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I recently started reading Messages: The Communication Skills Book. So far, this book seems extremely helpful for just about anyone who has to interact with their environment. Even more so for aspiring effective altruists trying to track truth collectively.

Every second page, I thought: “I wish I would have learned this when I was 10.” or “Alice would have a much easier time communicating if she read this section.” or “Bob would be much less frustrated if he understood this concept.”

Hoping to make the value of reading it even more salient to you, I decided to summarize some of its content. The book is well-written and rich in content and I don’t expect to do it justice. You should really just flip through it yourself.

It includes many effective and quick exercises that help to translate its lessons into your life. I will not transcribe the exercises nor all examples. Really, just go and read the book.But okay, here are Part I & II out of VI; the actual try to convince you to read it:

Part I: Basic Skills

1: Listening

You think you listen properly. You probably don’t. Actually, you probably suck at listening to the *meaning* of your counterpart's words. Here are a bunch of exercises to assess how much you suck at listening.

[N.B: Exercises omitted, tone overly exaggerated, essence preserved.]Remedy: notice that you’re not *really* always listening. Awareness is the first step.

Keys to becoming a better listener:

  1. Whenever a point seems relevant to your discussion, paraphrase it to make sure you understood and to show what/how/why you understood.
  2. Ask clarifying questions to understand the context and demonstrate your interest.
  3. Give feedback by supportively sharing your feelings, thoughts, or hunches.

Principles for good listening:

  • Empathy (everyone’s (probably) just human)
  • Openness (can you pass their ideological Turing test?)
  • Awareness (do check for congruence and a story’s fit with facts)

2: Self-disclosure

You will always disclose parts of yourself. Might as well do it properly to get the most out of it. We’re talking about sexy benefits like:

  • Self-knowledge
  • Intimacy
  • Communication depth
  • Less guilt (fun trivia: that’s why religious confession is such an empowering thing)
  • Energy (from not constantly hiding yourself)

Awesome! But if it is so great, why don’t we just do it?

  • Societal standards of not talking about personal topics outside of a close circle
  • Fear of
    • Unpleasant truths (about ourselves);
    • Explicitness (the possibility to be held to our word); and of
    • Skewed representations of ourselves (too negative/complaining or positive/bragging).

Opening up is hard and it only gets harder. With increased age, self-disclosure usually decreases. Finding the right balance is hard, too. It is hard to always be appropriate. There’s a later “Assessment” section in the book to help analyze situations. But generally, practice makes perfect.

[N.B.: You can break standards and dynamics if you have slack. I am learning to err on the side of disclosing too early rather than too late. More disclosure always, at least, leads to more self-knowledge. Less self-disclosure yields fewer opportunities for disclosure in the future. Self-disclosure also seems like a great way to build slack as people will learn to trust you better (assuming you demonstrate learning).]

Practice self-disclosure:

  1. Talk about something on an object-level without your feelings and opinions.
  2. Share thoughts, opinions, feelings on topics of the past.
  3. Comfy with 1 & 2? Practice in-the-moment communication, one type at a time:
    1. Give feedback on how an interaction is making you feel;
    2. Share your current needs;
    3. Say that you’re slanting a story to make yourself look better;
    4. Communicate whom you feel attracted to in that instant; or
    5. Share what you want to achieve with this conversation.

3: Expressing

There are four categories of expression. All need different vocabulary and style.

  1. Observations: simple facts (from a subjective perspective)
  2. Thoughts: conclusions, judgments, inferences
  3. Feelings: emotions
  4. Needs: Statements about preferences and utilities

Whole messages include all four categories. Partial messages work in some settings but omissions are always risky.

Mislabeled communication produces contaminated messages. They often develop through faulty intonation. Make sure to explicitly label the different categories and state them separately.

