How To Have Impossible Conversations

How To Have Impossible Conversations

Usually, when you are studying at the university at the undergraduate level, your classes are something like frontal lectures. Professors explain concepts, some of them entertaining and interesting, while others may be pretty boring. Some professors encourage participation (that is, ask questions please!), others want just silence. However, in the best scenario, there is some interaction with professors, but you may not have many discussions with your peers.

When you are a graduate student in the US, your classes will mostly consist of "seminars." This means that before attending the class, you are expected to have read the material assigned by the professor the week before. During the 2-hour class, the focus is on discussing and posing questions to the class. This means that most of the times, professors are just “moderators” of a debate that sees grad students involved.

Well, it was in these cases that I realized I needed to learn How to have impossible conversations.

About the Book

This book is a guide to understanding why the person you are talking to thinks so differently from you, how to deal with that, and why it's not necessary to approach every conversation as a battle to be won.

Peter and James (the authors) provide rules that are very simple to follow. You'll probably think, "It's obvious that I should ask myself these questions, but why am I not doing so?"

7 Reminders

Before starting a conversation keep in mind the following:

  1. Goals: Ask yourself “Why am I having this discussion? What are my goals? What do I want to get out of this?”
  2. Partnership: See others as partners, not opponents. Aim to understand rather than win. This doesn't mean agreeing with them, just comprehending their perspective.
  3. Build rapport: at the very beginning of a conversation, ask sincere questions such as “What got you interested in that?” and try to find an initial common ground you can go back to when the conversation gets heated.
  4. Listen: otherwise you cannot understand and there is no conversation.
  5. Don't shoot a message as if it were your truth. Instead, try to problematize it. Acknowledging that your theory may have flaws will foster a more collaborative conversation.
  6. Intentions: don’t assume your partner has malicious intentions. It will make you less capable of listening.
  7. Walk away: don’t think that you’ll leave the conversation only when you have changed the other person’s mind. That is a long process.

4 Most Powerful Rules

1. Focus on "How did they come to think this way?" (epistemology)

Let’s say you are in the middle of one of those seminars and other students’ opinions about the issue at hand are just crazy, unreasonable, wrong – according to you. Well, instead of challenging directly their opinions (by asking “Why do you think that?” or “Why do you support that?”), ask:

  • “That’s an interesting perspective, What leads you to conclude that?”
  • “How do you know that?”
  • “How’d you arrive at that conclusion?”
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When you challenge someone's opinion, they often become eager to present arguments and evidence supporting their beliefs, as they are accustomed to doing so in every conversation.

2. Use scales (i.e., from 1 to 10)

To break away from the 'Yes/No' mentality (agreement/disagreement) and find some common ground with the other person, ask:

  • "On a scale from 1 to 10, how confident are you that this belief is true?"

Then, continue by asking:

  • "Just out of curiosity, why didn't you choose a lower number?"
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This is useful for you since they will reveal their doubts and the flaws in their reasoning or in their sources.

3. Instill doubt

The best way to instill doubt, according to James and Peter, is by asking:

  • "Under what conditions could that belief be wrong?"
    If there are no conditions, your partner will realize that what they hold is not a fact or opinion but an unconditional truth, akin to a religion.

In such cases, you can even ask:

  • “The position is based on what value?”
    So that you gain clarity on the underlying beliefs they are discussing.

4. Sources

To ascertain whether your partner is biased and understand the reasoning behind their beliefs, ask the following questions:

  • "What sources/experts should one trust and why?"
  • "Whose expert opinion can I read to gather more information?"
  • "What are the best arguments against that position?"
  • "Who are the top three experts who disagree with that position?"
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By asking these questions, they might even come to realize that they may not be as knowledgeable as they initially thought.

My Take Today

Why do these conversations seem impossible?

I find that some kinds of conversations, especially those related to politics, can be quite tricky. Politics is mostly about values, beliefs, and different views of the world masked as hard facts.

It's no wonder there's often disagreement (and that's the heart of politics itself!). Politics is not like building a bridge; that's engineering.

If we let everything become overly politicized that will only lead to more disagreements.

Of course, politics is also about finding solutions together - that's the ideal outcome. But if we shy away from healthy debates, we miss the chance to realize that we actually share common problems and can come up with collective solutions.

These kinds of conversations have the potential to elevate politics beyond being just the decisions of a small majority, a special interest group, or a leader. They can be shared by a broader, more inclusive majority - a qualified one that genuinely considers the needs and perspectives of a diverse range of people. In the end, that's always a better alternative than a simple absolute majority.