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How to Have Impossible Conversations

A Very Practical Guide

By Peter Boghossian and James A. Lindsay
15-minute read
Audio available
How to Have Impossible Conversations	 by Peter Boghossian and James A. Lindsay

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 blinks will explore techniques that facilitate respectful dialogue, from rules of building rapport to the art of convincing your sparring partner to reexamine her assumptions. 

  • Critical thinkers who love a good argument
  • Skeptics intent on dismantling irrational dogmas
  • Quiet rationalists fed up with all the shouting

Peter Boghossian is an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University, Oregon. He is a speaker at the Center of Inquiry, and he lectures internationally with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. He is also the author of A Manual for Creating Atheists

James Lindsay holds degrees in physics and mathematics. He has written five books including Cynical Theories, a study of postmodern thought in scholarship and activism. Lindsay is a regular contributor to Time, Scientific American, and Philosopher’s Magazine.

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How to Have Impossible Conversations

A Very Practical Guide

By Peter Boghossian and James A. Lindsay
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
Upgrade to Premium Read or listen now
How to Have Impossible Conversations	 by Peter Boghossian and James A. Lindsay
Synopsis

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 blinks will explore techniques that facilitate respectful dialogue, from rules of building rapport to the art of convincing your sparring partner to reexamine her assumptions. 

Key idea 1 of 9

“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 blinks, you’ll be learning concrete techniques to help you have these kinds of conversations! 

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