Prepare messages

  1. Self-awareness: through introspection, analysis
  2. Awareness of the other person: attentively analyze your audience
  3. Place awareness (being overheard raises the risk of contaminated messages)

Rules for effective expression

  • Directness
    • Don’t assume people know what you think/want
    • Hints will get misinterpreted
  • Immediateness
    • Negative things become irritants with time
      • Passive-aggressively slip into communication
    • Eventually, a minor transgression triggers a major dumping
      • Explosions alienate people further
  • Clarity
    • Completeness (whole messages)
    • Don’t ask a question when you have a statement to make (ambiguous)
    • Congruence of content, tone, and body language
    • Avoid double-messages that can cause psychological damage (“come close, go away”)
    • Be clear about wants and feelings
    • State underlying processes, not their results
    • Distinguish observation and thought to avoid contamination
    • One thing at a time – focus and note confusions
      • What are we really talking about?
      • What do you hear being said?
  • Straightness
    • The content of a conversation has to be its purpose
      • No hidden agendas or disguised intentions that destroy intimacy and are not relating but manipulating
    • Avoid vanities that could feed hidden agendas
      • Don’t protect yourself, it causes disconnection and distance
    • Be truthful
      • Don’t over- or understate (don’t “just be nice”)
  • Supportiveness
    • You want to communicate, not aggrandize yourself or hurt somebody
    • Don’t make others listening experience upsetting/defensive
    • Don’t use:
      • Global labels like “you’re dumb”;
      • Sarcasm;
      • Digging up the past;
      • Negative comparisons (“why aren’t you like …”);
      • Judgmental you-messages (“you never ..”, “you don’t …”),
      • Threats (“I will quit”).
    • Avoid games (“who’s right/wrong?”, “who’s the winner/loser”)

The goal should be closeness through mutual understanding, not a specific outcome x. Stick to whole messages and state your “now” sentiments. Continuously employing such effective expression brings advantages:

  1. Learning and adjustment through direct feedback
  2. Intimacy, intensity, and excitement through trust

Part II: Advanced Skills

4: Body Language


  • You cannot not communicate. 55% of your message is your body language (mostly facial expressions).
  • On top of your movements, spatial relationships (how far you stand away etc.) matter a lot.
  • The key to clear messaging is congruence. Become aware enough of yourself to notice incongruences between your words, movements and internal states and correct them.

Body movements (kinesics)

Body language is learned and differs from culture to culture. Tune into someone else’s body language to help communication (understand what they imply). Body language illustrates and regulates communication

  1. Facial expressions highlight emotions and attitudes

  2. Gestures can be made with arms & hands, but also legs and feet (for examples, read the book)
    1. Play around: try not to gesture at all or gesture while listening

  3. Posture and breathing
    1. Relaxed breathing = open, straight posture = confident
    2. Deep breathing can help to connect with your emotions and to take action
    3. Imitation of the someone else’s breathing and posture can help to relate to them
    4. Fast deep breathing can also help you wake up

General advice: experiment, exercise and be aware!

Spatial Relationships (proxemics)

The book suggests a model of roughly 4 zones around bodies with variations of distances:

  1. Intimate zone (when invaded, feel embarrassed or threatened)
  2. Personal (still possible to touch, for private discussion)
  3. Social (close & far sub-phases; interpersonal/dominant & loose/uncoercive yet open)
  4. Public (close sub-phase for e.g. teacher-class settings & far for e.g. celebrities)

The distances vary from individual to individual and culture. Double standards/differences in interpretation between male & female are common.

In this context, it is also noted that people have their “territory” - usually their flat/room: a marked space for which they tend to have a reflex to defend.

5: Paralanguage and Metamessages

  • Paralanguage: vocal component; pitch, resonance, articulation, tempo, volume and rhythm
    • Reveals a lot about who you are and how you feel

  • Metamessages: an extra level of meaning created through the choice of words, phrasings and rhythm
    • E.g. “We like you” vs. “We like you, of course.” (emphasis on ‘we’ antagonistically positions others and ‘of course’ implies a form of doubt)


Depending on your personal and your cultures baseline, there might be large discrepancies in interpretation of paralanguage.

