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[Book Summary] How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide

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. These 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.

[Book Summary] How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide

Content Summary

Genres
Introduction: What’s in it for me? 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
Overview
Review/Endorsements/Praise/Award
Video and Podcast
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview

Genres

Communication Skills, Philosophy, Social Sciences, Politics and Government, Self Help for Catholics, Conversation Etiquette Guides, Civics and Citizenship, Political Science, Social Skills

Introduction: Learn to argue less and persuade more.

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!

Final Summary

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?

About the author

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.

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
Acknowledgments 181
Notes 183
Bibliography 221
Index 235

Overview

From politics and religion to workplace negotiations, ace the high-stakes conversations in your life with this indispensable guide from a persuasion expert.

In our current political climate, it seems impossible to have a reasonable conversation with anyone who has a different opinion. Whether you’re online, in a classroom, an office, a town hall—or just hoping to get through a family dinner with a stubborn relative—dialogue shuts down when perspectives clash. Heated debates often lead to insults and shaming, blocking any possibility of productive discourse. Everyone seems to be on a hair trigger.

In How to Have Impossible Conversations, Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay guide you through the straightforward, practical, conversational techniques necessary for every successful conversation—whether the issue is climate change, religious faith, gender identity, race, poverty, immigration, or gun control. Boghossian and Lindsay teach the subtle art of instilling doubts and opening minds. They cover everything from learning the fundamentals for good conversations to achieving expert-level techniques to deal with hardliners and extremists. This book is the manual everyone needs to foster a climate of civility, connection, and empathy.

Video and Podcast

Review/Endorsements/Praise/Award

“This is a self-help book on how to argue effectively, conciliate, and gently persuade. The authors admit to getting it wrong in their own past conversations. One by one, I recognize the same mistakes in me. The world would be a better place if everyone read this book.” – Richard Dawkins, author of Science in the Soul and Outgrowing God

“In a Free Republic there would be no ‘impossible conversations’, which begs the question: are we truly free anymore? After reading, listening and conversing with Peter and James, I am convinced that they are the Galileo’s, I. Kant and even William Tynsdale of our time.” – Glenn Beck

“I thought I knew all I needed to know about conversations and arguments. I was wrong. I just knew a lot about debates and rows. In their insightful and highly readable new book, Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay offer all kinds of ingenious pathways to constructive dialogue. At a time when public discourse has degenerated into mud-slinging and when campuses favour every kind of diversity except viewpoint diversity, this is an invaluable contribution. I guarantee that reading it will make you more — much more — persuasive.” – Niall Ferguson, Milbank Family Senior Fellow, The Hoover Institution, Stanford

“In these polarized times, people live inside social media echo chambers of their own extremism, growing ever more self-righteous. This smart, scientifically grounded book, teeming with social and emotional wisdom, teaches how to break that isolation and effectively converse with someone with very different opinions. It will make you more adept at challenging, even changing, someone’s beliefs, biases and sacred values. And it might even pave the way for making some of those changes yourself.” – Robert Sapolsky, John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor of Neurology and of Neurosurgery, Stanford University

“Drs. Boghossian and Lindsay offer critical advice regarding how to talk about contentious issues in today’s political climate. How to Have Impossible Conversations is a necessary guide to navigating disagreements — and building bridges — using approaches backed by evidence and science.” – Debra W. Soh, Ph.D., science columnist and political commentator

“This fascinating book provides not only useful instruction on how to talk with someone who thinks differently, it also offers a powerful method of questioning and reducing confidence in unsubstantiated beliefs to help people think about what is true.” – Helen Pluckrose, Editor, Areo Magazine

“In the course of my work over the past quarter century I have been having impossible conversations with Holocaust deniers, creationists, anti-vaccination advocates, 9/11 Truthers, chemtrail conspiracy theorists, believers in astrology and ESP, proponents of alternative medicine, religious fundamentalists of many faiths, and dozens more people with whom I disagree vehemently. I’ve gotten pretty good at it but I had no idea what I was doing until I read How to Have Impossible Conversations, a sterling compendium of the most effective techniques of communication. I wish I’d had this important book at the start of my career as I would have saved myself many a fruitless dialogue. This book is the start of healing our contentious and divided age.” – Michael Shermer, Publisher Skeptic magazine, Presidential Fellow Chapman University, author of Why People Believe Weird Things, The Moral Arc, and Heavens on Earth, and for 18 years a monthly columnist for Scientific American

“We live in a time when discussing controversial issues, even with good friends, is becoming almost impossible. Peter and James have written an indispensable roadmap to prevent us from heading off the cliff.” – Dave Rubin, The Rubin Report

“We have arrived at an impasse. It is everywhere, and feels permanent. As algorithms steer our attention, we are each locked within a warren of echo chambers. Each day, this digital water we swim in causes a deepening entrenchment of our beliefs, and a growing willingness to caricature our opponents. When forced into contact with the other, we are repelled, indignant. How could anyone be so stupid? And we are shocked to discover the one thing that unites us with them is that they feel exactly the same way in return! It is not hard to spot the danger in this dynamic. It undermines the most basic logic of democracy, and threatens to derange the west, if not the world. But Boghossian and Lindsay have drawn up a plan to bridge the divide. They have bottled an antidote: A how to guide for talking to the enemy. Each drawing on decades of experience having impossible conversations, the authors have written what may be the ultimate instruction manual for crossing enemy lines and living to tell the tale. And not a moment too soon.” – Bret Weinstein, PhD

“There are two ways to participate in civil conversations in our hyper-politicized age — build a time machine, or read this book.” – Marc Andreessen, General Partner, Andreessen Horowitz

“Everywhere that people gather and have a discussion — every bar, cookout, and water cooler — should have a copy of this book nearby. It might lower the temperature of our disagreements, and help us learn a few things from each other instead of just defending our own biases at the top of our lungs.” – Tom Nichols, author of The Death of Expertise

Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview

one

When Conversations Seem Impossible

THIS BOOK IS ABOUT HOW TO COMMUNICATE EFFECTIVELY WITH people who hold radically different beliefs. We live in a divided, polarized era, and we’re not talking with each other. The repercussions of this are vast and deep, including the fear of speaking openly and honestly, an inability to solve shared problems, and lost friendships.

CONVERSING WITH AN ASSHOLE

Nearly two decades ago, one of this book’s authors, Peter, was discussing affirmative action with a colleague (SDL), a white female who described herself as a liberal. As conversations about controversial topics tend to do, it quickly became heated. Then, as is par for the course in these situations, before long it went downhill, fast. Let’s take a look back:

SDL: You keep denying that it [affirmative action] is fair.

Boghossian: Yeah, that’s because it’s not. Who’s it fair to?

SDL: I told you already. Traditionally marginalized groups, like African Americans. They’re coming from a deficit. They didn’t have the same opportunities that you and I had.

Boghossian: But why does that require manufacturing outcomes?

SDL: You sound like a broken record. Because they’re Americans, and they deserve better. You don’t understand because you’ve never had those struggles. You’ve gone to good schools and never dealt with even a fraction of what they deal with on a daily basis.

Boghossian: Let’s say you’re right. I don’t think you are, but let’s say you are. What evidence do you have that affirmative action is a way to remedy past injustices?

SDL: I don’t have any evidence. It’s the right thing to do because—

Boghossian: So you have no evidence. You have complete confidence in a belief for which you have no evidence.

SDL: You’re not listening.

Boghossian: I am listening. I’m trying to figure out how you could believe so strongly in something with no evidence. Do you think African Americans are better off with Clarence Thomas? Do you think it was a good thing that he’s a Supreme Court justice, or would African Americans be better off with a liberal white male?

SDL: You’re [expletive] annoying. Seriously. I can’t believe you’re a teacher.

Boghossian: I’m sorry you feel that way. Maybe if you could better defend your beliefs you wouldn’t be so annoyed with someone who’s asking you softball questions.

SDL: What do you teach your students?

Boghossian: You’re not my student. And don’t get so upset.

SDL: You’re an asshole. We’re done.

She was right. Peter wasn’t listening; he was annoying; and he was being an asshole. In this brief exchange, he interrupted, used “but” in response to her statements (probably the least wrong thing he did), shifted topics, and didn’t answer her questions. He was so focused on winning—and even intellectually embarrassing her—that he ruined the conversation and closed the door to productive future exchanges. SDL walked out on the conversation, but she should have walked away sooner.

Conversations between people who hold radically different beliefs about religion, politics, or values have always been challenging. In that sense, the conversation between Peter and SDL wasn’t likely to go smoothly, but it didn’t have to go that badly. There are good and bad ways to have conversations with people who hold radically different beliefs, and better approaches aren’t just imaginable, they’re achievable. Because our current cultural environment is deeply polarized, it’s even harder than usual to converse productively across these divisions.

Even since Peter’s conversation with SDL nearly twenty years ago, our conversational spaces have fractured, and people have far more difficulty conversing with people who hold strongly different views. The bickering and bad faith seem endless: liberals versus conservatives,1 religious people versus atheists, Democrats versus Republicans (in the United States), this sect versus that, some identity group versus some—or every—other one, and the angry, reactionary, or radical fringes against the bewildered and exhausted center.

Across these divides and many others, people struggle to talk with each other. Sides have been chosen, with battle lines drawn. In this space, few people know how to talk to “the other side,” and many consider those who believe differently to be an existential threat—that is, someone whose presence threatens everyone else’s very existence. And it seems like there’s neither a solution nor an escape. We don’t even know how to cope with disagreements over family dinners, yet we find ourselves having heated arguments with acquaintances and on social media. Many people deal with this by hiding from contentious conversations. That’s fine, and in certain circumstances it may even be the right thing to do. However, it’s only an occasional solution. It’s also vital to learn how to have these difficult—even seemingly impossible—conversations.

WHAT IS AN IMPOSSIBLE CONVERSATION?

When we say “impossible conversations,” we mean conversations that feel futile because they take place across a seemingly unbridgeable gulf of disagreement in ideas, beliefs, morals, politics, or worldviews. We don’t mean exchanges that occur in situations in which some people are absolutely unwilling to speak with you. Extreme examples where people are violent or threatening, or adamant in their refusal to talk or even to listen, are not what we mean by “impossible conversations.” When someone refuses to speak with you, there’s no conversation to be had. No book can teach you how to force someone to converse if they won’t speak with you. These circumstances, however, are exceptionally rare. Most people will engage you most of the time on most topics.

