How to have impossible conversations

In these febrile times, a new book on arguing with empathy is essential reading.

Andrew Doyle

Andrew Doyle


Many of us have seen relationships with friends, family members and work colleagues jeopardised or even destroyed by political differences. In the divisions that have arisen in the wake of the EU referendum vote, or the election of Donald Trump, such concerns are more pressing than ever. Our political climate has reached a point where to disagree politely is seemingly a lost art.

Authors Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay have tackled this problem in their latest book, How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide. Their concern, quite simply, is ‘how to communicate effectively with people who hold radically different beliefs’. In an era of increasing polarisation, this book could hardly be timelier. Even prominent political commentators now routinely resort to ad hominem attacks and the kind of mischaracterisations of their opponents’ views that would see them fail the most basic course in critical thinking. Rather than just lament the woeful state of discourse, political or otherwise, Boghossian and Lindsay seek to do something about it.

Civil discussion is a skill like any other; it requires a grounding in the basics. Each chapter of How to Have Impossible Conversations moves us forward to potentially thornier encounters – from straightforward disagreements with friends all the way through to rows with closed-minded ideologues. I have long been of the view that trying to reason with racists is futile, because theirs is a fundamentally irrational position. Boghossian and Lindsay have given me cause to reconsider through their meticulous analysis of how such conversations might go in practice. They offer the example of the musician Daryl Davis, who has successfully talked Ku Klux Klan members out of their delusions; they point out that ‘he has a closet full of their relinquished hoods to prove it’. And although I lack the ability or patience to achieve such feats, they have persuaded me that there are those for whom the effort is worthwhile.

For the majority of readers, the most valuable aspect of this book will be how to resolve conflicts of a more quotidian kind. How do we retain friendships in the face of seemingly irreconcilable differences? How do we begin to reinstate the value of discourse when so many prominent figures in the media and the political commentariat are so adamant that their opponents’ views are outside the Overton Window? Having read Boghossian and Lindsay’s cogent guide, I am now more convinced than ever that many of society’s problems could be resolved if we simply learnt how to talk to one another.

First and foremost, we need to consider what we are arguing for. Do we really expect our intervention to prompt some kind of Damascene conversion? Is our intention to persuade or to demean? Boghossian and Lindsay are keenly aware that the purpose of argumentation isn’t always to prove that we are right. There is considerable value in sowing the seeds of doubt in the minds of others. And even the most necessarily robust conversations can be stymied by a lack of empathy or compassion.

The capacity to guide others to the point of introspection is one well worth honing, but we are unlikely to achieve this if our approach is adversarial. This is why the authors offer numerous examples of how conversations with ‘partners’ (rather than ‘opponents’) might be derailed, and how we can best avoid falling into traps. They draw on their own experiences – Boghossian, for instance, has worked with prison inmates to help improve their critical-thinking skills – and are not afraid to cite their own mistakes as examples of what not to do. As they point out, ‘virtually everyone formulates most of their beliefs first and then subsequently looks for supporting evidence and convincing arguments that back them up’. Having the self-awareness to recognise our own flaws is the first step to improving our ability to participate in civil discussion.

The authors advocate a return to the Socratic Method, a drawing out of ideas through the dialectical process. Too often we are guilty of treating an argument as an opportunity to enhance our status, to humiliate our rival, to convey a message, when we should be listening. The sociologist and philosopher Herbert Spencer begins his First Principles (1860) with a reminder that ‘when passing judgment on the opinions of others’, we should be on the lookout for the ‘nucleus of reality’ that lies within even the most flawed proposition. In other words, we have something to gain from listening. This is what Boghossian and Lindsay mean when they suggest that there are times when it is best to ‘switch the conversation to learning mode and ask questions’.

One of the most important lessons of How to Have Impossible Conversations relates to our natural inclination to assume the worst motives in those who do not share our views. Boghossian and Lindsay draw on Plato’s Meno to reaffirm Socrates’ observation that ‘people do not knowingly desire bad things’. We all appreciate how frustrating it can be to have opinions and ideas we do not hold attributed to us by our detractors, so we would do well not to make the same error. ‘If you must make an assumption about your partner’s intentions’, Boghossian and Lindsay write, ‘make only one: their intentions are better than you think’.

This tendency to intuit motive is most commonly showcased on social media, which is as good a reason as any to avoid such platforms when it comes to contentious topics. On a public forum such as Twitter we are essentially performing to an unknown audience, and so disagreements can often escalate into a clash of egos. In such circumstances, emerging as victorious becomes more important than refining our ideas. Boghossian and Lindsay remind us that interactions on Twitter with those who have thrown insults, or who have refused to take one’s arguments in good faith, are rarely productive. ‘The amount of attention you owe anyone who insulted you on social media is zero’, Boghossian and Lindsay tell us. ‘Let them waste their time. Stop playing their game. Block or mute their accounts.’ That is to say, knowing when to walk away is just as important as knowing when to engage.

