How to Have Impossible Conversations (2019) is a guide to having frank conversations that don’t end in tears. Philosopher Peter Boghossian and scientist James Lindsay argue that however prickly the topic, we all profit when we air our disagreements – provided we’re out to learn something, not just shout our opponents down. This summary will explore techniques that facilitate respectful dialogue, from rules of building rapport to the art of convincing your sparring partner to reexamine her assumptions.
Introduction: Learn to argue less and persuade more.
Table of Contents
- Introduction: Learn to argue less and persuade more.
- “Impossible” conversations can be productive when they become collaborative.
- If you want to change someone’s mind, you have to listen to them.
- It’s easier to talk openly and air disagreements when you build rapport.
- To change someone’s mind, you must first plant a seed of doubt.
- To foster mutual respect and openness during arguments, use “Rapoport’s Rules.”
- Not everyone forms their beliefs on the basis of evidence.
- If evidential arguments aren’t helping, try posing logical questions instead.
- The art of hostage negotiation offers a wealth of tricks to improve conversations.
- Final Summary
- About the author
- Table of Contents
We all know those polarizing topics of conversation that can lead to arguments: Who are you voting for, and why? Is abortion right or wrong? Is there a God? Are there, perhaps, many gods? Or none at all?
We are defined by our answers to these big questions and by our views on politics, morality, and faith. No wonder, then, that we can get so upset when people disagree with us. The choice can be stark: we either risk a fight, or we fall into a tense, unpleasant silence.
It doesn’t have to be like this, though. There is a way to discuss emotive and controversial topics without coming to blows. What if we holstered our killer facts and figures and started speaking with people, not at them? What if, instead of attempting to change minds by sheer force, we asked careful questions and actually listened to answers? What if we tried to help others challenge their assumptions?
Authors Peter Boghossian and David Lindsay argue that doing so would be a whole lot more productive – and they’d draw people closer together. In these summaries, we’ll find out how it’s done!
Along the way, you’ll learn
- why people think they can explain how a toilet works – but usually can’t;
- how to convince someone that a soul doesn’t weigh seven pounds; and
- why you should ask people how they are before you talk about evolution.
“Impossible” conversations can be productive when they become collaborative.
Beliefs matter. No matter how trivial or weighty, they change the way we behave. If it’s cold, you’ll wear a jacket. Why? Because you believe that it’ll make you warmer. Other beliefs have more serious consequences. Voters who have been convinced that immigrants are murdering their fellow citizens, for example, might elect a strongman promising to do whatever it takes to keep them safe.
The higher the stakes, the more likely you are to clash with people who hold opposing views. And when both of you are convinced you’re in the right, conversations become impossible. But there is a way to have productive discussions about difficult subjects.
The key message here is: “Impossible” conversations can be productive when they become collaborative.
What is an “impossible” conversation? Well, it’s the kind of conversation that feels futile – a conversation in which the divide between ideas, beliefs, and worldviews appears unbridgeable.
A crucial element that’s often missing in these exchanges is give-and-take. Rather than speaking with one another, you take turns speaking at one another. Neither side listens. Instead, you simply pour your ideas onto your opponent, or worse, engage in verbal combat.
The good news is that if someone is willing to talk, there’s a chance you can have a productive conversation. Beliefs can – and do – change, but there are good and bad ways of changing them.
Coercion is a bad way to change somebody’s mind. And it’s not just because it’s unethical. There’s also a simple pragmatic reason to reject coercion: it doesn’t work. No one has ever truly reevaluated their beliefs after being punched in the head. They may say they have, but often that’s just pretense.
However, lots of people have changed their minds after engaging in conversation.
This is because conversations are collaborative. If you come to see things differently, it’s in part because you yourself generated the ideas that helped change your mind. As we’ll see later on, this is one of the reasons conversations can lead people to reassess their beliefs.
When you work together with somebody, you achieve better results than when you simply tell them that they’re wrong and, quite possibly, also stupid.