Although productive discussions with people who hold radically different beliefs can be extremely difficult, they are only literally impossible in fringe cases. Usually, the more invested someone is in their beliefs, the more they want to speak about them. The difficulty in these cases isn’t having someone speak to you; it’s that a give-and-take seems hopeless because the person across from you fails to speak with you and instead speaks at you. In such cases, you’re viewed as a receptacle to pour ideas into, or as an opponent to be debated and vanquished.

How to Have Impossible Conversations teaches you how to have conversations with anyone who’s willing to speak with you, even though those people and those conversations seem impossible. Maybe someone’s angry, or maybe your political differences seem so profound that a civil discussion feels impossible. But if someone’s willing to talk with you, even if they’re an extremist, die-hard believer, or intense partisan, this book will teach you how to effectively communicate with them.

Of course, it’s easier to not engage in conversations with those who hold different views, but avoidance is not always possible. Someone might approach you; you might find yourself “trapped” with friends or family when religion or politics comes up; or you might find the topic too important to leave alone. When you find yourself in these situations, it’s far better to know how to navigate than not. This book will empower you to handle such conversations, even when they become heated. It will give you options.

WHY HAVE IMPOSSIBLE CONVERSATIONS?

Ultimately, How to Have Impossible Conversations is about talking to people who hold different beliefs. What people believe matters, and what you believe matters. If you believe it’s cold, you’ll want to put on a jacket because you believe that it will make you warmer. So, too, with moral and political beliefs. If you believe foreign invaders are stealing our jobs and raping and murdering our citizens, you’re more likely to vote for a strongman who’ll promise to seal the borders and keep you safe (and if you believe your political opponents want open borders, you’re even more likely to vote accordingly). If you believe fascists are everywhere and verging on a government takeover, you’re more likely to sympathize with the pleas of those who advocate for violence by “punching Nazis.” Beliefs matter because people act upon their beliefs—whether those beliefs are true or not (and it’s far easier to be wrong than right).

Beliefs can also change, and there are good and bad ways to change them. Conversation is a good way. Force is a bad way, for all the obvious reasons—plus, it’s downright ineffective. Despite what some people’s frustration tells them, people never change their beliefs by being punched in the head by someone who hates them. In almost all cases, the best way to engage beliefs is through open conversation. This is because conversation is something done with someone (the con- in conversation stems from Latin roots meaning “with”) and can be a gentle and effective intervention on their beliefs. Conversation is inherently collaborative, and it creates an opportunity for people to reconsider what they believe and thus potentially change how they act and vote. In fact, conversation offers you the opportunity to reconsider what you believe and reassess how you should act and vote.

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

Our response to this pervasive social dysfunction is to treat having impossible conversations as a skill to be mastered and a habit to be engaged. Don’t be afraid to voice your opinion. Don’t fear disagreement. Don’t hesitate to ask questions. People are waking up and realizing that there is political capital to be gained, friendships to be had, insight to be gleaned, and intellectual integrity to be harnessed by meaningfully engaging others and even crossing moral aisles. You can be part of this renaissance. To join, you only need to know how to productively engage people in ways that are less likely to make them defensive and more likely to help them hold their beliefs less tenaciously. You can achieve this by using proven, evidence-based techniques like those found in this book.

Over the course of this book, we’ll explain how to create productive dialogue out of what might otherwise have been dueling sermons. Demands for you to “listen and believe” can nearly always be replaced with you listening, understanding, and then instilling doubt. We know because we’ve had countless conversations with zealots, criminals, religious fanatics, and extremists of all stripes. Peter did his doctoral research in the Oregon State Prison System conversing with offenders about some of life’s most difficult questions, and then built upon those techniques in thousands of hours of conversations with religious hardliners. James developed the ideas for his books and articles by engaging in extended conversations with people who hold radically different views about politics, morality, and religion. This book is the culmination of our extensive research and a lifetime of experience in conversing with people who profess to be unshakable in their beliefs.

In our highly polarized society—as we cope with the increasing demands of a revolutionary social media economy—impossible conversations are inevitable. The goal, then, should not be to hope you can avoid them, or to skulk in the shadows when confronted with different beliefs, but to seize the opportunity. Learn what you need to do to hear and be heard. Stand up. Speak up. But speak wisely. How to Have Impossible Conversations offers solutions to the problems of timidity, incivility, fear, and distrust that blight our conversational landscapes.

WHAT TO EXPECT AND HOW TO USE THIS BOOK

How to Have Impossible Conversations contains thirty-six techniques drawn from the best, most effective research on applied epistemology, hostage and professional negotiations, cult exiting, subdisciplines of psychology, and more. It has a simple format, organized by difficulty of application: fundamentals (Chapter 2), basics (Chapter 3), intermediate (Chapter 4), advanced (Chapter 5), expert (Chapter 6), and master (Chapter 7). Some techniques teach you to intervene in the cognitions of others, instill doubt, and help people to become more open to rethinking their beliefs. Other techniques are oriented toward truth-seeking. Some are just plain good advice. Their underlying commonality, regardless of your conversational goal, is that they all empower you to speak with people who have radically different political, moral, and social worldviews.

We’ve streamlined and simplified conversational questions and templates for you. There is no fluff. We’ve included exactly what you need to immediately have effective conversations across deep divides. And if you’re interested in exploring the literature, extensive endnotes cite the relevant research. These, however, aren’t necessary for success. You can be just as effective without reading the endnotes, but if you want to delve into more detailed explanations of why our techniques work, that’s where to begin.

Many sections also include vignettes of actual conversations. From these, you’ll see how to incorporate new skills and techniques into discussions, without it feeling unnatural or contrived, or like you’re doing a hard sell. Some sections also contain brief stories from real-life mistakes we’ve made. From these, we hope to demonstrate how valuable it would have been if we had these techniques.

Our advice is to take your time with each chapter before moving on to the next. More advanced chapters build upon earlier chapters. Consequently, we urge that you read this book sequentially and not skip ahead. To make the best use of How to Have Impossible Conversations, have real face-to-face conversations in which you practice the techniques you’re learning, chapter by chapter, before moving on to the next. This is especially true with Chapters 2 and 3, which you’ll undoubtedly think you’ve already mastered; these chapters contain indispensable tools upon which the success of more advanced techniques, strategies, and approaches depend.

Finally, we believe we’re entering an era of renewed interest in effective, across-the-aisle dialogue. People are sick of not being able to speak about controversial subjects and of having to constantly walk on eggshells when voicing their opinions. This book is for those who have had enough. Enough name-calling. Enough censuring. Enough animosity. It provides a comprehensive tool set that enables you to take charge of your conversations. You’ll learn how to intervene in someone’s thinking and help them change their own mind and how to mutually search for the truth. Even with hardliners and ideologues. Conversations that remain civil, empower you, and change even the staunchest of minds are possible—even across deep divides. Here are the tools to have them.

two

The Seven Fundamentals of Good Conversations

How to Converse with Anyone, from Strangers to Prison Inmates

#1—GOALS

Why are you engaged in this conversation?

#2—PARTNERSHIPS

Be partners, not adversaries

#3—RAPPORT

Develop and maintain a good connection

#4—LISTEN

Listen more, talk less

#5—SHOOT THE MESSENGER

Don’t deliver your truth

#6—INTENTIONS

People have better intentions than you think

#7—WALK AWAY

Don’t push your conversation partner beyond their comfort zone

You think that the heads of state only have serious conversations, but they actually often begin really with the weather or, “I really like your tie.” – Madeleine Albright

Everything is based upon fundamentals—everything. If you are able to execute a complex maneuver in ballet, for example, it is because you understand basic elements of the art. All expertise is built upon fundamentals.

Engaging in civil and effective conversations is a skill. It takes knowledge and practice, and you’ll need to begin with fundamental principles. Later, when they become ingrained, you won’t have to think about their use. They’ll come naturally. But without them you can expect frequent upsets, derailed conversations, and strained relationships.

Most basic elements of civil discussion, especially over matters of substantive disagreement, come down to a single theme: making the other person in the conversation a partner, not an adversary. To accomplish this, you need to understand what you want from the conversation, make charitable assumptions about others’ intentions, listen, and seek back-and-forth interaction (as opposed to delivering a message). Learning to listen is the first step in the give-and-take of effective conversations. You’ll need to overcome the urge to say everything that’s on your mind. Finally, you’ll need to know when to end your conversation gracefully.

In all, this chapter teaches seven fundamentals for good conversations: identifying your goals; forming partnerships; developing rapport; listening to the other person in the conversation; shooting your own messenger (that is, not delivering your own truth); keeping in mind the other person’s intentions, which are probably better than you assume; and knowing when to walk away.

Even if you master no more than these fundamentals, almost all of your conversations will improve dramatically—with everyone. Without them, any other skills you attempt to master will lack the necessary foundation and won’t be nearly as effective. In what follows, therefore, we address the seven fundamentals in the most logical order.

#1—GOALS

What’s Your Purpose?

People enter into conversation for vastly different reasons. Often, people just wish to talk and connect, but at other times more functional goals are at work. These include any of the following:

  • Reaching mutual understanding (parties seek to understand each other’s position, but not necessarily to reach agreement).
  • Learning from each other (figuring out how other people arrived at their conclusions).
  • Finding truth (collaboratively figuring out what’s true or correcting mistaken beliefs).
  • Intervening (attempting to change someone’s beliefs or their methods of forming beliefs).
  • Impressing (parties seek to impress a conversational partner or someone who might be watching).
  • Yielding to coercion (feeling forced to speak with someone).

In each case, if you first identify your conversational goal(s), then your path will become easier. Ask yourself, “Why am I having this discussion? What are my goals? What do I want to get out of this?” Your answer might be any of the instances above, or you might just want to keep your conversation light, friendly, and agreeable.

You can have more than one goal, have no particular goal, or change your goals mid-conversation. These are all fine, but you must be clear to yourself about your goals when beginning a discussion.1 Start by asking yourself whether you’re more interested in finding the truth or helping someone reconsider what they believe. Maybe it’s both, or maybe you’re leaning more heavily toward one than the other. Once you know your goals, use the conversational techniques that best help you achieve them.