  1. Pitch: moves with feelings (more extreme → more intense feelings)

  2. Resonance: deep = confident; thin = weak

  3. Articulation: enunciation; precise pronunciation
    1. slur/drawl might imply comfort but clear speech is effective

  4. Tempo
    1. slow = thoughtful or indifferent
    2. fast = persuasive or unsettling

  5. Volume
    Generally also used for/interpreted as status signaling in settings where signaling is expected (e.g. professional life)
    1. loud = enthusiasm & confidence or overconfidence/aggressiveness
    2. soft = care/trust or inferiority/unimportance

  6. Rhythm: emphases change meaning: “Am I happy!” vs. “Am I happy?”

Changing paralanguage

Record yourself and listen to it. Get used to hearing yourself, get over it, then analyze.

  • Does your voice reflect what you want to say?
  • Is it congruent with your words?
  • Is there something you dislike?

Experiment and practice with a recorder until you got it down. Exercises:

  • Body-vocal stretch: learn to play with your voice
  • Volume modulation: understand your reach
  • Articulation & tempo: recite loud, slow and exaggerate


  1. Basic level: information through series of words
  2. Next: info on attitude, feelings through para- & body language
    1. Often the source of interpersonal conflicts because it causes irritation
    2. Subtle & ambiguous (hard to defend against)

Be aware of your own metamessaging and learn to recognize your feelings & handle others’ feelings and metamessages.

  1. Rhythm & pitch: look at how sentences change depending on how you pitch them.
    1. E.g. “I’m not going home with you.” vs. “I’m not going home with you.” vs. “I’m not going home with you.” vs. “I’m not going home with you.”

  2. Verbal modifiers
    1. Covert barbs/rejections/accusations/dismissal/confirmation in otherwise simple statements of fact
    2. “Certainly”, “only”, “now”, “sure”, “again”, “supposedly”, “of course”, “I guess”, or quantifiers like “a lot”/”a little”

Coping with metamessages

Goal: Cut the bullshit. Stop guessing intent and learn to talk straight. Get conversations to a relevant, open and honest level.

Afraid to say something? Say it directly to have a smaller chance of covert retaliation.

Feel attacked? Something’s ambiguous? Confused?

  1. Repeat message in your head and analyze.
  2. Say out loud what you think the message is.
  3. Ask if that’s what they think/feel.

6: Hidden Agendas

Why: to protect your fragile ego.

How: by orchestrating an image around a single theme.

What: kill intimacy.

If you have an agenda, it’s impossible to be yourself because you constantly need to prove a point. Here are 8 of them:

  • “I’m good” - look at my undeniably fine character
    • You don’t trust anyone with the parts of yourself that are anything less than wonderful
    • People get bored with good stories
    • You can’t get close because no one knows your issues

  • “I’m Good (But You’re Not)” - everyone else is stupid
    • Goal is to prove that you’re all right
    • Your statements about your actions are often implied criticisms of others not doing similar
    • Can boost self-esteem but the price is that others feel put down

  • “You’re Good (But I’m Not)” - my incompetent/sad self needs love/protection
    • Goal is to extract favors or strokes, buy inferior relationships, ward off anger/rejection, or block demands/expectations
    • You flatter or even worship others in direct comparison to yourself, actively putting yourself down

  • “I’m Helpless, I Suffer” - why does this always happen to me?
    • Goal is to reinforce your hopeless situation, to not have to change
    • Bonding happens via hurts to find people who will reinforce your view

  • “I’m Blameless” - look at what you made me do
    • Goal is to not be held accountable for difficulties

  • “I’m Fragile” - I have been betrayed and wounded in the past
    • Goal is to avoid hearing the harsh truth

  • “I’m Tough” - I work harder, faster and longer than anyone else
    • Goal is to ward off hurt and protect a fragile self-esteem
      • Fear of rejection and unsure of worth
    • Pay off is admiration and assurance that you won’t be criticized
    • People won’t ask you for much because you’re so busy
    • You’re in control and above reproach

  • “I Know It All” - I can prove my adequacy
    • Goal is to prevent (re)encountering experiences of shame at not knowing
    • Peers learn soon that they can’t be heard or appreciated as anything but audience

Agendas serve two functions:

  1. Build & preserve your existential position.
  2. Promote ulterior motives & needs

Agendas are adaptive and serve a purpose but ultimately inhibit self-disclosure. The exercises and much more detailed descriptions in the book help to identify agendas.