If this sounds positively utopian in our divided and polarized era, don’t worry – in the following summaries, you’ll be learning concrete techniques to help you have these kinds of conversations!
If you want to change someone’s mind, you have to listen to them.
Imagine a dancer performing a series of pirouettes, or a surgeon making a deft incision with her scalpel. What they’re doing is very complex, but it builds upon simple foundations. If dancers and surgeons didn’t understand the basics, ballets and operations wouldn’t be possible. Engaging in effective conversations is no different. It’s a skill, and to master it, you must begin with its fundamental principles. How do you do that?
The key message is: If you want to change someone’s mind, you have to listen to them.
Before we get to listening, let’s look at the other side of the equation – talking. Why do compelling arguments fall on deaf ears? There’s actually a pretty simple explanation: people don’t like being lectured.
Lecturing someone is like delivering a message. Once you’ve said your piece, your job is done; it’s up to the audience to digest its meaning. This works well in some contexts – say, in lecture halls – but it’s likely to backfire in conversations between equals.
But there’s another reason lectures are ineffective. Take a series of studies carried out in the early 1940s by the psychologist Kurt Lewin.
Lewin was hired by the American government to persuade housewives to use more offal – the insides of an animal. The hope was that this would alleviate the wartime meat shortage.
Lewin tested two approaches on two groups of women. The first was given a fact-filled lecture about the war effort. The second was asked to come up with their own ideas about why this policy might make sense.
Just 3 percent of women in the first group adopted the promoted behavior. In the second group, this number stood at 37 percent. Lewin’s conclusion? People are much more likely to accept “self-generated” ideas than messages delivered by others.
That brings us to listening. How would you know that you’re delivering a message, not engaging in a conversation? One way is to ask yourself, “Was I invited to share this?” If the answer is “No,” you’re probably lecturing, which means now’s a good time to change tack.
Think about your own experiences. Who would you rather have over for dinner: The authoritative know-it-all who treats you as if you were his pupil? Or someone who asks you questions and listens to what you say? It’s a no-brainer, right?
Remember, everyone finds it deeply satisfying to be heard. Base your conversations on this psychological insight, and your rewards will be huge.
It’s easier to talk openly and air disagreements when you build rapport.
What happens when we disagree with our friends? Most of the time we put our differences aside, right? After all, friendship is more important than scoring rhetorical points or winning arguments. Now, of course you can’t be friends with everyone. But friendship can teach us something important about the art of engaging in productive conversations.
The key message in this chapter is: It’s easier to talk openly and air disagreements when you build rapport.
Friends establish something psychologists call rapport. It’s that sense of being comfortable and getting along with someone, of trusting them and their motivations. Rapport is also the reason why friendships can withstand clashes of opinion.
Imagine two good friends strongly disagreeing about something. They will probably assume that there are good reasons why each holds such strong views. As a result, they will be more open to suggestions and less defensive.
This isn’t to say that you should treat strangers as friends and attempt to build a high level of rapport with people you don’t know. But there is a case for building at least some rapport before getting into substantive issues. This is what “street epistemologists” do every day.
Street epistemologists can often be seen discussing controversial subjects – like the existence of God – with complete strangers. As the name suggests, they do this on the street, and they apply a method developed by ancient Greek philosophers. They use conversation to help people reevaluate their beliefs. The only way to do this without offending others is to build rapport with them.
We can learn a couple of lessons from such conversations. One is to break the ice with obvious questions about names, occupations, and so on. The aim is to find common ground. Chances are, both you and your conversational partner have plenty in common. Maybe you’re both expectant parents, or you live in the same neighborhood. Bear these commonalities in mind when things get heated, and you’ll always remember that you’re dealing with a person just like you – not with some abstract “opponent.”
Another tip is to avoid parallel talk. This is when someone tells you about their vacation in Cuba, and you take this as a cue to start talking about your time in Cuba. Asking someone questions about their holiday is an easy and effective way to build rapport. Using their stories to talk about your life, by contrast, is a great way to undermine this connection!
To change someone’s mind, you must first plant a seed of doubt.