#2—PARTNERSHIPS

During the 1970s, Peter’s mentor, Portland State University psychology professor Dr. Frank Wesley, investigated why some US prisoners of war (POWs) defected to North Korea during the Korean War. His research showed that virtually all of the defectors came from a single US training camp. As part of their training, they had been taught that the North Koreans were cruel, heartless barbarians who despised the United States and single-mindedly sought its destruction. But when those POWs were shown kindness by their captors, their initial indoctrination unraveled. They became far more likely to defect than those POWs who either hadn’t been told anything about the North Koreans or had been given more neutral accounts of them.

Conversation Partners

The way to change minds, influence people, build relationships, and maintain friendships is through kindness, compassion, empathy, treating individuals with dignity and respect, and exercising these considerations in psychologically safe environments.2 It comes naturally to all of us to respond favorably to someone who listens, shows kindness, treats us well, and appears respectful. A sure way to entrench people in their existing beliefs, cause disunity, and sow distrust is through adversarial relationships and threatening environments. It is easy to dislike someone who is mean-spirited, treats you poorly, doesn’t listen, or disrespects you. You can doubtless recall examples from your own life.

Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to create trusting, safe communicative environments and avoid conflict.3 Here’s how: View yourself as a conversation partner. That is, treat others as if you’re working together to have a fruitful conversation—because you are. Seeing your conversations as partnerships is the single biggest step you can take to ensuring conversations stay civil and to building relationships instead of damaging them. Adopting this stance is also surprisingly easy.

From Winning to Understanding

Question: How do you switch from viewing people as opponents, moral degenerates, or even enemies to valued partners and collaborators?

Answer: Shift your goal from winning to understanding.

Make understanding your conversation partner’s reasoning your (initial) goal.4 Abandon adversarial thinking (conflict, strife, arguing, debating, ridicule, and the idea of winning), and adopt collaborative thinking (cooperation, partnership, listening, and learning).5 Shift from, “This person is my opponent who needs to understand what I’m saying,” to “This person is my partner in a conversation and I can learn from him—including learning exactly why he believes what he believes.”

You may be saying to yourself, I can talk to a lot of people like a partner, but I couldn’t do that with a racist! Yes, you can.6 If the black musician Daryl Davis can have civil conversations with Klansmen and help them abandon the KKK (and he can: he has a closet full of their relinquished hoods to prove it), then you can talk to a racist, or to anyone holding any belief system, and discover why they believe what they believe.7

One key to realizing you can have seemingly impossible conversations is recognizing that discussions are natural learning environments for both people. Treating an individual as a partner in civil dialogue does not mean accepting their conclusions or buying into their reasoning.8 (The mark of an educated mind, it has been said, is to understand a statement without having to accept it.9) It means thinking along with someone so that you understand not just what they believe but also why they believe it—in that process, maybe they’ll come to understand your reasoning, or see that their reasoning is in error, or maybe you’ll discover that you’re harboring a false belief.10 Conversational partnership isn’t about agreement or disagreement, it’s about civility, charity, and mutual understanding.11

At worst, you’ll have to endure hearing something truly vile, in which case you will come away from the conversation with a better understanding of why people hold repugnant beliefs. More likely, you’ll foster comfortable conversational environments, build relationships, better position yourself to understand and address similar arguments, and maybe even revise your own thinking.12

There’s a catch, of course. You can’t control someone else’s behavior. You can only control your own. So, you have to be the one who initially attempts to understand your conversation partner’s reasoning—even if they’re unwilling to reciprocate. You’ll also have to take an active role in establishing and maintaining the partnership dynamic and be ready to walk away if that becomes impossible. We’ll say more on this in the chapters that follow.

Forming Partnerships

Here’s how it works in practice, in a few easy points:

1. Make your goals of collaboration and understanding explicit.13

Say, “I really want to understand what led you to those conclusions. I hope we can figure this out together.”

2. Give your partner room to decline the conversational invitation, not answer your questions, or end the conversation at any time.

Do not pressure someone to converse if they’re uncomfortable participating.14

3. Ask yourself, not your partner, “How could someone believe that?”; and ask it in earnest, with curiosity instead of incredulity.

As you try to figure out the answer, the likelihood increases that your conversation will stay on track and not turn nasty.

#3—RAPPORT

Anthony Magnabosco (AM) is a Street Epistemologist.15 Street Epistemologists apply the famous Socratic method of questioning and other conversational tools to help people reconsider how they know what they think they know.16

Anthony met Kari (K) after she returned from a hike. In the conversation that follows, Anthony immediately establishes rapport. That is, he connects with her and helps her feel comfortable before conversing about her belief in God.17

AM: Good morning! How are you? Would you happen to have five minutes to do a chat?

K: Sure, sure!

AM: Okay, thanks. Are you okay if I livestream and record it?

K: Okay. And what’s it about?

AM: Excellent question…

K: [laughs]

AM: I have conversations with strangers for five minutes—

K: Okay…

AM:—to see what they believe and why.

K: [brightly] Okay!

AM: And it’s fun.

K: Okay!

AM: Okay, thank you!

K: Should I take my sunglasses off?

AM: Whatever you prefer. Whatever you’re more comfortable with.

K: Okay. [removes sunglasses]

AM: What is your first name?

K: Kari.

AM: I’m Anthony. [extends hand for a handshake]

K: Nice to meet you.

AM: Hi! Nice to meet you too! How do I spell that?

K: K-A-R-I.

AM: Okay… [writes down her name for his video notes] Do you hike here a lot?

K: Yes.

AM: Awesome! I’ve come here a couple times, but it’s usually with my kids, so I can’t go as fast as I want to.

K: Exactly! I usually come here with my kids.

AM: Yeah, yeah! They slow you down!

K: Yeah.

AM: Did you cruise through it pretty fast, or…?

K: Actually, you know, this is the first time I came by myself, so it was fun to just go do something harder.

AM: Okay, well, good, good!

This lasted approximately two minutes. In those two minutes, Anthony built enough rapport so that Kari felt comfortable talking with a stranger about her personal beliefs. He proceeded to speak with her about her belief in God.

Friendliness, Comfort, and Trust

Rapport is a kind of friendliness. When you’ve built rapport with your conversation partner you experience a closeness where you both feel comfortable, get along, mutually empathize, and work toward building trust. It is the most important element in having simple, friendly chats that avoid divisive issues and bring people together, and the same magic of friendliness it produces is indispensable for goal-directed conversations. If viewing conversations as partnerships does most of the work toward having great conversations, establishing and maintaining a friendly atmosphere improves the situation even further. The more individuals diverge in their stances, the more important it is to build and maintain rapport.18 Moreover, “As this connection grows, the [person with whom you’re speaking] is less likely to be defensive and more open to suggestion.”19

To build rapport, ask sincere questions (that is, questions for which you’d like to find answers, as opposed to asking questions as a tactic). For strangers, movies, music, how they know mutual friends, and the like, are good topics for starting to build rapport. If you’re already familiar with someone, then spend a little time catching up: how are their kids, parents, new house, and so forth? As a general rule, depending on the context, rapport building at the beginning of a conversation takes only a few minutes.20

If you already have rapport with someone, as you will with a friend, keeping your friendship should rank higher than winning an argument or scoring rhetorical points. Friends are more likely to listen and be more earnest in their consideration of your ideas. Far more importantly, however, they’re your friends. Nurture and even cherish the rapport you have with them instead of threatening it. This does not mean you cannot disagree with your friends. To the contrary, disagreement can make a friendship stronger, but remember that you’re friends first. Spend time enjoying the rapport-building stage before you jump into contentious issues. And don’t forget to chat with them as friends and leave goal-directed conversation out of it to focus on the friendship!

Practices to Build Rapport

Here are some specifics for building rapport, whether with strangers or friends:

1. Build rapport immediately.

Do not start the conversation with a substantive issue, especially if it is controversial.

2. If you do not know someone, here are a few obvious initial questions to begin the rapport-building process:

Hi. My name is X. How are you?

Nice to meet you, I’m X. What’s your name?

This is my first time here. How did you find out about this place?

Immediately after those initial ice-breaking questions, you can ask rapport-building questions that explore people’s motivations and interests:

Can you say more about why that’s important to you?21

What got you interested in that?

How do you spend most of your free time? What are you passionate about? (Don’t ask “What do you do?” as this rarely reveals someone’s passions.22)

What do you like to be called?23

Where’d you learn about that?24

3. Find common ground.

There are countless things you and your conversation partner have in common.25 Maybe you both practice jiu jitsu, like sushi, have tattoos, enjoy science fiction, are expecting parents, live in the same neighborhood, or feel passionately about some political issue. Be mindful of these commonalities if your conversation becomes heated.

One automatic commonality all but psychopaths have in common is an impulse for the good: you both want the best for yourselves, your friends, and your community. While you might diverge on what those outcomes would look like, living better lives is a foundational commonality.

4. Do not parallel talk.

Parallel talk is taking something someone says and using that to reference yourself or your experiences. For example, if someone tells you they just got back from Cuba, don’t starting talking about the time you went to Cuba. Ask them about their experience in Cuba. Don’t make their stories about your life. Parallel talk damages rapport.

5. Invest in the relationship, independent of your political views.

Friendships engender trust and openness, which act like bridges across divides. Remember the adage, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” As we’ll discuss in more detail in Chapter 3, this refers to how much you care about them and the things they care about, not about your political or moral commitments.

6. Engage in substantive conversation only if you’re willing to make time.

Do not rush and do not “hit and run.” If you can’t substantively engage someone’s ideas, leave it for a time when you can. It impairs rapport to force or speed through conversations.26 If your time is limited, use the moments you have to build rapport or catch up.

7. Be ready to talk about something else.

You know that uncle who ruins your family get-togethers because he just can’t leave his religion or politics alone? Don’t be that person. If the conversation gets sticky, be ready to change the subject to something less serious. If the conversation has moved on from a contentious issue, don’t be the one to bring it back up. Forcing issues destroys rapport.

8. Avoid call-outs, except for severe infractions.

Calling out someone means telling them, usually immediately, and in a harsh way that aims at inducing shame, that they have crossed a moral boundary. This is often followed with moral instruction, for example, “You should do this…” or “You shouldn’t do that…” Calling someone out, especially midstream in their thought, damages rapport.

Find a more delicate and better-timed way to bring up your concerns. Chances are, your partner is doing the best she can to express her thoughts. Rather than calling out her offenses, try to make sense of what she is saying and appreciate her authenticity, however rough around the edges. Of course, if someone is deliberately rude or abusive, you should stand up for yourself, say something, and set clear boundaries—or end the conversation.

