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Ask HN: Books for Effective Communication
160 points by 2bor-2n 12 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 54 comments
Being very good at writing and speaking are very valuable skills that come in handy in all situations in life.

What books have you read or want to recommend to enhance these skills?

Any specific book that changed how you articulate your ideas and thoughts?

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.

Stack Overflow co-founder Jeff Atwood recommends this book on his Coding Horror blog[0]. I don't have children, but his statement that a book on talking with children "improved [his] interactions with all human beings from age 2 to 99" intrigued me enough to get the book.

I feel that out of any book I've read, this is the one that's affected my actual behavior the most. The book features a lot of examples that help the reader to internalize the lessons. Also, the lessons are so broadly applicable that you can likely apply them immediately in your life.

It was honestly really amazing to read some pages of the book one night, find an opportunity to apply a lesson from it in a situation the next day, and then see immediate results when the conversation would go in positive direction that I maybe would have screwed up otherwise.

[0]: https://blog.codinghorror.com/how-to-talk-to-human-beings/

I think it's worth pointing out that practicing this is hard, at least tome me. Being humorous/funny is one of the points in the book (IIRC), but being funny is often tough when you're angry, frustrated or just tired.

So I agreed that piece-by-piece reading and re-reading help. These tips aren't easy to stick.

As a companion, some parenting books like Positive Discipline [1] might be worth a quick glance. These parenting books have certain similarities with "How to Talk" and some other books in this thread, like "Crucial Conversation". It's eye-opening.

(And I realized that this reply matches a typical anti-pattern called "too much speak". It's hard to put it in practice!)

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Positive-Discipline-Self-Discipline-R...

I've read it twice and don't remember anything about humour (which doesn't mean that it isn't mentioned, but definitely not a key part!)

Nonviolent Communication by Rosenberg

Quick Summary:

"1. Observe what's happening - what's really going on? What is happening or being said that you either like or dislike?

2. Identify your feelings about it - anger, joy, hopeful, inspired, lonely?

3. Figure out what need you have that is driving that feeling

4. Ask for what you need (explicitly)"


To add to the above:

1. Observations should be specific, not generic ("you are lazy" vs "you have not accomplished any of the tasks you've been assigned"). They should also be objective - third party witnesses should have consensus. We can agree that you've not accomplished your tasks for the week. We will likely disagree on whether that means you're lazy.

2. Feelings are internal and should not involve someone else. "I feel cheated" is really just saying "I believe I've been cheated" - it's accurately portraying your inner narrative (which may be OK), but it is not portraying your feelings. Instead, you may feel sad, depressed, upset, nervous, whatever. Another way to think of it: Feelings are always legitimate - they are never wrong. The narrative in your head, though, may well be wrong. If someone can reasonably dispute it (assuming he/she is not a jerk), then it probably was a narrative and not a feeling.

3. Needs: This, in my experience, is easy for tech people to state. If you think someone cheated you out of money, you probably need things like integrity, honesty, security, etc. If your report at work seems unreliable to you, you probably need consistency, peace of mind, etc.

4. This is making a request. A request is not a demand or a command (so yes, NVC is not appropriate/relevant in contexts where orders make sense). If the person declines your request and you're upset a fair amount by it, you probably were not sincere in making the requests. And finally, your request should also be precise. Not "Could you rephrase that in a respectful manner", but "Could you rephrase that and address me as Mister instead of Dude?"

A few other tidbits from the book (also in Crucial Conversations): You are not responsible for other's feelings. Relieve yourself of that burden/guilt. However, if you want to take things to the next step and have better relations with people around you, do care about their feelings and use techniques to have them feel better - but out of empathy and not out of responsibility or guilt.

In general, the book is about realizing that you have a choice in most things - even things like whether you want to earn money to feed your kids. Likewise, it's about eliminating the language of obligation from your internal dialogues. This may be offputting to people who have a strong sense of obligation.