In lesser hands, this kind of self-help guide could so easily have become an instruction manual for the disingenuous and the manipulative. The authors acknowledge as much in chapter six when they offer advice to the reader whose conversational partner might also have read this book. How to Have Impossible Conversations avoids this pitfall through a continual emphasis on the importance of empathy. By reframing disagreements as collaborative, and urging us to reflect on our mistakes, Boghossian and Lindsay show us the benefits of mutual understanding and sober persuasion. There are few of us who would not profit from reading this superb book. In a febrile political climate, it’s always worth reconsidering our tactics.

Andrew Doyle is a stand-up comedian and spiked columnist. His book Woke: A Guide to Social Justice (written by his alter-ego Titania McGrath) is available on Amazon.

How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide, by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, is published by Lifelong Books. Buy it from Amazon (UK).

Picture by: Getty.

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Tim Wheeler

4th November 2019 at 7:13 pm

This is perhaps not completely in sync with the ethos of the book under discussion but ….. I do like the excellent photo accompanying this piece. The chap with the blue top hat features in the hilarious Alistair Williams YouTube video ‘Everthing That’s Wrong With Remoaners’. Worth checking out for a smile.

Jason Daves

3rd November 2019 at 11:26 pm

“I have long been of the view that trying to reason with racists is futile”

American here: What’s a Racist? I’ve never met one. I’ve only met people with opinions, and all those people are people you can talk and reason with, despite differing views.

nick hunt

3rd November 2019 at 5:19 pm

Both book and review appear to miss a fundamental point: its not everyone who is making rational thought and dialogue impossible: it is the leftist elite. Those commanded by leftist values control the corporate media, government organs, education, and a host of other once apolitical institutions. Leftists today have suffered huge defeats and have subsequently become precisely what they hate: intolerant bigots and elitists. The new master race must nonetheless continue to preach equality to those who think unlike themselves, to free them from supposed inferiority. But real thought and debate are impossible and redundant when dogma and bigotry rule; leftists already know the dumb gammons are wrong.

A Game

3rd November 2019 at 4:23 pm

I suppose the book goes to the place of liberalism: that people have the freedom to think whatever they like about anything and no one else has the right to take that from them. Everyone has the right to disagree and everyone has the right to attempt to convert. But that that attempt shouldn’t be held against them, nor the failure to be converted.
That is the heart of the democratic experiment. Consensus eventually is found in a majority because people want to believe what they want to believe and so its about numbers.
That is what has been lost. The personalising of someone disagreeing with one, that its an insult to them, as a person, if another individual thinks they are wrong, and that because they feel their position is wholesome (and most people, no matter the topic, tend to think that), then its a poor reflection on the character of the person who disagrees with them.
Obviously when they talk about empathy, this is what they are trying to undo. If one person can hold dear an opinion/belief, why can’t someone else hold dear a different opinion/belief.

I read ages ago how sneering at smokers and fat people are now the new vents for people who historically could sneer at the poor or undeducated. You can see Brexit and Trump recreated the ability to sneer at the poor, uneducated all over again. It would seem society always needs someone to sneer at. That this is a middle class hobby… says a lot about them. Twitter is the favourite medium of who…?

That hilarious/pathetic anecdote from the guy who had a relative come and visit who said she voted for Trump… and he freaked out, I can’t remember if he stopped the car and made her get out (a relative visiting from the US in Australia – chivalry is alive and well, right?) or just wanted to. And then he got all big hearted and broad minded and got to know her better and decided to not make her wear a scarlet letter of “S” for scum and find his humanity and forgive her as a person, a relative… grudgingly giving her the time of day as a person, despite voting for Trump. I think she took up the olive branch… I would have shoved where the sun don’t shine, myself.
I can’t remember who it was… but everyone was amazed at the level of arrogant, self importance… the idea that it was okay to indulge hysterical bias towards someone as a fellow human being because they saw something in Trump that this non American voter didn’t.
The writer of the anecdote then expected praise for getting back in touch with his humanity. Bugger that. He deserved exile based on having lost his humanity to such an extent, whilst wrapping himself up in righteousness.

antoni orgill

3rd November 2019 at 3:48 pm

Sounds OK. There seems to be a trend toward elevating talk over action, words over deeds, feeling over fact. Let’s go with the flow and see where it takes us …

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