7: Transactional Analysis

This chapter is a summary of Eric Berne’s work. He suggests that people act from three different ego states:

  • The parent
    • Mental collection of rules and instructions for the child that had no way of predicting danger and no knowledge of the ways of the world
    • Supposed to be good and helpful and provide structure for your life, but depends on your actual parents’ ways (punitive vs. supportive)
    • Identifiable through commands and value judgments (words like “never”, “always”, “stop”, “perfect”, “ridiculous” etc.)

  • The child
    • Your urges to know, feel, touch, experience the world
    • As a product of confrontations with parental mandates, it concludes early on “I’m not okay” (expresses in various ways, depending on actual parents, can be healthy)
    • Where emotions reside, a lot of exuberance

  • The adult
    • The part juggling the child and the parent states, processing parental advice and infantile needs to make decisions
    • Can be overwhelmed/contaminated by the other states
    • The healthy adult knows parent & child well but functions independently, while communicating explicitly without blocking out, or giving up control to, either of them

The focus of Transactional Analysis is to strengthen the adult. For that, you need to analyze your communications (many extremely useful exercises for this are found in the book).

  1. Learn to recognize your parent & child states by developing an ear for the language they use.
    1. The punitive parent commands, accuses and attacks with critical and evaluative language.
    2. The not-okay child complains, pouts and functions as a victim.
    3. The adult makes clear statements without blaming and without whining.

  2. Understand the different possible kinds of transactions between the roles.
    1. Complementary: sent & received by each person staying in one state (e.g. parent - child or adult - adult)
    2. Crossed: addressing an ego state that the other person isn’t in (adult thinking they are talking to another adult who really is a parent talking to a child)
    3. Ulterior: ostensibly talking from and to certain states while addressing another (this is what Berne calls “games”, see my summary of his book “games people play” for more examples)

  3. Keep your communications clean.
    1. Know the ego states from and to which you are communicating
    2. Be considerate of the child - yours & others
    3. Don’t use your punitive parent
    4. Solve problems with your adult and give it the time it needs to get on top of things and process what really needs to be said

8: Clarifying Language

You don’t experience the world directly. You experience your model of it. Everyone has their own model of reality. Models can be awfully different. Models can restrict or distort reality and limit our life.

Labels we put on models do not tell much about the model. The same label rarely refers to exactly the same model in two different minds. Certain universal language patterns do one of three things:

  • Keep people from understanding your model.
  • Keep your model of the world limited.
  • Keep your model of the world distorted.

Understanding a model

Different people draw from very different experiences. Words rarely mean the same thing in other minds. Four language patterns prevent understanding:

  • Deletion (material that’s been left out of a sentence)
    • Listener usually automatically fills in gaps with own assumptions
    • To clarify, ask for the missing information (“I’m happy/confused!” → “About what/whom?”)

  • Vague pronouns
    • E.g. “It’s unbelievable/unfair/wrong!”; “They say x causes cancer.”
      • To clarify, ask “What is unbelievable/unfair/wrong?” or “Whose research shows that x causes cancer?”

  • Vague verbs
    • E.g. “I grew a lot last year.”; “My parents forced me to become a doctor.”
      • To clarify, ask “How did you grow? Taller? Heavier? Wiser?”; “What did your parents do to force you into medicine?”

  • Nominalizations (nouns that give the false impression of being concrete)
    • E.g. “our relationship”; “the problem”; “your guilt”; “this discussion”
      • Often, all parties have a concrete idea of what is meant. Rarely is it the same.
    • E.g. “let’s make a decision.” instead of “let’s decide on how many bed nets to pay for”
      • Replacing verbs with nouns rarely adds specificity.
    • To clarify, either
      • Demand a specific definition of the nominalization
        • E.g. “I need attention.” → “What kind of attention do you need?”)
      • Ask a question using the nominalization as a verb
        • E.g. “I’m feeling disapproval.” → “How do you feel disapproved of?”)