Can you explain how a toilet works? That was the question two psychologists posed in a 2001 study published in Cognitive Science. Volunteers were asked to rate their understanding of toilet design. They had to do it twice – first, before explaining to researchers how a toilet works and then again, after they’d had this conversation.
The result? Most started out pretty confident of their knowledge but quickly realized that they didn’t actually understand fill valves and overflow pipes.
This common fallacy offers a clue to how we can help people reevaluate their beliefs.
The key message here is: To change someone’s mind, you must first plant a seed of doubt.
Philosopher Robert Wilson suggests that we often overestimate our understanding of the world because we believe in the expertise of others. This is like borrowing books from the library but never actually reading them. We assume we’ve assimilated the knowledge in all these unread books.
This so-called unread library effect has real-world consequences. Consider a 2013 study published in Psychological Science. Its authors found that political extremism in the United States was closely associated with an illusion of understanding. In this study, people expressed very strong opinions about policies – even though their understanding of those policies was pretty sketchy.
This is a useful insight that you can apply to your conversations. Remember how we said lecturing people was less effective than asking them to generate their own ideas? Well, if you want to change someone’s mind, you should also let them generate their own doubts.
This begins with what’s known as modeling ignorance. If you want somebody to recognize the limits of their knowledge, pretend to be ignorant. Invite an explanation. The best way to do so is by asking them open questions. Start by saying something like, “I don’t know how mass deportations of illegal immigrants would play out.” Wait for them to answer, and then move on to follow-up questions. Don’t be shy about this. Get further and further into the nitty-gritty of the topic, all the while continuing to feign ignorance.
What’s the end game here? Well, either your partner will realize that he actually doesn’t know that much – or, if he really is an expert, you will be rewarded with an interesting lesson.
To foster mutual respect and openness during arguments, use “Rapoport’s Rules.”
It’s frustrating when people misunderstand you, isn’t it? And it’s even worse when they do so deliberately. Once your position has been misrepresented by someone, your real views no longer matter. Instead, she’s attacking a straw man – a misrepresentation that’s easier to defeat than your real opinion. This doesn’t just make conversations futile, it’s also deeply unfair. Luckily, there’s a simple set of rules to prevent this.
The key message here is: To foster mutual respect and openness during arguments, use “Rapoport’s Rules.”
How do you criticize someone while remaining civil? That’s the question the American game theorist Anatol Rapoport tried to answer. He came up with a checklist for voicing disagreements, called Rapoport’s Rules. These four rules were systematized by Daniel C. Dennett, a philosopher who regarded them as the “best antidote” to the tendency to caricature other people’s arguments.
So how do they work? Well, let’s go through the list, in order.
Rule One states that you must attempt to rephrase your partner’s position in your own words. Do it as clearly and fairly as you can. You want them to say, “Wow, I wish I’d put it like that.”
Rule Two says that you must list every point of agreement between you and your conversation partner.
Rule Three suggests you should tell your partner what you’ve learned from their argument.
And finally, Rule Four states that you may voice disagreements only after you’ve gone through the previous three rules.
Each of these rules has a specific rationale. Take Rule One. Rephrasing your partner’s argument demonstrates that you want to understand their position. Underscoring points of agreement, as Rule Two demands, creates a neutral terrain onto which you can both retreat if the argument gets too heated.
When you list what you’ve learned from them, in accordance with Rule Three, you offer your partner an example of what psychologists call pro-social modeling. Simply put, you show them how you’d like them to behave. By deferring to your partner’s expertise, you model mutual respect and openness. You also encourage them to join you in a collaborative endeavor rather than a battle. Even if they don’t reciprocate, this rule demonstrates that you value their input. This alone can help cool tempers.
Following Rapoport’s Rules can be difficult – especially in the heat of the moment – but it will improve your conversations.
Not everyone forms their beliefs on the basis of evidence.
In 2014, Bill Nye, an American TV presenter famous for his science show, agreed to debate Ken Ham, a Christian fundamentalist best-known for building a life-size model of Noah’s Ark. The topic: creationism, which is the idea that God created the universe. Ham supported this view; Nye disagreed – his opinions had always been based on Darwin’s theory of evolution.
