area of his brain lit up, causing the machine to go BEEEEP.
On this particular day, the grad student left the lab for lunch and stopped on the way back to get an ice cream cone.
He opened the door to the lab and lifted the ice cream
cone up to his lips.
At that instant, the machine went BEEEEP.
He dropped his ice cream cone on the floor.
What had just happened was one of the most important advances in neuroscience ever.
And it was a total accident.
They had just discovered mirror neurons.
The same cells in the monkey’s brain that would light up when the monkey lifted an ice cream cone up to his own mouth, lit up when he saw the grad student do it, even though the monkey was sitting perfectly still.
I know you’re thinking,
“What does a monkey in Italy have to do with persuading a guy not to jump off a bridge—or getting your wife not to be upset with you?”
The answer to your question is... everything.
Anytime you’re talking to another human being, the single most critical thing for you to do is to get them to feel a genuine connection with you.
And this has very little to do with the words you say.
A professor of psychology at UCLA named Albert Mehrabian has dedicated most of his career to studying verbal vs nonverbal communication.
Based on his research—which focused on communicating feelings (not information)—Professor Mehrabian broke it down like this:
Words only account for 7 percent of what gets through to the other person.
38 percent is how you use your voice (mainly tone, pitch and rhythm).
And 55 percent is body language—your gestures, posture, pose and expressions. (If it’s a phone call, body language is out the window, so it’s all about your voice.)
Now, the question is this:
How do you use non-verbal cues in a way that makes the other person feel connected with you in the moment?
Well, connection is about empathy.
It’s about the other person’s sensing that you feel what they’re feeling.
And that is done with mirror neurons in your head.
If you and I were face to face right now, your mirror neurons would be watching me and doing what I do.
If I were to suddenly slap my own face, then, somewhere inside, you would feel your own hand slap your own face.
Tuning into your mirror neurons is a skill. It takes a lot of reps to get good at it.
The key is to take what you’re sensing through your mirror neurons and reflect it back to the other person.
Over time, you can learn to do this innately without consciously thinking about it.
Once you’re at that level, you’ll be able to read minds.
I can’t tell you how many times in my life I’ve been told this exact sentence:
“It’s like you’re reading my mind.”
To start out, you can just follow two super-simple rules. (These are what they teach you at the suicide hotline.)
(1) Match the other person’s voice quality and body language as much as you can without seeming like you’re mimicking them.
(2) Say back to them what you’re hearing, using some of their own words.
So if your wife says, “I’m angry at you,” you say, “you’re angry at me.”
And, if her voice is loud and tense, then your voice better not be quiet and calm!
If the guy on the bridge says, “I can’t take it anymore,” you say, “you can’t take it anymore”—matching his emotion and tone of voice.
You probably think this is too simplistic.
And you feel like doing this will be awkward.
Like the other person is gonna get angry and say,
“Why the hell are you repeating everything I’m saying?”
And, if you overdo it, they will say that.
But you’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly.
Now, here’s where the magic comes in.
What you say and do hits their mirror neurons, and that closes the loop.
In their brain, what the mirror neurons sense coming from you exactly matches what they’re feeling themselves, and then they feel seen by you.
They feel connected with you in the moment.
On the deepest level, once that connection is there, the rest is easy.
At that point, and only at that point, they’re fully open to what you have to say.
So with the guy on the bridge, I could say—and this was my favorite thing they taught in training—
“You know, you can always sleep on it and kill yourself tomorrow, if you still want to.”
Once I’d made the connection, that line worked 99% of the time.
And with your wife, once you’re fully connected, you could just say,
“I’m so sorry.”
As long as those words come straight from your heart, she’ll melt into your arms.
There is no question: this is the single most important skill to develop, if you want every conversation you have—at home, at work and everywhere else—to be amazing.
Mastering this skill will enable you to live in harmony with everyone in your life.
What could be greater than that?
This article is an excerpt of the forthcoming book, Your Best Life: Tactics, Tools and Insights to Create a Life of Fulfillment, Joy and Abundance, by Mike X — to be released on March 14, 2023.
Originally published on Change Your Mind, Change Your Life.