Summary of How to Have Impossible Conversations

This is raw outline of Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay’s fantastic book on how to have tough conversations that potentially change minds.

Focus first on instilling doubt rather than changing beliefs.


  1. Goals – why are you having the conversation?
  2. Partnerships – be a partner, not an adversary
  3. Rapport – build the relationship
  4. Listen – talk less, listen more.
  5. Delivering messages does not work. Conversations are exchanges, not debates. Deliver a message only on explicit request.
  6. Intentions – Socrates Meno dialog. People don’t knowingly desire bad things.
  7. Walk Away. If your primary emotion is frustration, it’s time to quit. Breathe.

Beginner Level

  1. Model the behavior you want to see in others
    1. “Should women be stoned to death for adultery” – the person he was debating waffled on giving a direct answer. He then said “ask me that question.” The guy did, then the questioner gave a straight answer—“No, now do you believe women should be stoned?” “Yes.”
    2. The unread library effect or “the illusion of explanatory depth”. Do you know how a toilet works? “Yes.” “Explain it.” Modeling ignorance-being willing to admit the limits of your own knowledge allows your conversation partner to lead themselves into doubt rather than feeling pressured. It also exposes the gaps in your own knowledge.
    3. Model other traits—listening, honesty, admitting ignorance, sincerity, curiosity, openness, fairness, charity, humility, humor, willingness to change your mind.
  2. Define terms up front. Go with their definitions. Does the word have moral implications?
  3. Focus on a specific question. Ask open, authentic questions that invite long answers.
    1. “Just so I’m clear, the question is…” “Let’s get back to…”
    2. Don’t ask leading questions that carry agendas
  4. Point out bad things extremists on your side do. Find areas of moral agreement by pointing out where people on your side go too far. Pointing out extremists can help this happen. Check yourself for extremist views.
  5. Don’t vent on social media
  6. Shift from blame to contribution. “What factors contributed to.”
    1. Avoid causal statements. 
    2. Don’t say “both sides do it,” it’s defensive.
    3. If your side is accused acknowledge and don’t deflect. “Yeah, it’s true they (we) sometimes do that.”
    4. If you can’t avoid blame, say “I feel tempted to blame X for Y, can you explain the logic X uses to justify their actions?”
  7. Focus on epistemology – figure out how people know what they claim to know. This avoids “talking points” and gets to how they know what they know.
    1. Types of epistemologies
      1. Personal experience and feelings
      2. Culture (everyone believes it)
      3. Definition (too much X is bad because too much anything is bad)
      4. Religion (appeal to a holy book)
      5. Reason
      6. Evidence (sufficient evidence to warrant belief)
    2. How to engage on an epistemological level
      1. What leads you to conclude that?
      2. Ask outsider questions. “Why are there so many divergent opinions?” “Would every reasonable person draw the same conclusion?”
      3. Start your conversation with genuine wonder as to how your partner arrived at the conclusion they have.
      4. “If someone’s reasoning makes no sense, there’s a good chance they reason that way to justify a (moral) belief that cannot otherwise be justified.” Find examples of using this type of reasoning in other situations and see if it applies. Or, try to derive other conclusions from their reasoning process. E.g. We shouldn’t blow up anti-aircraft guns in a civilian area because of collateral damage. Wouldn’t this lead to more civilian deaths because the enemy repeats the pattern?
  8. Learn. Is it actually me who’s the ideologue?
  9. Things to avoid
    1. Don’t display anger
    2. Don’t punish people for asking help, information, or feedback
    3. Don’t focus on the belief, focus on how they know it. The epistemology.