The above is likely about 90% of the book. The rest of the book are specific, concrete strategies related to the above.

I teach NVC and find your summary delightful in its clarity and brevity. If you don’t mind I’d like to use parts of it when communicating the basic principles.

One additional component I focus on when I help people orient with nonviolent communication is the felt sense of their emotions (calibrating their awareness of anger, sadness, loneliness, numbness, joy, content etc.)

I’ve found that very useful in preventing getting lost in the intellectual/linguistic structure which may end up being misused if the speaker does not own their feelings.

The other aspect is the commitment to connection as #1 priority, over getting what you want.

And then, when you actually want to get what your want instead of showing compassion, or being connected, having the ability to remember and follow up on the commitment.

The addiction to power, including through victim hood, is a real one, and a commitment helps in giving it up. One day at a time ;)

"When CEO Satya Nadella took over Microsoft, he started defusing its toxic culture by handing each of his execs a 15-year-old book by a psychologist"



- Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella bought all the members of his senior leadership team a copy of the book "Nonviolent Communication" in 2014 when he took over the company.

- At the time, Microsoft was known for having a culture of hostility, infighting, and backstabbing.

- "Nonviolent Communication" preaches compassion and empathy in communication, and it has lessons that apply beyond the boardroom.


It's interesting that that's effectively a communication-oriented version of the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act loop.

I'd recommend to buy the book of one can, but here is a preview for anyone who is interested https://nvc.neocities.org/nonviolent-communication-a-languag...


I recommend watching his seminar recording on YouTube before going through the book.

"Difficult Conversations" was a great read —


The basic idea is that in any difficult conversation, there's actually three sub-conversations happening —

(1) What happened?

(2) How do we feel about it?

(3) What are we going to do about it?

A lot of times people get into cross-talk or can't get on the same page because they mix up what sub-conversation they're happening. This can happen when one person gets right into proposing solutions (#3) while another person is still trying to work out why things went the way they did (#1). Likewise, sometimes a conversation around "we really screwed this up" is meant to be a neutral "what happened" conversation (#1) but is taken as a negative or put-down (#2).

Useful book. Very readable and informative.

How to win friends and influence people by Dale Carnegie. Effective communication is about listening more than speaking. It all boils down to people wanting to feel important. In order to influence people, you have to open yourself up to being influenced by them first.

This recommendation always comes up in this sort of discussion, and I wholeheartedly agree with it. This book greatly affected the way I interact with people. It also lends itself well to just reading a random chapter here or there depending on what catches your interest.

It’s a good book, and I came here to recommend it too. But it didn’t help me for a long time.

The key is to actually care about those around you, more than your own goals. I think this wasn’t emphasized enough.

It’s also how you win your goals, most of the time.

I actually read it with a more cynical mindset.

The examples he gives like the one in the 1st chapter about the gangster who was in a shootout with the police—he’d killed and robbed people—but he didn’t blame himself for the situation he was in. He actually felt very sorry for himself.

Then Carnegie says “people don’t blame themselves for anything”, which in general is very, very true. It’s not a feature of human nature that makes it easier to care about others so much as it’s confirmation of my own suspicions about human behavior.

There are many such confirmations in that book that made me realize I didn’t have it wrong this whole time. It made me look at human nature more objectively, take it less personally, and navigate it more effectively.

I read this book after having read other communications books. While it does have its merits, other books really are better. And there's enough in here to put off others. As an example, it says that you should never give negative feedback to people even when they are requesting it. And no, it's not "I'm uncomfortable giving you negative feedback", but instead the advice is to directly lie to them and tell them there is nothing negative to convey.

It says to never criticise someone, especially in public.

You've extrapolated a bit weaving in this modern MBA idea where we should all seek feedback.

Carnegie just deals with very basic human emotion and I'd wager to say he is still right. People asking for negative feedback are participating in these MBA rituals, but don't actually want to hear criticism about themselves.

