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How to Have Impossible Conversations Book Summary – Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay

What you will learn from reading How to Have Impossible Conversations:

– What mindset is required to have great conversations with people who see things differently to you. 

– Why instilling doubt is key to changing peoples minds.

– How to use collaborative language to get people to feel that you’re on the same team.

How to Have Impossible Conversations Book Summary:

How to Have Impossible Conversations Book Summary is quite possibly my favourite book on becoming a better communicator with others. It is incredibly practical and will leave you with soo many ideas on how you can improve the conversations in your life. 

The tips at the start of this summary start with the fundamentals and progress into expert level techniques and tips. This summary is incomplete in the sense that I only feature what was very insightful to me, I would highly recommend if you enjoy this summary to pick up a copy of this book.

If you are looking for complementary reading to this I would check out: Never Split the Difference Book Summary and Non-Violent Communication Book Summary. That being said this is a truly fascinating book, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


The Impossible Conversation Fundamentals:

Change your mindset 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. 


Treat them as your conversation partner:

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.” 

Treating an individual as a partner in civil dialogue does not mean accepting their conclusions or buying into their reasoning. (The mark of an educated mind, it has been said, is to understand a statement without having to accept it.) 

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


Make your goals of collaboration and understanding explicit:

Say, “I really want to understand what led you to those conclusions. I hope we can figure this out together.” Or, that’s a really interesting perspective how did you come to see it that way? 


Do not parallel talk.

Parallel talk is taking something someone says and using that to reference yourself or your experiences. 


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. 

Rather than calling out her offenses, try to make sense of what she is saying and appreciate her authenticity, however rough around the edges. 


Pauses = Reflection:

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. 


Always take responsibility for miscommunication:

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?” 


Acknowledge your partners feelings:

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. 


Don’t deliver messages, first understand:

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.

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

If your partner enters messenger mode, begin a listening and learning mode centering on asking questions. 


Rethink your conversation partners intent:

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

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. 

In a disagreement, people frequently assume their partners’ intentions and motivations are worse than they are. 

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.  


Beginners Guide to Impossible Conversations:

Instilling doubt is the aim:

It is much easier to instill doubt than it is to nudge people toward a belief or to change their preference. 

Therefore, 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.

It’s always worth remembering: to give others the gift of doubt, you need to possess it yourself.

People need time to wrestle with doubt, incorporate new information, mull over challenges and different perspectives, and rethink their positions. And so do you. Changing one’s mind happens slowly and in a way that suits one’s individual psychology and habits. 


Model the Behaviour you want:

“I’ve changed my mind” is therefore a type of invitation. It displays the virtues of revising beliefs and modeling, and thus becomes an invitation for others to do the same. It’s also the ultimate rapport builder-it’s almost impossible for someone to dislike you after you say this.


The “Unread Library Effect.” – Make people explain 

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.” 

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. 

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. 

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. 


Define words upfront:

Though many arguments seem to be about matters of substance, they’re often just disagreements about the meanings of words. 

Define words up front. Say, “What do you mean by [X]?” or “How is [X] defined?”

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. 

In this case, the word welfare means the same thing functionally, but carries distinct moral connotations for different audiences. Here, talking directly about undeserved government handouts or alleviating poverty can avoid the morally charged term welfare. 


Denounce Extremists on your side:

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

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. 

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. 

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. 


Don’t blame use contributions:

Contributions are made by everyone, and most problems have more than one contributor. Blame, however, is one-sided.

Blame ends goodwill, immediately puts those blamed on the defensive, hinders problem solving, and dissolves rapport. People don’t want to be blamed when bad things happen, especially when it isn’t all their fault. 

Blame is something laid upon someone. For example, “You did this!” It’s past tense and judgmental. Identifying contributions is a joint, interactive approach to understanding a broader picture of how a state of affairs came to be; the idea of contribution is about understanding and forward thinking.

Instead of blame, invite people to collaboratively look for contributions. That is, work together with people to get a more comprehensive picture of what happened so you can move forward toward solutions that address all aspects of the problem. 

Remember the power of Modeling: mapping out one’s own contributions to a problem can naturally lead others to engage in the same. 

Use the word contribution. Say, “What factors contributed to [X]?” and “What’s your opinion about what contributed to that?” 