The moderator asked both Ham and Nye what it would take to change their minds.
Nye’s answer? “Evidence.” Ham’s? “Nothing.” Nothing could change his opinion.
The key message here is: Not everyone forms their beliefs on the basis of evidence.
People who value evidence above all else often find it hard to understand somebody like Ham. Unsurprisingly, this makes conversations very difficult.
People like Bill Nye are empirically minded. They often think that the other side has simply missed a key piece of evidence. If only they could be presented with it, surely they’d change their minds in a heartbeat, right?
But somebody like Ham may not want any evidence. The “Hams” – as opposed to “the Nyes” – already know all there is to know. They have no doubt whatsoever that every single word of the Bible is literally true. No new facts will ever change this rock-solid conviction.
Creationist views are more widespread than you might think. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence, 34 percent of Americans reject evolution entirely. And it’s not because they haven’t been exposed to facts about evolution. No – they simply apply different criteria. And these criteria have nothing to do with evidence.
Some, for example, are creationists for moral reasons. They believe it makes them good Christians. Others are driven by peer pressure. If you are surrounded by creationists, believing the Bible literally makes it a whole lot easier to fit in. This isn’t exactly illogical, of course. But these are examples of how people’s moral and social minds can override their rational, evidence-driven minds.
When beliefs are driven by moral or social considerations, facts rarely cut through. This is because, as humans, we care deeply about being “good.” This means that we often value feedback from peers and role models more than facts.
Does it mean that people like Ken Ham and Bill Nye will never engage in meaningful conversation? No, of course not. As we’ll see in the next chapter, they simply need to find a different way to talk – one which does not just focus on facts.
If evidential arguments aren’t helping, try posing logical questions instead.
Imagine an atheist who is convinced that her religious colleague’s belief in God is sincere but misguided. Her goal is to change his mind. And she thinks that the best way to do so is to present new evidence. So she chooses her facts well, and she argues carefully. But something weird happens. The more she argues, the more convinced her colleague becomes that he’s right after all.
Many of us have been there. Sometimes evidence just doesn’t get you very far.
The key message here is: If evidential arguments aren’t helping, try posing logical questions instead.
Ironically, introducing facts in order to change someone’s mind often backfires. Their beliefs become even more entrenched. This is because this style of argument gives your opponent a reason to defend their position. They may think that admitting they were wrong will make them look “foolish.” Or they may have invested a lot of time, energy, and money into their belief.
So, if offering factual evidence doesn’t work, what should you do instead?
The key is to focus on the internal logic of your opponent’s belief. For now, forget about whether their views make sense. Instead, ask lots of open questions. As we learned earlier, questions are great at exposing problems and contradictions.
So let’s say your friend Paul believes that a soul weighs exactly seven pounds. This might strike you as absurd or foolish. Surely this notion can easily be disproved by empirical evidence? But let’s take Paul’s belief seriously.
You might begin by asking Paul why he believes this. Well, he answers, a German scientist conducted a famous experiment. He weighed hundreds of bodies shortly before and after death. And a dead body weighed seven pounds less than a living one.
For now, let’s accept this view at face value. But let’s also ask some follow-up questions. Does he believe that four-pound babies have seven-pound souls? If he does, does that mean that a baby would weigh minus three pounds after death?
Finally, you can try asking so-called disconfirming questions. These questions probe the internal logic of a belief by asking what it would take for someone to abandon their views. Sticking with our example, you could ask Paul what evidence would make him change his mind about the weight of souls. Would he draw a different conclusion if, say, the German experiment couldn’t be replicated?
We’ve looked at the power of logical questions. In the next chapter, we’ll see how the lessons we learn from hostage negotiators can help.
The art of hostage negotiation offers a wealth of tricks to improve conversations.