> People asking for negative feedback are participating in these MBA rituals, but don't actually want to hear criticism about themselves.

While true for many, this statement is factually untrue for many others (including myself). There are a number of people whose opinion I can never trust because they follow Dale's advice.

> You've extrapolated a bit weaving in this modern MBA idea where we should all seek feedback.

I've done no such thing. If you do not wish to seek feedback, I am quite at peace with that. :-)

To be clear, the book explicitly called out the case where someone is seeking negative feedback. I did not extrapolate from a generic "Do not criticize someone".

No, the books says never criticize, condemn, nor complain. People don’t seek negative feedback so that’s not the issue.

And, how can you trust people who give you “constructive criticism” any more than people who don’t? I would argue people who criticize others usually have selfish motives for doing so eg. making themselves feel better about their own shortcomings or making other people feel and look bad.

> No, the books says never criticize, condemn, nor complain.

I'm not sure what you're disagreeing with. I agree with that statement. I am merely highlighting that "the book explicitly called out the case where someone is seeking negative feedback"

> People don’t seek negative feedback so that’s not the issue.

We live in different worlds. It's certainly not common, but it does happen. Seeking out negative feedback is standard advice that is given to people who seek self improvement. On multiple occasions someone has become upset with me because I didn't correct them. Not the norm, but plenty of people out there do want negative feedback sometimes.

> And, how can you trust people who give you “constructive criticism” any more than people who don’t?

This seems a bit of a non-sequitur. You do it based on the person's track record. In some ways, though, it is apt for this conversation. Just flip it around: how can you trust people who give you praise any more than people who don’t? The people I often don't trust are those who tend to find something to praise despite their disliking (praising a story he was greatly bored by, etc). People who always praise are not people you can rely on. They may make good yes-men, though. There's a reason good leaders look for subordinates who disagree with them.

> I would argue people who criticize others usually have selfish motives for doing so eg. making themselves feel better about their own shortcomings or making other people feel and look bad.

Or, you know, it could be simply that they were asked how they could improve.

I don't think these can be learned through books.

What you need is practice. Years of practice in performing arts has made me good in public speaking, and my stage-fear in non-existent.

And, since my childhood, I was always encouraged by teachers to write my own amswers to literary subjects as opposed to reading answers written in companion books and teachers' notes. Years of practice made me better. You would think that the skill of literary answer writing in middle school does not translate well into writing technical blogs, or project/grant proposal. You would be wrong. Many skills are general to writing.

What I suggest is that you begin reading non-fiction books in the areas that interest you. Start blogging. It could be about anything. Then improve your writing quality through iteration. Iteration is the only way to improve your writing. Generally read more. Read _anything_.

Same goes for speaking. Join a book club. Or any Clubhouse room with a topic of your interest where things are well organized. Prepare speeches. Talk. Seek brutal feedback.

Take any opportunity to speak and write.

I must warn you that these things take time. You will not be magically better after one month. You can see progress after, say, six-seven months. And if you are in the correct path, you will feel world-encompassing cringe in your writing and speeches from six months back. This is the way.

Think of a timeframe of five/six years. Be focused. Your speaking and writing will be completely transformed.

Pro tip: many people speak and write to woo an audience, project themselves as something they are not, impress peers, etc. Their effect is limited to only a small (and often insignificant) portion of people out there. The only important goal of writing and speaking is communicating your thoughts, feelings, knowledge, intuition, and so on. Everything else comes later.

And if you are on the correct path, you will feel world-encompassing cringe about your writing and speeches from six months back.

This is the way.