Focus on Epistemology:

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). 

Focusing on epistemology avoids many of these issues because people are less threatened by having their epistemology probed than having their beliefs challenged. 

Here is a simple way you can focus on how your partner comes to knowledge rather than just on what he thinks he knows: 

Make a brief, positive statement before probing someone’s epistemology. Say – “That’s an interesting perspective. What leads you to conclude that?” 


Expert Techniques and Tips for Impossible Conversations:

Build Golden Bridges:

A Golden Bridge is a means by which your conversation partner can change his or her mind gracefully and avoid social embarrassment. Golden Bridges are musts for successful conversations. 

Build a Golden Bridge when you feel under attack. If someone attacks you personally, recast the attack as being about the issue. Listen, but do not counterattack. 

Offer people golden bridges in public, 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.


Change the Language you use:

Use collaborative language.

We is a wonderful and effective collaborative word. As sociologists Weinstein and Deutschberger (1963) write, We’ tends to be one of the most seductive of English words. Its appearance almost automatically heralds a relationship structured in terms of mutuality and interdependence” (p. 459). 

Use neutral language.

Avoid you and your, as in “you believe” and “your belief.” Switch to neutral language like that and one’s. For example, “that belief’ and “one’s belief.” 


Speak about ideas and beliefs, not the people who hold them.


Switch from “I disagree” to “I’m skeptical.”

Disagreeing may trigger an adversarial response, whereas “I’m skeptical” signals that you’re open to be persuaded but you’re not quite there yet. 


Reframing the Argument:

Reframing is particularly useful if people become frustrated.” In brief: translate what you’re saying into terms that are more helpful, seek commonalities and underlying interests, and appeal to superordinate identities. 

Long pauses usually mean reflection and a potential for belief revision. They are, in these cases, a conversational success. 


Use Scales to test Knowledge:

Ask, “On a scale from 1 to 10, how confident are you that X [the belief] is true?” 

Beyond knowing how confident someone is that a belief is true, asking someone to assign a numerical value to their confidence does two things: 

1. It tracks the effectiveness of your intervention. 

2. It helps put issues into perspective. 

In rare instances when someone reports a 2 or 3, they have little to no confidence that a claim is true. In these instances, you can explore why their confidence is so low. 


Getting out of Yes or No Arguments:

If you find yourself arguing with someone in a “Yes, it is!”/”No, it’s not!” pattern, for example, “The United States is racist”/”No, it’s not!” put it on a comparative scale. 

Bring in scales that compare the importance of issues during sticking points.

Asking someone whether or not they think racism is an important issue may elicit angry reactions and spark incredulity. However, asking, “On a scale from 1 to 10, how important is racism as compared to climate change? 

Let’s suppose they say “I’m at an 8.” Rather than asking them, “Why not 6?” or even “What would it take to move you to 6?” immediately follow up by asking about a higher number. Say, “Just out of curiosity, why didn’t you say 9?” Doing so will help them reveal their doubts. 


Outsourcing Beliefs:

This question might shift the conversation to “What sources/experts/ etc. should one trust and why?” It might also reveal where your conversation partner is receiving their information, thus making it easier for you to understand their epistemology. 


Remember, Don’t Use Facts:

If you shouldn’t offer evidence, what should you do? There are answers to this question, and they can all be effective. 

1. Ask questions that expose problems and contradictions. For example, if Sam believes the soul weighs seven pounds, ask, “Do you think four-pound babies have seven-pound souls?” 

The single most effective technique to instill doubt and help people change their minds is to ask, “Under what conditions could [insert belief] be wrong?” This is called disconfirmation. 


Rapoport’s Rules for giving an opposing point of view:

1. Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.” 

2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of 

general or widespread agreement). 

3. Mention anything you have learned from your target. 

4. And only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism. 


Don’t use but, use Yes and:

Combine Rapoport’s Rules with “yes, and . . . “. This reinforces acknowledgment and demonstrates listening and learning stances.  

Say, “Yes, I hear that you’re saying X and see what you mean, and I’m left wondering what your thoughts are about felons who want to purchase guns.” 


Dealing with Anger:

Do not counterattack.

As much as you want to lash out, do not. Lashing out provokes and escalates and your goal should be to de-escalate. 