So far, we’ve quoted philosophers and psychologists – members of two professions who specialize in difficult conversations and tricky questions. But the last word belongs to a group whose ability to persuade is very often the difference between life and death. These people are hostage negotiators. As we’ll see in this chapter, there’s plenty we can learn from their techniques.
The key message here is: The art of hostage negotiation offers a wealth of tricks to improve conversations.
Your conversation partners might not be as demanding as a bank robber, but that doesn’t mean you can’t employ some of the tricks police negotiators use. These tricks can help conversations flow smoothly.
Consider so-called minimal encouragers. These are small signals that discreetly inform the speaker you’re listening – things like “Yeah,” “I see,” and “OK.” Although they require virtually no effort, minimal encouragers work great at reassuring your partner and defusing tense moments.
Then there’s mirroring. This is another simple verbal technique that lets the speaker know you’re listening. Perhaps more importantly, it also tells them that you “get” what they’re saying. Here’s how it works: when your partner says something, simply repeat the last two or three words – but phrase them as a question.
So, if they exclaim, “I’m just so sick and tired of people pushing everyone around!” you’d reply, “Pushing everyone around?” The idea is to keep the person talking so they offer more and more information. Whatever they say may become useful later in the conversation.
It’s also important to remember that if you want people to change their minds, you have to give them a graceful exit. In the world of hostage negotiation, this is known as building a golden bridge. This technique draws on the insight that people are more likely to stick to their guns if that’s the only way they can save face. In practice, this can be as simple as emphasizing that the problem you’re dealing with would be very difficult for anyone, including you.
Finally, one of the best ways to create the conditions for a positive conversation is to begin by addressing small issues. Start negotiations by dealing with things that are easy to resolve. If you agree on the small stuff early on, you’ll create a climate of success. This is the sort of environment that makes it easier to remain civil when the conversation turns to bigger disagreements.
And there you have it – tips and tricks to improve your communication and make impossible conversations a thing of the past!
The key message in these summaries:
We live in an age of growing partisanship. Engaging in conversations often feels futile. But there is a way to talk with people on the other side of moral and political divides. That’s because the real issue isn’t ideological differences – it’s the fact that we’ve forgotten the art of conversation. When we actually listen to people, stop lecturing them, and learn to voice our disagreements civilly, we can start changing each other’s minds and reevaluating our beliefs.
Actionable advice: Identify the source of conflict by listening to your “moral dialect.”
We often assume that the way we speak is normal, while others have “accents.” This means that, paradoxically, we all have an accent of sorts. It’s the same when it comes to the way we talk about values. We all have “moral dialects” that appear natural to us but remain strange, or even incomprehensible, to outsiders.
This is why it’s a good idea to start listening to your own moral dialect. Think about how you use words such as “racism” or “freedom.” Do they mean something different for other people? Thinking along these lines will help you identify the nature of conflicts. Are you really disagreeing, or is it all about the choice of words? Put differently, are you fighting over semantics or worldviews?
Peter Boghossian is a full time faculty member in the philosophy department at Portland State University and an affiliated faculty member at Oregon Health Science University in the Division of General Internal Medicine. He is a national speaker for the Center of Inquiry and an international speaker for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. He is the author of A Manual for Creating Atheists. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
James Lindsay holds degrees in physics and mathematics, with a doctorate in the latter. He has authored two previous books: Everybody is Wrong about God and Dot, Dot, Dot: Infinity Plus God Equals Folly. He lives in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Communication Skills, Philosophy, Social Sciences, Politics and Government, Self Help for Catholics, Conversation Etiquette Guides, Civics and Citizenship, Political Science, Social Skills
Table of Contents
1 When Conversations Seem impossible 1
2 The Seven Fundamentals of Good Conversations 9
3 Beginner Level: Nine Ways to Start Changing Minds 33
4 Intermediate Level: Seven Ways to Improve Your Interventions 71
5 Five Advanced Skills for Contentious Conversations 95
6 Six Expert Skills to Engage the Close-Minded 131
7 Master Level: Two Keys to Conversing with Ideologues 157
8 Conclusion 179
Stay tuned for book review…