Challenging the limits of a model

Three language patterns artificially restrict experience:

  • Absolutes (overgeneralizations, e.g. “always”)
    • Challenge by exaggerating further (“always and forever?”)
    • Challenge by asking whether they have had one contradictory experience

  • Imposed limits (suggesting no choice, e.g. “have to”, “it’s necessary”)
    • Broadly two categories:
      • Exclusion of options (“I can’t, “it’s impossible”)
      • Moral imperative (“must”, “should”)
    • Question limits by asking “What would happen if x?” or “What stops you from x?”

  • Imposed values (generalization based on a personal model, e.g. “that’s junk”, “he’s stupid”)
    • People who rely on this pattern are typically unaware of other possibilities
    • Challenge by asking “to whom does he seem stupid?” or “For whom is that junk?”
      • Forces people to own their opinions & values and acknowledges that there are other viewpoints

Challenging distortions of a model

Three language patterns distort reality:

  • Cause-and-effect errors
    • The belief that Alice can cause you to experience inner state x and you have no choice about how she will feel
    • Challenge belief by asking whether a causal connection exists or whether there are alternative responses.
      • E.g. “I’m anxious because you’re leaving” → “How does my leaving make you anxious?”
    • Remind people that they are responsible for their feelings and generate their own responses.

  • Mind reading
    • The belief that you can know what someone else is experiencing without direct communication
    • Leads you to form beliefs that are simply untrue, as many of your projections are likely to make you a victim of the typical mind fallacy
    • Mind-readers usually don’t notice that others are experiencing the world differently
    • Challenge them by asking “How do you know x?”
  • Presuppositions
    • Statements that must be true for a claim to be valid
      • E.g. “since you got jealous the last time we went dancing, let’s not go again”; “I’m in serious trouble, so I need an immediate appointment.”
    • Challenge the assumption (“in what way did I appear jealous to you?”; “In what way is the trouble serious?”)

Some final clarifications

Ask for too many clarifications and people will get annoyed. However, surround yourself with the kind of people whom you can challenge when their statements:

  • Don’t make sense;
  • Are vague; or
  • Miss some vital piece of information.

[n.b. ergo, ask for clarifications and challenge all the time. You will be annoying because your perspective is limited. You’re a monkey. Surround yourself with monkeys who suck it up. And you yourself suck it up, too.]

Consistent use of unhelpful language patterns indicates that the speaker’s model of reality is limited or distorted. Be gentle with people and explore with interest, not hostility.

How to know a statement is incomplete? You may feel puzzled, see an incomplete picture, something doesn’t sound or feel right. Avoid jumping to conclusions too quickly and try to clarify. Don’t fill holes with your own model right away, try to understand the speaker’s.

Many more exercises and examples are found in the book.

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

I think this is really useful but the final clarification is really important and maybe should be included in the section on key points - if you do all of these things repeatedly, you'll be really annoying and soon you'll be hardly listening because of all the questions and paraphrasing. Sometimes I find it better to wait for people to finish speaking (even if it's 3-5 minutes) and just ask the most important clarification.

Also once you've been improving your listening abilities for a while it seems to be even more impactful to scale back paraphrasing and acknowledgements as your conversation style will naturally show an understanding.

I think I disagree with trying to surround yourself with people who 'suck it up' as it may make it harder to talk to everyone else if you slip into conversational norms with people who never get offended or annoyed.

I think I disagree with trying to surround yourself with people who 'suck it up' as it may make it harder to talk to everyone else if you slip into conversational norms with people who never get offended or annoyed.

I think that depends on what we mean by "surround yourself". I was thinking of my five closest friends. Or would you categorically avoid it? I think there's a threshold of a number of relationships underneath which a blunt communication style doesn't quite become your default.

[EDIT, two years later: am pretty convinced that shifting as large a social circle as possible towards more whole-hearted, blunt-yet-humane conversation norms is desirable and possible.]

I guess I have never really chosen the 5 people I spend the most time with, but I think it's been beneficial for me that they generally have different styles of communicating so I'm used to constantly switching how I listen/talk.

This was a really useful summary. Thanks!

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