9. Be courteous.

Say “please” and “thank you.” Also, say “I appreciate that” after someone offers a counterargument or disagrees with something you’ve said.27

#4—LISTEN

Think about listening in terms of your own experiences. Who would you rather come over for dinner, someone who knows “everything” and is convincing, or someone who is an attentive listener and engages you and makes you feel heard? If you are fortunate enough to have friends who are skilled listeners, then you already know who to invite for dinner. People find it deeply satisfying when they are heard, and the rewards you can reap by conscientiously and authentically listening are enormous.

If you do not listen, you cannot understand. And if you cannot understand, there is no conversation. Listening is more difficult than it seems, so it requires practice. Do what you can to make listening the center of your approach to conversation.

Best Practices to Improve Your Listening Skills

Here are some suggestions to immediately improve your listening:

1. “Go—” “No, you go.”

If you start to speak at the same time as someone else, don’t continue speaking. Instead, say, “Go ahead.” If they say, “No, you go,” respond, “That’s okay, you go,” and then let them speak.

Think about this like coming to a door at exactly the same moment as someone else. Don’t dive through the door; rather, step back and motion them forward. If they do the same and motion you to step through, then the option of stepping back farther and gesturing for them to walk through is available. Similar to defensive driving, you can always yield your right-of-way, but assuming the right-of-way only works when you truly have it.

2. Look directly at someone and turn your body toward them.

Nod to acknowledge when you understand. This cannot be an act. Listen authentically. Fully engage.

3. Unless your partner is searching for a word and you know it, do not finish their sentences.

Listen. Do not jump in to speak before having heard and processed what they’re saying. Listen.

If at any point the conversation becomes tense, listen more, talk less, and don’t rush to fill silence with words. Wait. It is difficult to have an adversarial relationship with someone who’s an excellent listener.

4. Pause.

Pauses are crucial moments when people reflect. Do not rush to fill them. Pauses may build trust and rapport while offering you a chance to understand your partner’s reasoning.

In Western cultures, people tend to be uncomfortable with even a moment of conversational silence (these are sometimes termed “lacunas”). Rather than a problem that needs to be solved, pauses should be viewed as opportunities; a moment of unbroken silence offers a “reflection event” for participants.

5. If you find yourself distracted by something in your immediate environment, either turn your back toward the distraction or explicitly identify what’s distracting to you.

This can form a common bond if your conversation partner also finds the same thing distracting. For example, if you’re distracted by a heated conversation in the adjacent room, say, “They’re really having an intense conversation. It’s distracting me. Is it distracting you?”

6. If you’re unclear about what someone means, place the burden of understanding upon yourself.

At a pause point in the discussion, say, “I’m not sure I understand. Can you explain that?” Avoid saying, “That was unclear,” or “That doesn’t make sense,” and especially, “You were unclear.”

7. The moment you sense fear, frustration, anger, outrage, or disgust from your conversation partner, pay attention to the specific words she uses.

Fear, frustration, and the others, are feelings. One of the best ways to sort out feelings, especially in strained conversations, is to listen and acknowledge them as soon as possible.

Repeat specific feeling words, for example, “I hear that. I understand your frustration.”28 Acknowledgment through use of the same words can potentially direct the conversation away from conflict.29 If nothing else, this demonstrates that you were listening.

8. If you start to fade or find yourself distracted when someone is talking to you, look them directly in the eyes and state, “I’m sorry. Can you please repeat that?”

If you find yourself persistently distracted to the extent that it interferes with your listening, then it is likely time to end the conversation.

9. If you and your partner accidentally speak at the same time, and your partner continues while you remain silent and listen, when you resume the conversation do not do so with the words that caused the interruption.

Let’s say you’re having a conversation and you interrupt each other. The last words you used were, “So he told me—”. When you begin speaking again, do not start with, “So he told me.” This makes it seem like you didn’t listen to anything your partner just said. Instead, when you resume, acknowledge your partner’s point with alternative wording and continue with their thread of the conversation. Alternatively, let go of what you were going to say and follow what your partner was saying.

10. Do not pull out your phone when you are having a conversation.

This is true even if you would like to search for more information on the topic.

11. Say, “I hear you,” to acknowledge you’re listening.

Mean it. “I hear you” is simple yet effective.

#5—SHOOT THE MESSENGER

Have you ever thought you made a convincing case for a position only to have someone promptly reject your conclusion? This frequently occurs because people deliver messages and the recipient rejects the act of delivery. Nobody likes to be lectured.

The research literature on effective conversations shows that delivering messages does not work.30 This is because messengers don’t speak across political and moral divides, or even converse—they deliver messages. Conversations are exchanges. Messages are information conveyed in one-way transactions. Messengers espouse beliefs and assume their audience will listen and ultimately embrace their conclusions.

Even when messages are not delivered across any sort of political or moral divide, they tend to be poorly received. In the 1940s, the psychologist Kurt Lewin and his students published a series of studies concerning an attempt to get housewives to incorporate sweetbreads (organ meats) into home-cooked meals to help with meat shortages during World War II.31 Some housewives were given a lecture about why incorporating sweetbreads was important for the war effort. Others were invited to self-generate reasons for their importance in group sessions similar to today’s focus groups. Lewin observed that 37 percent of the members of the groups who self-generated reasons followed through and incorporated sweetbreads, and in the lectured groups, only 3 percent did so.32

There are many reasons why the self-generated groups had a much higher compliance with the desired behavior (one of which we return to in Chapter 6, Altercasting). Among these is that people tend to reject delivered messages and accept ideas they believe are their own.33 If you’ve had a friend reject every idea you propose until days or weeks later when she happens upon one of them “for herself,” then you have firsthand experience with this phenomenon.

When a messenger delivers undesirable news or facts that contradict the recipient’s closely held beliefs, the hearer’s temptation is to be angry with (or historically, to kill) the messenger for delivering the unwelcome information. (The original adage is “Don’t shoot the messenger” for a reason.34) The easiest way to avoid this reaction is not to deliver uninvited messages.

Delivering Messages Does Not Work

Here are some suggestions for shifting from a message delivery service to a conversation:

1. Distinguish between delivering a message and authentic conversation.

Delivering a message feels like teaching, whereas a conversation has give-and-take that rewards with learning. If you find yourself thinking, “If they only understood this point, they’d change their mind,” you’re delivering a message.

Ask yourself, “Was I invited to share this, or am I just telling them?” If it’s the latter, you’re probably coming across as a messenger.

2. Approach every conversation with an awareness that your partner understands problems in a way that you don’t currently comprehend.

You’ll be less likely to deliver messages if you’re more focused on figuring out how someone knows what they know than if you presume to understand the reasoning behind someone’s conclusions.

3. Don’t meet their message delivery with your message delivery.

That’s not a conversation, but an invitation to debate. It’s a message delivery service and a recipe for frustration and deepening someone’s commitment to their beliefs. Remember: nobody likes to be lectured; in tense conversations, people care more about their message than about those it seems to contradict.

4. When you realize your partner is being a messenger, do not shoot the messenger.

If you shoot the messenger in your partner, you will destroy rapport and may derail the conversation. “Shooting messengers” should only be a self-inflicted act: take aim at your own messenger.

If your partner enters messenger mode, begin a listening and learning mode centering on asking questions. Questions can be an effective way to nudge the conversation back on track. They are also integral to intervention techniques described in later chapters.

5. Deliver your message only upon your partner’s explicit request.

Be succinct. Then return to a collaborative mind-set that’s centered upon listening and learning. Thank them for listening and ask if they have a reply. Say, “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to say that. I appreciate it. Any thoughts you’d like to add?”

#6—INTENTIONS

The following discussion, between Socrates and Meno, is from a classical text of Greek philosophy, the dialogue Meno written by Plato in the fourth century BCE.

Socrates: Do you think some men desire bad and others good? Doesn’t everyone, in your opinion, desire good things?

Meno: No.

Socrates: And would you say that the others suppose bad things to be good, or do they still desire them although they recognize them as bad?

Meno: Both, I should say.

Socrates: What? Do you really think that anyone who recognizes bad things for what they are, nevertheless desires them?

Meno: Yes.

Socrates: Desires in what way? To possess them?

Meno: Of course.

Socrates: In the belief that bad things bring advantage to their possessor, or harm?

Meno: Some in the first belief, but some also in the second.

Socrates: And do you believe that those who suppose bad things bring advantage understand that they are bad?

Meno: No, that I can’t really believe.

Socrates: Isn’t it clear then that this class, who don’t recognize bad things for what they are, don’t desire bad but what they think is good, though in fact it is bad; those who through ignorance mistake bad things for good obviously desire the good?

Meno: For them I suppose that is true.

Socrates: Now as for those whom you speak of as desiring bad things in the belief that they do harm to their possessor, these presumably know that they will be injured by them?

Meno: They must.

Socrates: And don’t they believe that whoever is injured is, in so far as he is injured, unhappy?

Meno: That too they must believe.

Socrates: And unfortunate?

Meno: Yes.

Socrates: Well, does anybody want to be unhappy and unfortunate?

Meno: I suppose not.

Socrates: Then if not, nobody desires what is bad, for what else is unhappiness but desiring bad things and getting them?

Meno: It looks as if you are right, Socrates, and nobody desires what is bad.35

People Do Not Knowingly Desire Bad Things

In the Meno, Socrates said that people do not knowingly desire bad things. Individuals act, believe, and desire based upon the information they have. If they had different information, they’d derive different conclusions. For example, physicians used to treat patients with leeches because they thought diseases were caused by an excess of blood. They attached leeches to patients because they wanted to help them. They desired the good—to improve patients’ health—but they didn’t have information we have now, which is that excess blood is unrelated to disease. We all have an impulse for goodness. However, lacking a comprehensive picture contributes to the failure of arriving at correct conclusions.36

When you encounter a person with radically different beliefs, you might think they’re ignorant, crazy, or malicious.37 Resist this inclination and instead consider that they view issues from a different perspective or that they’re acting upon what they think is the best available information. Chances are far better that they mean to help but aren’t great at communicating than that they’re actually ignorant, crazy, or malicious.