  - The Charisma Myth. It focuses more on meta skills like projecting presence, but is useful to start seeing non-verbal communication as effective as well
  - The Presentation Skills of Steve Jobs. The books is really about presentation skills and then the author layered Steve Jobs on top, but it's a very useful book. 
  - A quick overview of Amazon's approach to written communication. One thing I will say about Bezos, he understands the overhead of communication in a corporation and focused on streamlining it, there are a bunch of articles but this one is useful: https://networkcapital.substack.com/p/the-amazon-way-of-writing
  - I've spent a lot of time reading the sale literature out there and its rough to recommend a book given the way the question is formed but understanding a sales mindset is extremely useful to becoming a better communicator. Zig Zigler "Secrets to closing the sale", Jeffery Gitomer's work, and SPIN selling all come to mind as valuable reads.

“Crucial Conversations” Best book I’ve read during the pandemic and probably most useful in my current stint as an engineering manager. Also extremely applicable to personal relationships (marriage, kids, etc)

Of all the books listed so far, this is my favorite. Definitely the one which caused the biggest long-term positive change on me.

Nonviolent Communication is good for building up empathy, I recommend it as a complement. Crucial Conversations is a bit more practical and useful.

I was going to suggest Crucial Conversations and Nonviolent Communication, glad to see you mentioned them both in the same comment.


If you prefer more pop-culture taste, "Never Split the Difference" is kind of similar (even though philosophically different.) The story is all about FBI and kidnapping, so it's less boring while the points made are a bit shallower than "Crucial Conversations".

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Never-Split-Difference-Negotiating-De...

I took a really good course at Stanford Business School about public speaking.

One of the course textbooks was Resonate by Nancy Duarte, which offered a really interesting twist. The book talks about the classic "Hero's Journey" story template, but then flips it on its head: it suggests you consider your audience to be the people going on the journey, and it's your job to guide them through the different stages: the initial call to adventure, the trials along the way and the eventual return where they have been changed in some way (by their understanding of the topic you are talking about).

I thought that was really neat.

I used Campbell's "Hero's Journey" as a template for a work presentation to explain my team's research and product development work after a company wide re-organization. It worked surprisingly well to engage people. I ended up using Dan Harmon's circle w/ 8 stages, and threw in a couple gifs jokes as well.

The only downside is it took me about twice as long to develop the presentation: mostly getting all the important stuff in and covering the whole story circle in a balanced way. For situations where people already have context (internal team), it's probably better to just save people the time and not use the method, but when you need to make an impact, use the Hero's Journey!

Patrick Winston (1943-2019) was a computer scientist at MIT. Every year he gave a popular talk titled How to Speak. Here is a recording of the talk from 2018:

How To Speak by Patrick Winston:


A book of his insights was published in 2020: Make It Clear: Speak and Write to Persuade and Inform. I'm half-way through the book and it is good so far. Although the book pitches itself as suitable for anyone who writes or speaks, many of the examples in the book have an emphasis on speaking in an academic or teaching setting. However, there are good insights that anyone can learn from.

I recommend watching the talk above first to help you decide whether the book will appeal to you (the material in the lecture is in the book as are additional insights). There are lots of reviews of the book on the Amazon US site too.

He actually wrote a recent book: Make It Clear


On Writing Well: https://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-Classic-Guide-Nonfiction...

Also, practice. Keep writing. Write postmortems, discovery docs, blog posts, threaded tweets. Practice in multiple mediums and find your style.

People have already listed them, but:

- Crucial Conversations

- Difficult Conversations

- Nonviolent Communications (aka NVC)

The first two books are great at explaining the dynamics at play, but poor on actionable advice. The third book is great at actionable advice, but poor on explaining why the advice is good. So I'd recommend reading at least one of the first two books as well as the NVC one.

There is also, essentially, an NVC cult out there (reminiscent of agile cults or TDD cults) - in the form of NVC chapters in each city.. Ignore them - just focus on the book. In my experience, local NVC chapters always seem to add more to the material in the book, and often follow a world view not particularly espoused by the book - one which often repels people.

I think your question and these recommendations are an attempt to treat the symptom not the cause. If you have trouble communicating with other people I think part of it is that you are out of touch with yourself. In an attempt to shield yourself from the judgment of others you limit the way you communicate with other people. Consider therapy, meditation, medication, exercise or some other ways of opening your mind and unraveling any self-criticism that may exist within you. I admit, I'm reading a lot from this question, probably because I asked the same one myself many years ago and only in the last few have finally found real answers.