Intermediate Level

  1. Let friends be wrong. Offer a listening ear “I hear you.”  If you don’t understand, say it.
  2. Build golden bridges. Be graceful when people change their minds. “All good.” “No worries.” “It’s a complicated issue.”
    1. Build a golden bridge when you feel attacked. “The way my position is stated might lead someone to believe I want X (bad thing) but I really want Y” (good thing).
    2. Build a golden bridge to escape anger. “These issues are really frustrating. I know. They get to me too.” 
    3. Build Golden Bridges by explicitly agreeing.
    4. To alleviate pressure to know/understand everything. “No one is expected to know everything, that’s why there are experts.”
    5. Reference your own ignorance and reasons for doubt. “I used to believe X, when I learned Y, I changed my mind.”
  3. Avoid “you” use “we” and “us.” 
    1. Use the hostage negotiator tactic of “We’re all in this together.” 
    2. Say “that belief” or “that statement” rather than “Your..”
    3. Switch from “I disagree” to “I’m skeptical.”
  4. Reframe the conversation to keep it going smoothly
    1. Focus on commonalities – “ultimately we’re both interested in…”
    2. Reframe to be less contentious, especially if it becomes contentious. “Maybe we can look at it another way”
    3. Figure out how to get someone to say “that’s right.” (Not “you’re right”)
  5. Change your mind on the spot
  6. Introduce scales – “On a scale of 1-10, how confident are you that X is true”
    1. Use this to introduce perspective. “If X is a 9 on a scale of 10 for ‘-ism’, where is Y?”
    2. “On a scale of 1-10, how confident are you that X is true?” At the beginning & end.
    3. “How does X compare to Y?” (Now/Then, Here/There, For Him/Her, etc.) E.g. racism today vs in the 1950’s
    4. How important is X compared to Y? E.g. racism vs. climate change
    5. “On a scale of 1-10, how confident are you” then “Why not 6?” “Why not 10?” “What would it take to get to 10?”
  7. Turn to outside information to answer the question “how o you know that?”
    1. “I’m not sure about that. If I could be shown reliable data, I’m open to changing my mind.”
    2. Ask who the strongest experts on both sides of an opinion are.
    3. Ask for specific evidence that could persuade “an independent observer” or “every reasonable person.”
    4. If someone says no evidence could be provided, there’s no point.
    5. Don’t attempt to use outsourcing on moral questions, it only works for empirical.

Advanced Skills

  1. Keep Rapoport’s rules. Re-express. List points of agreement. Mention what you learned, only then rebut.
    1. Express their opinion so clearly & fairly that they say “thanks, wish I’d put it that way.”
  2. Avoid facts
    1. Instead ask questions that pose problems and contradictions
    2. Focus on epistemology
    3. Ask disconfirming questions: “If X couldn’t be replicated, would Y be true?”
  3. Seek disconfirmation. “How could that belief be incorrect?” This is the best way to instill doubt. 
    1. There are 3 categories of disconfirmable beliefs:
      1. Not disconfirmable. Usually tied to what someone thinks it means to be “a good person.” “Belief in Belief” as Dennett says.
      2. Disconfirmable, but only under wildly implausible conditions. (“Aliens” in the beer truck). 
      3. ‘Ask why those are the conditions and why not something simpler?
      4. If that doesn’t work, ask about morals, values, or identity concerns under the surface. The goal is to get the person to reflect more deeply on the conditions that anchor the beliefs.
      5. Disconfirmable. Don’t become the messenger, let the person reflect on their beliefs themselves.
    2. Ask on a scale of 1-10 how confident they are. 
      1. 10-disconfirmable, 
      2. 9-ask “why didn’t you say 10, what would make it 8?”.
      3. Middle range-why isn’t your confidence higher? Altercasting gets them to focus on their doubt rather than belief.
    3. Ask questions:
      1. Epistemological questions:
        1. “The belief isn’t held on the basis of evidence, right?”
        2. “Are you as closed to revising other beliefs as this one? What makes this particular belief unique?”
        3. “What are examples of beliefs you’re not willing to change?”
      2. Moral questions:
        1. “How it it a virtue not to revise this belief?”
        2. “Would you be a good person if you didn’t hold this belief?”
        3. “Who are examples of good people who don’t hold this belief?”
      3. Think back 10/20 years ago, have any of your beliefs changed?
        1. Y? “How do you know this belief won’t change too?”
        2. N? Prob time to end the conversation. 
  4. Yes, and… (no “but”)
    1. “Interesting, and what about…” or “ok, I hear you, and” if you’d don’t agree.
    2. “If you don’t mind” rather than “however”
  5. Anger. 
    1. Blinds and derails.
    2. Seeks its own justification. 
    3. Carries a refractory period where information processing is slowed by the nervous system.
    4. When you feel anger, pause, reframe, change the subject, listen, acknowledge and apologize.
    5. Respect the refractory period
    6. Identify your triggers like words that are likely to upset you.