In a disagreement, people frequently assume their partners’ intentions and motivations are worse than they are.38 Many people, for example, assume conservatives are racist, liberals aren’t patriotic, Republicans don’t care about poor people, or Democrats are weak on national defense. They then go on to assume that these perceived shortcomings motivate beliefs and arguments. This is usually false.39

The intentions and motivations you assume in your conversation partner are likely worse than their actual intentions and motivations. For example, it is simply not the case that most Republicans don’t care about poor people. Rather, they’re likely operating under the assumptions that opportunity “trickles down” through job creation and that tough love helps motivate people to raise themselves out of poverty. Within this framework, cutting taxes on high-income earners stimulates opportunities that trickle down to those who are economically disadvantaged.40 What matters isn’t whether they are correct or incorrect; it’s that their intention is to improve a bad situation, which is a far better motivation than many Democrats assume.41

Assuming your partner has malicious intentions stifles your conversation. It halts cooperation and undermines the possibility of using the conversation to arrive at truth. It may also make your words seem snarky and put people on the defensive (which will make it less likely they’ll change their beliefs). Even more damaging to conversations is that making negative assumptions about your partner’s intentions makes you less capable of listening.42

If you must make an assumption about your partner’s intentions, make only one: their intentions are better than you think. People don’t knowingly desire bad things, so assume your partner has good intentions.43 (Internet trolls and psychopaths, covered in Chapter 7, are distinct exceptions.)

Here’s how you can immediately apply this:

1. If your partner assumes you have bad intentions, do not waste time trying to convince her otherwise.

Instead, switch the conversation from your intentions to your reasoning. Say, “I absolutely do not want to be wrong for one more instant than I have to be. If something is wrong with my reasoning, please let me know.”44

2. If you start to assume your partner has bad intentions, switch to a frame of curiosity.

Consider that they may know something you do not know. Explicitly ask about the issue. Say, “I’m having a hard time understanding where you’re coming from. I assume you must know some things about this that I don’t. Could you tell me more about where you’re coming from on that so I can understand better?”

3. Admit frustration.

Say, “I’m feeling frustrated. I want to understand where you’re coming from. I’m also unclear about your intention. Could you tell me, what is your intention?” This is an open-ended question that leaves room for interpretation. If they respond, “What do you mean, what’s my intention?” reply, “What are your hopes for this conversation? What would you like to get out of it?”

Often people you find frustrating are just trying to help; equally often, they’re doing so from the messenger stance. That’s why they frustrate you.

4. “Do not feed the trolls.”

In Internet-speak, trolls are people who have bad intentions and act maliciously. Trolls are toxic to conversations.45 Let them waste their time. Stop playing their game. Block or mute their accounts.

You’re under no obligation to engage someone whose goal is to irritate you. Never be bullied into having a conversation. Have a conversation because you want to, not because you are being harassed for not speaking to someone. Consent applies to all participants.

#7—WALK AWAY

For years, I (Peter) have been developing interventions to change a sports fan’s team preference. For example, if someone likes the Dallas Cowboys, I have been trying to figure out what to say to convince them to like the New England Patriots. My success rate has been abysmal.

The following is an attempted intervention I had with an LA Lakers fan. My first goal was to instill doubt about whether or not he should be a Lakers fan, and my second goal was to convince him to be a Trail Blazers fan. “LA fan” was approximately twenty-eight years old. We met while waiting in line for a table at a popular LA restaurant.

Boghossian: I just don’t get it. The players on the team aren’t even from LA. Right?

LA fan: Well, yeah.

Boghossian: Where are they from?

LA fan: [rattles off players and cities]

Boghossian: Okay. Got it. If they were from LA, then I could totally understand why you’d be a fan. Right? I mean, they’d be from here and there’d be kinship and familiarity and such, yeah?

LA fan: Well, yeah. But they’re my team. This is my city. I love LA!

Boghossian: Who doesn’t? Great place. But the team is filled with people who aren’t from here.

LA fan: But they play for the city. They play for us. So when they win we win!

Boghossian: Would you feel more intensely about the Lakers if every team member was from LA?

[pause]

LA fan: What do you mean?

Boghossian: I mean if every single player on the team was born and raised in Los Angeles, would you feel more strongly? Would you be more connected to the team?

[pause]

LA fan: Maybe. Yeah. Maybe. I think so.

Boghossian: So shouldn’t you be less enthusiastic and connected given that they’re not from LA? I mean if you’d be more enthusiastic if they’re from LA, then shouldn’t you be less enthusiastic because they’re not?

[long pause]

At this point I should have ended the conversation on a light note. I should not have moved on to my second goal of changing his team preference. But I persisted and tried to guide him toward another team. (It is much easier to instill doubt than it is to nudge people toward a belief or to change their preference.) The consequence of this was that he doubled down on his Laker enthusiasm and the tenor of the conversation changed. He became defensive and less curious. We were having a fun, enjoyable chat that I made less enjoyable and less fun because I pushed the conversation to where he became defensive.

Exit, Stage Left

Know when to walk away, even when the conversation is going well.46

Putting pressure on your partner to continue a discussion beyond their comfort level shuts down listening, encourages defensiveness, and turns the conversation into a frustrated rehearsal of why one of you is correct and the other dense. Consequently, your conversation partner may double down on his views and the rapport between you will erode, possibly hurting your friendship.47

There may come a point when you’ve exhausted your options. Perhaps you have nothing left to say, you feel like you’ve been going around and around, or you’re at an impasse. A common mistake is to attempt to “fix” or reset conversations and then continue. Don’t. Instead, part amicably.

People need time to wrestle with doubt, incorporate new information, mull over challenges and different perspectives, and rethink their positions.48 And so do you. Changing one’s mind happens slowly and in a way that suits one’s individual psychology and habits.49 Over time, new beliefs and attitudes integrate with, or entirely replace, existing ones.50 Forcing a conversation beyond someone’s comfort zone denies you and your partner an opportunity to reflect while placing a strain on the relationship. Politely leaving a conversation when all parties are getting along can be an opportunity for those involved to reflect on issues.

Finally, try to end on a positive note. Sometimes even a simple “Thanks for chatting with me” is sufficient.

How to End a Conversation

Here are some suggestions for knowing when to end a conversation:

1. End the conversation if your primary emotion is frustration.

If the discussion escalated to anger, you may need to walk away sooner than expected.51

2. Breathe.

Literally. Breathe. When you initially feel yourself becoming frustrated, back off, slow down, don’t feel pressured to fill pauses with speech—and breathe.52 Take a deep breath.53 If you do not calm down, then end the conversation and walk away.

3. If someone wants to end the conversation, politely thank them for speaking with you.

Don’t engage someone past their comfort threshold.

4. If you think you have caused your partner to doubt one of her beliefs, that is a good time to stop the conversation.

Allow her to explore her doubt, and to wonder about it on her own terms. If she continues to express curiosity, state that this is a good opportunity for both of you to think about these issues. You can then part ways or change the subject, depending upon the context.

Attempting to fill your partner’s doubt and wonder with your beliefs is sometimes genuinely educational, but it can also be a form of evangelism. Don’t evangelize. It is an unethical abuse of the vulnerability that accompanies doubt to use it in an attempt to sway your partner (except in exceptional circumstances of genuine expertise or if someone holds a fantastically implausible, antiscientific belief).

5. Thank your partner when you end the conversation.

The more you do not want to thank someone for the conversation, the more important it is to thank them. (There are exceptions to this. For example, if someone was smearing or harassing you.) Reticence to thank your conversation partner suggests an emotional attachment to the topic or that you have some personal issue with them that’s likely bled through into the discussion. Thanking someone for their time is a basic courtesy. Thanking someone will also help conversations end on an upbeat, friendly note.

CONCLUSION

You now have the fundamentals necessary for effective, civil conversations. We urge you to practice this material before attempting to apply the techniques in the next chapter. The greater your mastery of the content in this chapter, the more success you will have when applying more advanced techniques.

Notably, you do not need to seek out conversations. Opportunities present themselves in day-to-day interactions—with coworkers, checkout clerks, wait staff, roommates, friends, relatives, and so forth. Simply go about your day and wait until you are approached.

Every conversation is an opportunity to practice being a kinder, more effective communicator. Becoming a better listener and partner in conversations can only have a positive effect on your relationships. Start now.

three

Beginner Level: Nine Ways to Start Changing Minds

How to Intervene in Someone’s Cognitions

#1—MODELING

Model the behavior you want to see in others

#2—WORDS

Define terms up front

#3—ASK QUESTIONS

Focus on a specific question

#4—ACKNOWLEDGE EXTREMISTS

Point out bad things people on your side do

#5—NAVIGATING SOCIAL MEDIA

Do not vent on social media

#6—DON’T BLAME, DO DISCUSS CONTRIBUTIONS

Shift from blame to contribution

#7—FOCUS ON EPISTEMOLOGY

Figure out how people know what they claim to know

#8—LEARN

Learn what makes someone close-minded

#9—WHAT NOT TO DO (REVERSE APPLICATIONS)

A list of fundamental and basic conversational mistakes

I read, I study, I examine, I listen, I reflect, and out of all of this I try to form an idea into which I put as much common sense as I can. I shall not speak much for fear of saying foolish things; I will risk still less for fear of doing them, for I am not disposed to abuse the confidence which they have deigned to show me. Such is the conduct which until now I have followed and will follow. — Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, in a letter to his father-in-law, the Duc d’Ayan, December 4, 1776

Now that you have a grasp on the fundamentals of effective conversations, you’re ready to expand your repertoire and include interventions. Interventions are ways to intervene or intercede in how someone forms their beliefs. The goal of an intervention is to help people become less confident about what they believe, which is where changing someone’s mind begins. In other words, just by speaking with someone you’ll be able to intercede in their cognitions and give them the gift of doubt.

As we explained in Chapter 2, you have little prospect of achieving that goal by delivering your own message accompanied by what strike you as compelling facts. That approach is likely to backfire and leave your conversation partner more entrenched in her beliefs than ever. The most effective techniques for giving the gift of doubt are subtler, and they’ll lead you to more interesting conversations.

To get started, you’ll learn the power of modeling the behaviors you want to see in others and of focusing upon exploring questions. You’ll learn to avoid talking past your conversation partner, or getting bogged down in unproductive conversation, because of disagreements about the meanings of words. In this chapter, you’ll also learn one of the most powerful and simple techniques for engaging someone who strongly disagrees not only with you but also with the side she thinks you represent: building camaraderie by demonstrating you’re not an extremist.

These basic skills open conversations and shift them into learning mode. In particular, you’ll focus on the importance of understanding how and why your conversation partner thinks and believes as she does. You can then use that understanding to help others—and yourself—become more humble about what they think they know. It’s always worth remembering: to give others the gift of doubt, you need to possess it yourself.

