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How to Have Impossible Conversations

written by Matthew Rensberry, MD MBA on 2021-07-29

I just finished, How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide by Peter Boghossian & James Lindsay. This is an excellent reminder of what it means to have a productive conversation. Too often, in today's world, we promote an antagonistic relationship with those whose views differ from ours. We prioritize being correct over understanding. We value winning a debate over gaining an ally. This book demonstrates how to do better.

This book is a step-by-step instruction manual on how to have conversations over emotionally charged topics without losing friends. Utilizing the Socratic method, the authors suggest a shift in focus. Instead of debating facts, ask your conversation partner to explain their point of view.

Learn to listen.

You cannot change another person’s mind for them.

You can, however, coax them into re-examining their assumptions. This is done by asking them to demonstrate [how they come to their conclusions] instead of comparing competing facts. As they explain themselves in response to your honest and open questions, holes in their own knowledge and understanding will be apparent to them.

This open the doubt door.

"Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care."

Trust is fundamental - without gaining your conversation partner's trust, they will not open up for potential change. To do this, the authors suggest demonstrating that you care.

"The key … 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" … it's care about the right things … to win your partner's trust across a moral divide, you must be able to [demonstrate that you care about … the values your partner cares about]."

Jonathan Haidt's Moral foundations theory

Moral Foundation Opposing Value


Care Harm Fairness Cheating Loyalty Betrayal Authority Subversion Sanctity Dejection Liberty Oppression

Identify [which values] your conversation partner likely holds to, and [show that you also believe it is important].

According to Haidt:

Epistemological Detective Work

Focus on epistemology - the study of how and why we come to believe things.

“The most common mistake in conversations is focusing on what people claim to know (beliefs and conclusions) as opposed to how they came to know it (their reasoning processes).”

Become an [epistemological detective]. Even if you have no hope of persuading someone, you can always learn more about their perspective. You can [discover why they hold their opinions]. This is critical to changing their mind.

"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."

Identity and Belief

"If you’re engaged in a moral conversation, your discussion is always - whether overtly or covertly - about identity issues … it might appear that the conversation is about facts and ideas, but you’re inevitably having a discussion about morality, and that, in turn, is inevitably a discussion about what it means to be a good or bad person. Decoding this connection is vital."

We define who we are largely by what we believe in. This is one reason why, when a conversation partner marshals facts and evidence to debunk our views, we often feel personally attacked.

"Offering evidence - facts - almost never facilitates belief revision for any belief with moral, social, or identity-level salience."

We are tribal - and if our beliefs become core to our social groups, questioning them becomes taboo. We stop seeing these beliefs as opinions, but as fundamental to ourselves.

All politics is, potentially, identity politics: [We define ourselves as members of the group that holds x set of beliefs and an attack on x is therefore an attack on us.]

When conversation become heated or stuck, [shift the focus] to superordinate identity markers instead. Find a common tribe both of you, as conversation partners, are in.

Don't be a messenger, be a conversationalist

"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."

"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 … Because changing one’s mind or “losing” an argument is perceived as humiliating, it’s no surprise that many discussion threads go viciously awry."

“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."

7 Fundamentals of Good Conversation

  1. Identify your goal:
    • Ask yourself [what you want to get out of the conversation]. This will keep the conversation productive.
    • Example goals:
      • Find the truth
      • Learn more about the other person or their views
      • Change someone’s views
      • Just to pass the time
  2. Conversational Partnerships:
    • Do not view others as adversaries in a debate. Stop trying to "win" and instead "[make understanding your conversation partner’s reasoning your (initial) goal]."
    • Becoming a conversational partner:
      • Make your goals (collaboration and understanding) explicit with your partner.
      • Do not pressure your partner to converse when they prefer not to.
      • Put yourself in your partner’s place and try to honestly understand how they could hold whatever view it is that you disagree over.
  3. Gain rapport:
    • Start with sincere questions. Don't jump straight to difficult topics.
    • Rapport strategies:
      • Seek [common ground]
      • Focus on [them]
      • Only engage in substantive conversation when you [have enough time] for it. If you don’t have enough time, use the time for friendly chat and save the contentious issues for when you have the time to really listen to and understand your partner.
      • When a conversation gets uncomfortable, be ready to change the subject to something less combative.
  4. Listen:

    • [Let your partner talk]
    • Provide undivided attention and full engagement
    • Look directly at them
    • Let them finish their own sentences
    • Don’t fill pauses in the conversation
    • Avoid becoming distracted - turn your back on the distraction or simply tell your partner what is distracting you
    • When you sense emotions in your partner, pay closer attention to the words they choose and repeat specific feeling words back to them. If they say they are frustrated, tell them “I hear that. I understand your frustration.” If you missed something, ask them directly to please repeat it. Let your partner know you are listening with the phrase “I hear you.”
  5. Shoot the Messenger

    • Refrain from preaching or teaching to your conversation partner. If they insist on imparting a message, then just listen and ask questions, but don’t respond with your own message.
    • Only deliver your message if your partner explicitly asks you to. After delivering your message, thank them for the opportunity and ask them if they have any thoughts to add to what you’ve said.
  6. Keep intentions in mind:
    • Remember that most people have good intentions. Even when their views seem obviously the result of bad intentions, it is more likely that this is due to misunderstanding or miscommunication.
    • Assuming your partner has bad intentions
      • Undermines your partnership
      • Sows distrust
      • Impairs your ability to listen
      • Generally kills conversations
    • [Remind yourself that their intentions are better than you think.]
  7. Walking Away
    • Letting the conversation end before things get too contentious helps to keep it friendly and productive. When you feel yourself becoming frustrated, pause and take a breath to calm yourself down.
    • End a conversation:
      • When a conversation becomes dominated by frustration
      • When your partner wishes to end it
      • If you think you have caused your partner to doubt one of their beliefs
      • Always [end conversations on a friendly note] by thanking your partner