"The Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing and Thinking" by Barbara Minto.

This approach is taught at consultancy firms to help structure clear written business communication, especially if your audience includes time-poor senior executives.

Verbal Judo by George J. Thompson and Jerry B. Jenkins.

Excellent at teaching how to understand a situation and diffuse conflict. How to employ empathy (not necessarily sympathy). Even how to talk to customer service and remain calm.

A useful and entertaining book!

It would be helpful if you could give some concrete examples of the sorts of situations where you want to improve your writing or speaking skills. Are you wanting to communicate more effectively at work, in your personal life, or somewhere else? I might recommend a different book depending on the answer.

A couple of books that have helped me:

- The Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane. This book changed my life than any other. The premise is that charisma is a skill that can be learned, and isn't something that some people are born with, and that you can become more charismatic by working on your internal mental state and learn to emit signals of power, warmth and presence. I didn't used to be a people person until I read this book.

- Mastering Communication At Work by Ethan Becker and Jon Wortmann. This book is specifically aimed at leaders in a business context. It contains lots of great advice on subjects such as understanding different communication styles (and tailoring your approach accordingly), managing your "ethos" i.e. the way that you come across to people, running effective meetings and many more.

The Writing Centre was recently mentioned in HN https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/ Provides writing tips and tools .

The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker. Invaluable insights about what makes good writing good.

Agile Conversations by Squirrel & Frederick: https://www.conversationaltransformation.com/agile-conversat...

I am working with one of the authors, and am totally blown by the depth of thinking these two have put into all aspects of company communication and culture.

This covers the key takeaways from more than 30 books on communication, including many of those mentioned in this thread: https://www.sivv.io/guides/Effective-Communication

My bachelor study in IT / Sofware Engineering had a required communications class every semester. It was pretty useless it was all about conventions, What does a letter look like. How many words should be in a power point. Just the boring stuff. But one insight that I still remember and use nowadays is that if you find it hard to talk to people, then you should just use more conventions: Say hello more often to get yourself in a talking mood, having nothing to talk about anymore? just look around, observe something and say, hey i see ...

I do not have any book recommendations but I hope these tricks that work for my (tiny bit autistic) brain may help you.

Strunk & White's The Elements of Style

My brother went to law school, and joined the Marines. I learned something about effect spoken presentation from listening to his imitations of instructors in the Marines. He also said that one of his professors in law school recommended listening to TV preachers.

As for writing, you have to read a lot, you have to write a lot. In writing, you need to let your first draft sit a day or two, then edit. You also need to go back in a week or a month, or longer, and read what you wrote. It will be informative and sometimes embarrassing.

This Technical Communications textbook is one of the best set of instructions and recommendations on how to clearly communicate in written and verbal modes: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1319245005/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_glt_...

I always recommend it to researchers and anyone who has to write documents (most folks in tech).

"You can negotiate anything" by Herb Cohen.

I learned that every conversation is a negotiation. Seeking to understand the position the other party is starting from, and seeing where everyone wants to go, reframed how I view interactions.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_Can_Negotiate_Anything

You can read all you want about communication, but if you don't know how to execute it, it will be like learning how to fish on the Internet. You will know what to do, but until you actually try with real water, you won't get any real practice. The best way to learn communication is to 1) try it yourself or 2) watch (and learn) from others who are there.

Messages: The Communication Skills Book Di Matthew McKay, Martha Davis, Patrick Fanning

Basics, without any controversial ideas. This book helped me a lot.

Language in Thought and Action by S. I. Hayakawa

I highly recommend HBRs “On Communication”. I always flip through it when I have to present something.

David Burns - Feeling Good Together

Strunk & White.

Also "TRANCE-formations" (sic).

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