Finally, this chapter should help you avoid a raft of common conversational errors. These common errors can quickly undermine both truth-seeking and intervention-based discussions. Fortunately, they’re easily avoided.

#1—MODELING

In 2015, at a meeting with Muslim community leaders in Australia, Peter repeatedly asked their spokesperson if he believed women should be stoned to death for adultery. He couldn’t receive a straight answer. The first response he received was a deflection, so he repeated the question:

Boghossian: Should women be stoned to death for adultery?

Community Leader: Why not men? Why shouldn’t men be stoned for adultery?

[Peter repeated the question and was met with a long, convoluted story he couldn’t follow.]

Boghossian: Ask me that question.

Community Leader: What do you mean?

Boghossian: Would you please ask me, right now, if I believe women should be stoned to death for adultery.

[pause]

Community Leader: Do you believe women should be stoned to death for adultery?

Boghossian: No. Now, do you believe women should be stoned to death for adultery?

[long pause]

Community Leader: Yes.

Model the behavior you want to see in your conversation partner. If you want her to answer a direct question, answer a direct question. If you want her to be patient and listen, be patient and listen.1 If you want her to start screaming, start screaming.2 If you want your partner to be open to changing her mind, be open to changing yours. If you want them to be civil, be civil. If you want them to give ground, give some of yours. If you want her to listen to you, listen to her first. This advice is easy to hear yet difficult to follow. But it’s indispensable, especially when speaking to people with whom you disagree. It’s also crucial to prevent conversations from becoming derailed.

A Common Fallacy: “Someone Knows It, So I Know It”

A philosopher and a psychologist, Robert A. Wilson and Frank Keil, have researched the phenomenon of ignorance of one’s ignorance.3 In a 1998 paper titled “The Shadows and Shallows of Explanation,” they studied the well-known phenomenon of people who believe they understand how things work better than they actually do.4 They discovered our tendency to believe we’re more knowledgeable than we are because we believe in other people’s expertise. Think about this like borrowing books from the great library of human knowledge and then never reading the books. We think we possess the information in the books because we have access to them, but we don’t have the knowledge because we’ve never read the books, much less studied them in depth. Following this analogy, we’ll call this fallacy the “Unread Library Effect.”

The Unread Library Effect was revealed in an experiment by two researchers in 2001, Frank Keil (again) and Leonid Rozenblit; they called it “the illusion of explanatory depth” and referred to it as “the misunderstood limits of folk science.”5 They researched people’s understanding of the inner workings of toilets. Subjects were asked to numerically rate how confident they were in their explanation of how a toilet works. The subjects were then asked to explain verbally how a toilet works, giving as much detail as possible. After attempting an explanation, they were asked to numerically rate their confidence again. This time, however, they admitted being far less confident. They realized their own reliance on borrowed knowledge and thus their own ignorance.6

In 2013, cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, with behavioral scientist Todd Rogers and cognitive psychologist Craig Fox, performed an experiment showing that the Unread Library Effect also applies to political beliefs. That is, helping people understand they’re relying upon borrowed knowledge leads them to introduce doubt for themselves and thus has a moderating effect on people’s beliefs. By having participants explain policies in as much detail as possible, along with how those policies would be implemented and what impacts they might have, the researchers successfully nudged strong political views toward moderation.7 Taking advantage of this phenomenon, then, confers at least two significant benefits in an intervention. First, it allows your conversational partner to do most of the talking, which affords you the opportunity to listen and prevents them from feeling as though you’re trying to change their mind. Second, they lead themselves into doubt rather than feeling pressured by someone else.

Modeling ignorance is an effective way to help expose the Unread Library Effect because, as the name implies, the Unread Library Effect relies upon information about which your conversation partner is ignorant—even though she doesn’t realize it. In essence, you want her to recognize the limits of her knowledge. Specifically, then, you should model behavior highlighting the limits of your own knowledge. This has three significant merits:

1. It creates an opportunity for you to overcome the Unread Library Effect, that is, thinking you know more about an issue than you do.

2. It contributes to a climate of making it okay to say “I don’t know,” and thus gives tacit permission to your partner to admit that she doesn’t know.

3. It’s a subtle but effective strategy for exposing the gap between your conversation partner’s perceived knowledge and her actual knowledge.

Here are some examples of how you can apply this in conversations. You can say, “I don’t know how the details of using mass deportations of illegal immigrants would play out. I think there are likely both pros and cons, and I really don’t know which outweigh which. How would that policy be implemented? Who pays for it? How much would it cost? What does that look like in practice? Again, I don’t know enough specifics to have a strong opinion, but I’m happy to listen to the details.” When you do this, don’t be shy. Explicitly invite explanations, ask for specifics, follow up with pointed questions that revolve around soliciting how someone knows the details, and continue to openly admit your own ignorance. In many conversations, the more ignorance you admit, the more readily your partner in the conversation will step in with an explanation to help you understand. And the more they attempt to explain, the more likely they are to realize the limits of their own knowledge.

In this example, if your partner is an expert in this aspect of immigration policy, you might be rewarded with a good lesson. Otherwise, you might lead her to expose the Unread Library Effect because you started by modeling ignorance. Should your conversation partner begin to question her expertise and discover the Unread Library Effect, let its effects percolate. Do not continue to pepper her with questions.

It’s worth repeating that this strategy not only helps moderate strong views, it models openness, willingness to admit ignorance, and readiness to revise beliefs. Modeling intellectually honest ignorance is a virtue that seasoned conversation partners possess—and it is fairly easy to achieve.

Ways to Model Better Conversation

Here are a few ways you can use Modeling, expose the Unread Library Effect, and intervene in someone’s beliefs.

1. Say “I don’t know” when you don’t know.

Not knowing something isn’t a badge of shame, it’s a public display of honesty, humility, and sincerity. Commend people when they say, “I don’t know.”

2. If you ask someone a direct question and they obfuscate or refuse to answer, ask them to ask you the same question. (See the example of stoning women for adultery at the beginning of this section.)

Give them a succinct answer (that is, model what you’re seeking) and then immediately ask them the identical question.

3. Model the behavioral traits that are key to effective, successful conversations: listening, honesty (especially admitting ignorance), sincerity, curiosity, openness, fairness, charity (not assuming bad intentions), focusing on justifications for belief, humility, humor, give-and-take, and willingness to change your mind.

4. From admitting you don’t know enough to hold a firm position on a topic, ask for explanations, in as much detail as possible, about your partner’s beliefs.

Remember, Sloman and Fernbach’s research showed that attempting to explain complicated topics often reveals the Unread Library Effect and has the result of toning down views.8 The more details you can ask your partner to provide (for example, “What branch of law enforcement conducts mass deportations?” “What departments’ budgets does this come out of and how much does it cost?” “What are the laws currently regulating the deportation of immigrants?” “What are the best arguments against those laws?” “Where are deportees held?” “What might go wrong?”), the stronger the effect.

5. Expose your own Unread Library Effect.

Pick political topics that are important to you and try to explain how they work in as much detail as possible. Be specific about impacts and implementation. For additional practice, try it with everyday objects like your coffee maker or scientific processes, like how the semiconductors in electronics work. These make good examples to practice with, unlike complicated political positions, because they’re easily checked online.

6. Model clarity; avoid jargon.

Strive for clarity. And unless you’re a quantum physicist, avoid using the word quantum.9

7. Do not model bad behavior.

Don’t interrupt people or treat them rudely. If you want to be treated with kindness and civility, be kind and civil. Most poignantly, if you want your views to be treated charitably, treat your partner’s views charitably.

#2—WORDS

In 2017, James Damore, the Google engineer who authored the famous “Google memo,” was fired allegedly for “perpetuating gender stereotypes.” At Google’s request, Damore had provided feedback as to what he saw as a problem at the tech giant. He later commented on the sequence of events during a public event at Portland State University:

I had been working at Google for about four years and I noticed that we had some inclusion problems on our team some people wouldn’t go to our group lunches or speak up in our team meetings, so I went to a diversity and inclusion conference at Google. Unfortunately, rather than talk about how to… include everyone on the team it just talked about diversity and specifically racial and gender diversity at Google.… They said… the population has 50 percent women, Google has 20 percent women, therefore sexism.… They asked for feedback and… I had actually been doing biology in grad school before going to Google, and I knew a little bit about psychology and actually why… there may be fewer women interested in tech.… So I wrote this document and I… explained these factors we have to take into account if we want to change Google to make it more appealing to more women and how we can actually fix some of these workplace issues and remove gender from the discussion.10

Although this example illustrates the many problems at play in Google’s culture (e.g., in asking for feedback, company management only wanted the type of feedback that comported with a particular narrative about diversity), one misunderstanding comes from Google’s nonstandard use of the words diversity and inclusion. Damore, understandably, took “diversity and inclusion” to mean improving the participation of all team members when clearly that was not what management intended by these terms. As a result of speaking frankly, though politely, across this terminological misunderstanding, Damore was fired from Google.

The Meanings of Words

Though many arguments seem to be about matters of substance, they’re often just disagreements about the meanings of words.11 One clue you’re caught in such a situation is that you want to appeal to a dictionary. (Appealing to a dictionary to adjudicate the meaning of words isn’t very helpful because people use words in different ways and because meanings vary across contexts. For examples, think about faith, woman, and, as we’ve just seen, diversity.)

Someone might say, for instance, “I hate the government,” when they mean they hate intrusive government, corruption, bureaucracy, concentrated political authority, or regulations that don’t comport with their values. Someone else might claim they like the government when they really mean they want security, stability, social services, and infrastructure. If these two people have a conversation about “the government,” there’s a risk they’ll argue even if they agree about almost every issue of policy. Such clashes are frustrating because they appear to be substantive but are really about the meanings of words. Frustration and miscommunication can be reduced by defining words and agreeing upon definitions up front.

Disagreements about definitions can easily derail moral conversations because words can signify profoundly different things to different people. (As Peter explained in A Manual for Creating Atheists, religious people and atheists have disagreements about the meaning of the word faith.12 It’s thus important to clarify the meaning of that word in particular before a conversation continues.)