Avoid the word anger.

Saying someone is angry when they’re upset can sound accusatory. Instead, consider acknowledging the conversation as frustrating and naming it frustration. 

Immediately after a tense moment make an empathy statement.

This is an opportunity to form a deeper connection. Say: “It’s hard,” “That must be absolutely infuriating,” “I hear you,” and “That really frustrates me, too.” 


Use Altercasting to change roles:

To summarise Altercasting: 

1. Acknowledge your partner’s view. 

2. Cast your partner as a smart, creative problem solver in a particular, relevant role. 

3. Construct the scenario so as to remove her preferred solution. 

4. Have her brainstorm alternative solutions. 


Dealing with actual Impossible Conversations:

Dealing with Ideologues:

Seemingly impossible conversations typically have one thing in common: they’re about moral beliefs rooted in one’s sense of identity, but they play out on the level of facts (or assertions, name-calling, grandstanding, threats,  etc.). 

The most difficult conversations, then, masquerade as discussions about something other than morality, but they are actually about what qualities, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours individuals believe make them good people or bad people and why it is important to hold the right views among those. 

Many delicate conversations fail because nobody acknowledges that the other party is acting upon what they think is morally right. This is effortless to remedy: say, “It’s clear to me that being a good person is important to you.”

Here’s the secret to success: understand how an ideologue’s sense of morality relates to their personal identity. 

To do this, think of every conversation as being three conversations at once: about “What happened?” (facts); about feelings (emotions); and about identity (how each person sees (themselves).?

By probing the limits of a belief, you can reveal that the individual does not live according to the professed belief. Because humans are attuned to belief consistency, when you unmask an inconsistency it can lead one to reconsider the absurd belief. The purpose is to help them understand that they do not actually hold the belief they claim to hold. 

Plumbing moral epistemology can be especially difficult. When questioned about the foundations of moral beliefs, most people quickly develop an acute awareness of their lack of good reasons for believing as they do. This inspires discomfort and resistance.

Placing wedges between someone’s moral epistemology and the beliefs she has reached via that epistemology may cause “identity quakes.” An identity quake is the emotional reaction that follows from having one’s core values disrupted. People may become defensive, lost, desperate, or angry. They may turn on you, deciding you’re not to be trusted.


Remember, moral Conversations are about identities:

If you’re engaged in a moral conversation, your discussion is always– whether overtly or covertly-about identity issues. 

Morality and identity issues operate invisibly at the level of emotion rather than reason.“ Literally. Challenging these beliefs triggers the same brain responses as putting someone in physical danger. 

One telling sign of entrenchment is responding to substantive disagreement with weaponised moral language, for example, responding to “I’m not sure that conclusion follows” with something implying you are a morally bad person (such as, “You just don’t care about dead children!”). 


Moral Reasoning:

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.

Moral Epistemology – How do we know what is moral?

As Peter found when dealing with prison inmates and talking to hardline religious believers, and in thousands of conversations about morally contentious issues, few people have deeply considered the meanings and implications of morally relevant terms, like justice, fairness, loyalty, or truth. 

Our “guts” (more accurately, our moral intuitions), society, family, religion, culture, and so on, all offer the illusion that we’ve grasped timeless moral truths, how to uphold them, how to spot transgressors, and how to punish violators. 

Almost everyone has a brittle moral epistemology-this fragility is your main entry point in a belief intervention. It’s the chink in our belief apparatus. It’s where we’re most vulnerable and it’s the entryway into facilitating doubt and helping someone decrease the confidence in their beliefs. It’s also the gateway to humility. 


Moral Intuitions and Foundations:

Think of moral intuitions as tendencies to lean toward certain (core) values-sanctity of life, freedom, safety, purity-rather than others. Our moral intuitions are formed before we try to figure out what’s the right thing to do, what’s not, and how we know our intuitions are justified (that is, moral epistemology). 

Moral Foundations

In their research to date, Haidt and his colleagues have identified six “moral foundations” (and the value they stand opposed to in each case): 

• Care versus harm. 

• Fairness versus cheating. 

• Loyalty versus betrayal. 

• Authority versus subversion. 

• Sanctity versus degradation. 

• Liberty versus oppression.