Expert Skills

  1. Synthesis—recruit your partner to help refine and synthesize your positions. The goal is to get closer to true beliefs, not produce agreement. It can be a form of collaborative steel-manning. Constructive, controlled disagreement.
    1. Five steps
      1. Present an idea. Moral beliefs are harder but can reveal epistemological blind spots.
      2. Invite and listen to counterarguments. This is difficult because you might feel out matched or your identity may be challenged. The goal is to get your partner to expose at least one clear flaw in your thinking. Don’t move on until she confirms your understanding of her criticisms.
      3. Employ the counter-argments to generate ways to disconfirm your belief
      4. Use these to refine your original position
      5. Repeat-start with your refined position and do another round
  2. Help vent steam—Talk through emotional roadblocks. Keep listening until they’ve stated everything. It’s impossible to listen too much. Then use Rapoport’s rules (re-express, listen, list agreement, but don’t rebut). Don’t force a conversation.
  3. Altercasting-casting your partner in a role that helps her think and behave differently. Can be ethically ambiguous; manipulative. Introduced by Eugene Weinstein and Paul Deutschberger.
    1. “You seem like a person that would X…”
    2. To avoid ethical concerns, limit altercasting to:
      1. taking their favorite solution off the table. E.g. present a hypothetical where their solution wouldn’t be an option.
      2. encouraging civility, fairness, open-mindedness. “You strike me as a person who is…”
  4. Hostage negitations
    1. Use “minimal encouragers.” “Yeah.” “I see.” “Okay.”
    2. Mirroring – repeat their last few words, possibly as a question. “For their safety?” The goal is to keep them talking and providing info that may be useful in the conversation.
    3. Emotional labeling – recognize feelings w/o judging them. Make sure you actually understand before you label.
    4. Allow the person to save face. (Golden bridge). 
    5. Deal with small issues first to create a “climate of success.” Break down big problems to smaller ones.
    6. Use specific cases rather than statistical information. It’s more vivid and influential than facts.
  5. Probe the limits. 
    1. Use the Unmasking Formula
      1. Apply Rapopport’s First rule (re-express)
      2. Confirm you’ve understand their belief (giving them an opportunity to back down). “How long have you held this belief?”
      3. Try to understand the limits of their belief in practice. “If your surgeon was a straight white male…” “If you were in a dark room and wanted to see would you ask about the race of the electrician..”
      4. Ask “is there any circumstance that might lead you to act inconsistently with that belief?”
        1. No? Continue with examples like in step 3
        2. Yes? Ask for examples 
      5. At this point you know if the belief is possible to sincerely hold or not
        1. No? Ask when to act on the belief and when to make an exception 
        2. Yes? Either they live in accordance w/ the belief or they’re lying.
  6. Counter-intervention strategies. (Someone using these techniques on you)
    1. Go with it, you’ll probably learn something.
    2. Refuse to play. If you don’t say anything or respond with closed-ended questions, nothing can happen.
    3. Use counter-interventions
      1. State your confidence level as lower than it is on the 1-10 scale
      2. Offer the illusion of success
      3. Doubt your doubts. Reverse altercast to get them to help you strengthen your position
      4. State that you believe it strongly, but would rather not.
      5. Respond to rapid fire questions slowly. “Uh (wait 5 seconds)”
      6. Use questions to reverse the intervention. “Why are you asking?”

Master Level

  1. How to converse with an ideologue: understand how their “sense of morality relates to their personal identity.” It’s about being a good or bad person. It’s about emotion. All disagreement will mean you misunderstand or you have a moral failure. Extreme patience is needed. Focus on how they know (epistemology) rather than what they know. Be self-aware enough to know if you’re the ideologue.
    1. Acknowledge their intention & identity as a good person
    2. Change the subject to underlying values
      1. “These beliefs seem important to you, how did you derive them?”
      2. What values would have to change for your belief to no longer be true? This shifts the conversation away from rehearsed defenses.
    3. Invite conversation about values
      1. “What makes someone a good person?” “How does someone know that what they’re doing is good?” “Do good people think about things in a certain way?”  “How would you interpret an example of someone who doesn’t believe that but who is good?”
    4. Induce doubt about how they derived beliefs by asking sincere questions. Almost everyone has a brittle moral epistemology. This is the gateway to facilitating doubt and humility. 
      1. “Does a strong feeling that something is true make it more likely to be true?”
      2. Potentially switch from to a superordinate identity if a conversation centers on divisive identity politics. “We’re both Americans/humans”
    5. Allow the tether between the belief and the moral epistemology to sever on its own, later. It’s dangerous and difficult to do. It can cause “identity quakes” that can sever trust. It’s a slow process. Build golden bridges. Use the five values above.
  2. Moral reframing. Recast an idea in moral terms that re less likely to evoke defense and more likely to resonate. 
    1. Jonathan Haidt’s six “moral foundations.” Conservatives respond to all 6, liberals to care, fairness, then liberty. Libertarians (Lt) focus on liberty. Conversations need to be recast to focus on your partner’s moral terms.
      1. Care vs. harm (C, L)
      2. Fairness vs. cheating (C, L)
      3. Loyalty vs. betrayal (C)
      4. Authority vs. subversion (C)
      5. Sanctity vs. degradation (C)
      6. Liberty vs. oppression (C, L, Lt)
    2. Reframing – learn to speak their language using their terms. Expose yourself to their ideas. Practice with friends. 
      1. Home in on certain words or terms (ie. equity, faith)
      2. Identify your own moral dialect (ie. race, violence). Take opportunities to learn to speak different moral languages.

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