In politics, liberals might see welfare programs as a moral responsibility of a developed state, whereas conservatives might see them as the government discouraging hard work by providing handouts. That is, liberals might interpret issues regarding welfare in terms of care and harm, and conservatives might think of the issues mainly in terms of fairness (more on this in Chapter 7).13 In this case, the word welfare means the same thing functionally, but carries distinct moral connotations for different audiences.14 Here, talking directly about undeserved government handouts or alleviating poverty can avoid the morally charged term welfare. And notice how easily this conversation could be derailed into a heated argument about fairness and who deserves what! If you can’t agree upon the meaning of a word that’s central to the conversation (truth, woman, welfare), then you can either move on to another issue or discontinue the conversation.15

How to Get on the Same Verbal Page

Here are some simple ways to clear up disagreements about the meanings of words before they derail your conversations.

1. Define words up front.

Say, “What do you mean by [X]?” or “How is [X] defined?”

2. Try to understand the context in which a word is being used.

Ask, “Do you use that word in the same way in other contexts too? What would be an example of that?” For example, “I’m trying to figure out how the word [X] is being used here. Is there an example of the word [X] being used in another context that has the same meaning?”

3. Go with their definitions.

If you’ve asked your partner for a definition, and they provide it, accept their definition and move forward. If you cannot accept their definition of a term that’s crucial to the conversation, then move on to another issue or end the conversation.

4. Be attentive to a word’s moral implication.

If a word has moral significance, your partner may have convinced themselves of the truth of their belief because they think that holding that belief makes them a better person.16 That is, they’ve likely worked backward from believing the belief makes them a better person to then finding evidence for the belief. (Their moral mind is overriding their rational mind.) For example, moral reasoning often follows this pattern: Jon believes good people believe X. Jon believes he’s a good person, so Jon believes he should believe X. Jon then looks for evidence to support X and tends to believe X as a result, while believing he believes X based on the evidence he has found.17

#3—ASK QUESTIONS

Take a lesson from Socrates: focus your conversation on a specific question as opposed to a general topic.

Socrates is most famous for his ability to shake people out of erroneous beliefs. He mostly did this not through careful argumentation but with thoughtful, targeted questioning. Below are examples of Socrates’ questions, selected from various dialogues written by his disciple Plato:18

What is it to be a man? What is it to be virtuous? (Apology, Meno)

What is courage? (Laches)

What is justice? (Republic)

Why obey the law? (Crito, Republic)

What’s worth dying for? (Apology, Crito)

When is punishment justified? (Gorgias, Crito)

How important is personal responsibility? (Gorgias, Republic, Laws)

What’s the best life? (Republic)

What obligations do we have toward others? (Republic)

In each case, Socrates formed his inquiry around a clear question. His conversations were manageable because they were focused. If the conversation strayed, or things became unclear, he came back to the original question. As with attempting to expose the Unread Library Effect, focus on questions, not topics.

Calibrated Questions

When your questions are open-ended, meaning questions that allow your partner to talk at length about her thoughts in her own words (not give single-word answers like “yes” and “no”), they invite conversations. Hostage negotiator Chris Voss terms certain open-ended questions “calibrated questions.”19 A calibrated question usually starts with how or what. How and what questions don’t lend themselves to yes-and-no responses as do questions beginning with can, is, are, does, and do.20 For example, ask, “How does this seem to you?” as opposed to “Does this look good?” When in doubt, start with how or what.

Questions from good physicians provide us with examples of calibrated questions. Rather than asking, “Do you feel pain?” which invites only a yes-or-no reply, a seasoned doctor might ask, “What can you tell me about any sensations you are experiencing, such as pain?”

Closed questions, those questions that lend themselves to one-word or very brief answers, especially yes or no, do not invite further discussion and can make conversation awkward. They’re also often used by trial lawyers when attempting to corner witnesses during cross-examination. In that context, they can be devastating in extracting admissions from individuals required to answer. Though they are sometimes useful, they should be used with discretion. Do you want to be cross-examined when you’re trying to have a conversation? Of course you don’t! No one else does either. You might use closed questions when a conversation partner is not forthright, as in the earlier example of stoning women for adultery. In that case, a simple yes-or-no question had a useful role to play.

How to Ask Calibrated Questions in Any Conversation

1. Once you’ve selected a topic, narrow it down and clearly state it in question format.

Say, “Just so that I’m clear, the question here is [X], yeah?” Listen to your partner’s response and modify the question accordingly. If the question needs to be reformed, then restate the new formation, saying, “Okay, I think I got it now. So the question is [X], yes?” This is an example where a closed question is useful, but only after it has been set up.

If they still don’t agree with your formulation of the question, say, “What do you think the question should be?” or “How would you phrase the question?” Notice that these are both calibrated questions.

2. If the conversation goes astray, bring it back to the original question.

Say, “We were discussing X, let’s get back to that if it’s okay,” or “We started discussing X, but somewhere along the way we became sidetracked. Can we get back to X?”

Alternatively, if you don’t want to revisit your initial question, don’t. If your conversation strays to more interesting territory, and you’d like to pursue that, then try to articulate another question as you begin a new discussion.

3. Be authentic.

The best questions show you’re sincerely interested in exploring answers as opposed to asking a question to achieve some goal.21 People respect—and crave—authenticity and distrust gimmicks. If you are genuinely interested in your discussion question it will show.22

4. Do not disguise statements as questions and avoid leading questions that carry an agenda.

For example, “How do you think the Republicans came to be indifferent to the plight of poor people?” The question is considered “leading,” even though it’s superficially calibrated, because it assumes the other person’s in agreement that the Republicans are callous about the poor. This is an inauthentic means of communicating that either pretends you aren’t arguing when you are or pretends you don’t have an agenda. This is likely to backfire if the person with whom you’re speaking doesn’t share your assumptions.

5. Ask calibrated “How…?” and “What…?” questions.

Calibrated questions are open-ended and give the conversation an opportunity to develop in the directions you hope they’ll go. In general, avoid closed questions (like yes-or-no questions) unless you want to clarify, stop obfuscation, or seek confirmation that you have correctly understood your partner’s thoughts.

#4—ACKNOWLEDGE EXTREMISTS

In the southern United States, there’s a proverb that may have been adapted from sales: “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” It took James a lot longer than it should have—more than a decade—to sort out what that simple statement means.

On a superficial reading, the proverb seems to mean one of two things. It either seems to mean that people will only care about your knowledge if you’re passionate (that is, if you care a lot about the subject) or if you care about the people you’re talking with. Both have merit but are worthless for changing opinions. These two perspectives on the proverb are relevant in sales, but they’re irrelevant in conversations taking place across a moral divide.

Passion makes you easy to hear, but it rarely convinces people they should listen. It often does the opposite, painting you as a zealot or the kind of person who is generally out of touch with reality. (Think of a street preacher.) Similarly, interpersonal trust is rarely sufficient to bridge a moral divide. Many of James’s close friends harbor dramatically different religious and political views, and caring about them as people only gets them to be willing to hear him out. It almost never leads them to agree with his conclusions or the reasons he holds them.

When James realized how this proverb applies on a moral level, it dramatically changed the ways he could converse with people who hold different views. The key that unlocks the riddle of this Southern proverb is recognizing the proper object of the verb care. It isn’t “care about the topic,” and it isn’t even “care about the people” (though this is an important component); it’s care about the right things, as seen from your partner’s perspective. It’s about sharing values.23

The decoded moral proverb: to win your partner’s trust across a moral divide, you must be able to demonstrate that you care about your partner and, especially, about the values your partner cares about. Even if your partner cannot see you as being on his moral team, for him to trust you he must be able to see you independently from his enemies’ team. If you fail to do this, few will care what you have to say (or why you’re saying it). Understanding this point is critical to having conversations that reach across a moral divide.

Building this kind of trust is challenging and takes time. Many of the tools and approaches in this book can help you learn how to prove yourself trustworthy where it counts, that is, to someone whose moral worldview doesn’t match yours. On the other hand, there’s at least one way to ensure you won’t have this trust, and it is altogether too common. Unless you can distinguish yourself from the people “on your side” who your conversation partner considers the most frightening, you’ll never gain their trust; they’ll never care how much you know about topics near to their deepest concerns, like religion, morals, and politics.

Extremists Go Too Far

It almost always helps a political and moral conversation to find areas of moral agreement. There’s one easy point of agreement available in almost every conversation: point out how extremists on your side go too far.

If your partner is on the other side of a political divide, she will not trust the extremists on your side, making an easy point of agreement if you express the same sentiment. Because of our polarized media environment, she also likely knows more about “your” extremists than about moderate expressions of beliefs on your side. The same is true about knowing good arguments for your positions (as do you about their side), especially given the ways the media adage “If it bleeds it leads” tends to amplify lunatics. In other words, your partner across a divide is likely to unfairly attach beliefs about extremists “on your side” to you. Extremism fosters tribalism, polarization, unwarranted skepticism, distrust, defensiveness, and (frustratingly) unfair caricatures of the other side’s views.24 Worse, extremism on one side drives people to reciprocate with extremism on an opposing side (think of neo-Nazis and antifa). You can turn this disadvantage to your advantage, however, by explicitly disavowing your side’s extremists.

Acknowledging extremists creates an easy and immediate point of agreement across nearly any moral divide. It will help your conversation partner recognize that you, someone on “the other side,” recognize outrageous problems on your side, do not support them, and are not a zealot. This acknowledgment will assist in diminishing moral gulfs because it separates you from your moral tribe while identifying important common ground with your partner.25

For example, did protesters for a cause you support turn violent and vandalize property? Did they try to squelch more moderate voices? Did they behave like screeching children and shout over people trying to voice an opinion? Did they create massive societal disruptions that inconvenienced innocent people? Do they resort to slurs? Disavow all such behavior, no matter who does it. Instead of placing yourself across the divide by attempting to excuse incidents like these, you’ll immediately find yourself on the same side by agreeing to be against the extremists on your side. This can be a basis for trust and a safe point of agreement from which deeper conversations can emerge.26

Disavowing Extremists

Always be ready to disavow extremism. Here are some easy ways you can do that:

1. Identify how “your side” goes too far.

If you try to figure it out and can’t, there’s a good chance you’re part of the problem and should moderate your views. The easiest way to find out what your side is doing wrong is to ask someone on the other side, listen, temporarily set aside your ego and social identity, and believe them.

2. Do not bring up extremists on “their side.”

This is for them to do, or not. Don’t make your conversation transactional by assuming that because you made some step toward acknowledging extremists on your side that you’re owed reciprocity.

3. Never defend indefensible behavior.

Placing yourself on the political Left in a civil society is not sufficient license to defend riots, violence, or injuring police officers. Being on the political Right is not sufficient to justify defending racist displays or determinedly obstructionist politics that jeopardize national interests such as threatening default on our national debt. Take a stand against troublemakers on your side. Clearly state that extremists do not represent you, your views, or your values, and then, if appropriate, explain why. When the choice is before you, always stand with something bigger than “your side” by standing for civil society, productive dialogue, and compromise over extremism.27

4. Identify extremists as “fanatics,” “zealots,” and “radicals.”

Your partner is likely to agree. This also acts as a bridge toward realizing the proverb “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

5. Treat their side charitably.

Specifically, avoid characterizing their side as represented by their extremists (remember, Modeling, above).

Characterizing your partner’s side—or your partner—as an extremist is likely to defensively trigger him to characterize your side—or you—as one. At the very least, by talking about their side as though it is the fanatical or vile one, you are almost guaranteed to make them think about your side the same way.

6. Check yourself for extremism and keep it out of your conversations.

Try to be cognizant of ways you’ve adopted extremist or essentializing views (like “Conservatives are fascists” or “Liberals are smug busybodies”) and work to uproot those beliefs in yourself. Find other ways to express your concerns more realistically and fairly.

#5—NAVIGATING SOCIAL MEDIA

We’ve made mistakes on social media. A lot of them. We’ve tweeted:

“I’ve never understood how someone could be proud of being gay. How can one be proud of something one didn’t work for?” (Boghossian)

“Why is it that nearly every male who’s a 3rd wave intersectional feminist is physically feeble & has terrible body habitus?” (Boghossian)

“What’s the likelihood that Social Justice Warrior activism is largely motivated by personality disorders within its thought leaders?” (Lindsay)

Attempting to ask provocative questions on social media and then expecting a civil discussion isn’t just naïve, it’s imbecilic—and we’re saying that about ourselves here first. Provocative and civil are two words that don’t mix in the social media landscape. In cases like these, not only did we not achieve the effect we were seeking—to make people think more deeply and challenge cherished assumptions—we did just the opposite. People thought we were jerks.

Avoid Combative Conversations on Social Media

Diverse bodies of literature demonstrate that the evidence-based conversational approaches and strategies in this book apply to face-to-face interactions. It is unclear how closely that translates to online environments. Absent solid evidence about how to have effective conversations across social media platforms, we strongly suggest discussing charged issues only if absolutely necessary (and we can’t imagine what conditions would make it absolutely necessary) and only once solid evidence emerges for how to do so productively. Conversations on social media may have certain benefits (you may feel better when you vent) and offer certain advantages (like not having to react in real time28), but they otherwise put an already difficult discussion into “hard mode.” One fact about having divisive conversations or sharing provocative material on social media seems evident, however: it damages relationships and contributes to our toxic social media environment.

As a species, we evolved to converse face-to-face. When looking at someone, it’s usually easy to read tone, body language, and facial expressions.29 Text-based communication removes these vital cues. The advantages supplied by removing these indicators are overridden by disadvantages in the form of loss of content depth. Many text-based statements can be interpreted in meaningfully different ways that mere tone of voice would have resolved. Sarcasm, for example, is notoriously more difficult to detect in text than when spoken, and efforts have even been made to introduce sarcastic punctuation marks.30

Additionally, when different words receive different stresses in spoken language, the meaning changes. For instance, by stressing different words in “I don’t think that’s fair,” the sentence takes on different meanings. Using boldface type to indicate stress, “I don’t think that’s fair” means “I personally don’t think that is fair (but someone else might).” On another hand, “I don’t think that’s fair” means “I’m not sure whether that is fair or not.” This nuance is obvious in spoken language and has to be guessed at in written text. Assuming wrongly can knock conversations off course and start senseless, divisive arguments.

These issues make text-based communication challenging, even when private. Social media is mainly public, however, and conversations in public forums have different dynamics and rarely stay limited to two thoughtful participants (we’ll return to this shortly). These factors make conversations on social media more difficult even than text-only communications that lack the rich “music” and “dance” of tone of voice and body language present in face-to-face conversations.31

Complicating matters further, each social media platform presents unique challenges due to its particular infrastructure. Twitter, for example, is limited to 280 characters per tweet and is almost totally public. As a rule, do not argue on Twitter. (And if you feel you absolutely must engage, then stop after two responses, as the medium does not lend itself to nuanced positions—you can add a third response to explain this rule and invite emailed or other private correspondences if you like.) Think of Twitter as being on stage and addressing a large audience in extremely short bursts. You wouldn’t argue if someone in the peanut gallery heckled you.

Facebook is more structured around personal social connections than Twitter. That makes Facebook like a family party where anyone you’ve ever met might show up. How would you behave at such an event? Your grandmother or work colleagues might not want to witness a heated, mudslinging argument about the morality of certain sexual fetishes with your old college friends. Each platform has an infrastructure that fosters and caters to a certain audience. If you cannot control yourself and absolutely must vent, then understand your audience.

Two final points on social media conversations. First, when people post something on social media, unless explicitly stated, they probably do not want their belief to be corrected. Usually their purpose is to have their view confirmed. If what they shared outraged them, they want others to be outraged similarly. If they’re making a point they feel strongly enough about to post on their personal pages, chances are they are trying to tell others about it, not invite criticism (that is, they are being messengers). Reciprocally, if you disagree with a Facebook post you may experience cognitive dissonance—an uncomfortable feeling that occurs when incoming information doesn’t match your worldview. Your own dissonance may entice you to correct someone’s belief; you may even think you’re doing them a favor by repairing their faulty reasoning. However, you’re far more likely to start an argument that hurts the relationship and further entrenches their views.32

Second, many social media conversations happen in a digital public space. These venues present towering barriers and complexities. A good conversation can rapidly be spoiled by the addition of a provocative or belligerent third party—or twenty of them. More significantly, when people have a public conversation they put their pride on the line; consequently, we tend to cling even more tightly to our views in a public forum than in private.33 Imagine how much more fiercely you’d argue for your position if you did it taking a stand in front of a crowd of people you wanted to impress than if you were discussing it in private, one-on-one. Because changing one’s mind or “losing” an argument is perceived as humiliating, it’s no surprise that many discussion threads go viciously awry.34

In contrast, the primary advantages of having conversations on social media are two—neither of which requires the use of a public social media space. These can be summarized by observing that digital textual communication, for all its weaknesses, is not limited by time or space. If you have an Internet connection, you can have a low-cost conversation in real time with someone else nearly anywhere on the globe within moments. And you can take as long as you want to reply if your conversation partner says something that you need to think over and/or if you need to take some time to calm down.35 This gives an opportunity to control initial emotional responses that can derail in-person conversations. These are genuine advantages, but again, recognize the differences between public and private conversations and take anything that might be contentious private before beginning.

Best Practices for Engaging Conversation on Social Media

Here are some simple guidelines for engaging on social media:

1. Remember: when a post is “deleted” it still remains on servers (this is true for Facebook, Snapchat, and even your text messages).

Before you post, remember that whatever you send will be saved for a long, long time.

2. Never post (or answer emails, or even enter online conversations) when you’re angry.

If someone’s reply to you makes you “see red,” that’s a sure sign you should not reply to it until you’ve calmed down completely.

3. You do not owe a response to anyone on social media because they’ve engaged you.

If you feel you must respond to a heated social media comment, then reach out to the person privately.36 Most social media platforms allow private messaging. Alternatively, you can simply email or call the person and respectfully ask if they’d like to discuss their post. (Notice how this is formed as a question, not a command.)

4. Never argue on Twitter.

The 280-character architecture of the platform is not conducive to nuance, and the platform is particularly susceptible to problems like dog-piling, in which many people gang up, often rudely, on someone perceived as guilty of an offense.

5. Avoid religion, politics, and most philosophy on your personal Facebook page.

The unique social structure of the Facebook environment is not conducive to religious, political, and most philosophical arguments.37 It’s also prudent to minimize your engagement with religious and political posts on Facebook (as it is unfortunately structured to display your engagement publicly to your friends, which is similar to you posting the material yourself).

6. If you absolutely, positively cannot control yourself, set up an anonymous Twitter account and rage at the ether.

Don’t tag anyone (which is usually abusive), just start discharging your anger, in all caps if necessary.

#6—DON’T BLAME, DO DISCUSS CONTRIBUTIONS

How did Donald Trump, a real estate mogul and reality TV star with no previous experience in politics, get elected to the office of US president in November 2016? It seems like everybody “knows,” and everybody knows it was somebody else’s fault. Immediately after the election, many people were quick to blame somebody—anybody—no matter what side of the political aisle. Hillary Clinton and her campaign were blamed, so were the Democrats, FBI Director James Comey, the Russians, Vladimir Putin, Bernie Sanders, the Republicans, the Progressive Left, the Fox-watching Right, the “mainstream media,” purveyors of fake news, WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange, and the list goes on.

How did those blamed respond? Did they respond unsarcastically, “Yup, guilty”? No. They denied their culpability, often shifting it to someone else by asking “What about so-and-so?!” Many doubled down on the behaviors for which they were being blamed.38 For example, a large portion of the Progressive Left still clings to the belief that it was pervasive sexism or racism that proved decisive in the election. Some blamed entire racial groups and genders (men, generally, and white women particularly) for Clinton’s defeat.39 Instead of reflecting upon the ways in which their brand of identity politics might have contributed to Trump’s success,40 they intensified their belief that ours is an extraordinarily sexist and racist society and blamed privileged identity groups for their complicity.41 Time magazine, for example, published an opinion piece just after the election claiming the results were “the revenge of the white man.”42 It needs to be explicitly stated: overzealous identity politics of just this kind likely contributed to Trump’s election. More significantly, none of this blame, no matter who directed it at whom, has helped create better, more productive and civil conversations between America’s warring political tribes.

Blame ends goodwill, immediately puts those blamed on the defensive, hinders problem solving, and dissolves rapport.43 People don’t want to be blamed when bad things happen, especially when it isn’t all their fault. Rather than openly discussing an issue, then, the blamed usually attempt to redirect the conversation, often by denying the accusation, diminishing its importance, or hurling back blame in retaliation. For example, it seems almost all cable news opinion today is rife with “whataboutery.” That is, pundits and commentators deflect blame from their side by forcefully asking, “What about [some roughly similar thing from the other side]?” Discussions about radical Islam, for example, are often met with, “But what about the Crusades!”

The Harvard Negotiation Project noted that there is an effective alternative to introducing blame into conversations. Instead of blame, invit

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