Book Review: “How to have impossible conversations – A very practical guide” by authors Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay. “How to Have Impossible Conversations” is a terrific book in many ways and it does contain some directly applicable practical advice. What it isn’t, however, is very practical, even though it makes that claim in the title.
“It’s easier to write 10 volumes of philosophy than to practically apply a single principle.”
Tolstoi, Diaries 1847
The blurb states that authors Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay will “guide you through the straightforward, practical, conversational techniques necessary for every successful conversation, whether the issue is climate change, religious faith, gender identity, race, poverty, immigration, or gun control.”
In my edition, the back cover comes with praise from atheism’s number one ideologue Richard Dawkins, who calls it “a self-help book on how to argue effectively, conciliate and gently persuade” and claims that “The world would be a better place if everyone read this book.” There is a certain irony in having one of the most ideological “New Atheists” praising a book that has a whole chapter on dealing with ideologues but since Mr. Boghossian previously wrote “A Manual for Creating Atheists”, it fits.
For the purposes of this review, it makes things easier that the authors seem to agree with the categorization of their work as a “self-help book”. Leaving aside the misgivings about the genre, the relevant questions are: Does it do the job? Does it help? Mr. Dawkins says that the world would be a better place if everybody read the book. I hope what he means is that the world might become a better place if people actually applied the lessons from the book.
Reading a book is easy, even writing a book is easy, compared to the notoriously difficult task of changing one’s behavior. This is where the book falls short; it overwhelms with extensive lists of skills and challenging concepts, while providing next to no guidance of how to go about practicing and actually applying them.
However, before we get to the problems and suggestions on how to remedy them, there is some useful advice that you can hopefully take away from reading this review. In order to avoid the trap that the authors fall into, I will limit it to three points. Two of them are taken from the “Beginner Level: Nine Ways to Start Changing Minds”, the third one is hidden in the end notes to the “ Six Expert Skills to Engage the Closed Minded.”
Beginners are advised to model to the conversational behavior that they would like to see in their counterparts. In order to stop your partner in the conversation from obfuscating or refusing to answer a direct question, Boghossian and Lindsay suggest this refreshingly simple and straight forward idea: Tell your counterparts to ask you the same question. When they do that, “give them a succinct answer (that is, model what you’re seeking) and then immediately ask them the identical question.”
There is an interesting example for the application of the technique at the beginning of Chapter Three, where Boghossian successfully used the technique with a Muslim community leader in Australia who tried to obfuscate the fact that he was in favor of stoning adulterous women. Everybody with teaching or leadership experience and every parent knows how important consistent modelling is and how much more effective than the popular “Do as I say, not as I do” school of trying to influence behavior.
The second useful idea from the Beginner Level is the “Unread Library Effect.” It refers to “the well-known phenomenon of people who believe they understand how things work better than they actually do, i.e. the “tendency to believe we’re more knowledgeable than we are because we believe in other people’s expertise.” The authors invite us to think about this very common phenomenon with the analogy of “borrowing books from the great library of human knowledge and then never reading the books.”
A way in which self-help books can be useful is making something explicit that many of us know implicitly. Giving it a name and describing it as a skill makes it easier to apply, like the human tendency to get into arguments about issues we don’t know very much about. The practical application of the “Unread Library Effect” that the authors suggest is to “model ignorance”. Instead of getting into a discussion about an issue that both parties know little about, the idea is to start with a question about the “how” rather than the “what”.
Using the contentious topic of immigration, they give this example: “I don’t know how the details of using mass deportations of illegal immigrants would play out. I think there are likely pros and cons and I really don’t know which outweigh which. How would that policy be implemented?”
The more ignorance you dare to admit, the greater the likelihood that your counterpart will not switch into adversarial mode but will try to explain the issue to you. Using this approach you get the chance to either learn something about immigration policy or it can lead your conversation partner to the realization of her own “Unread Library Effect”. This is a more effective way of sowing doubt in somebody’s mind than arguing your point.
Giving others the “gift of doubt” is the main theme of the book, in this way it is a philosophical book in the best sense. The authors seem to have great faith in the human ability to reason, the whole book can be read as an encouragement to reflect and to lead an “examined life” in the meaning attributed to Socrates. For Socrates, the examined life meant the attainment of wisdom and intellectual humility by questioning our superficial certainties.
There is a dangerous political naivety and inability or unwillingness to see the limits of their faith in reason and civil discourse that I will examine in the last part of this review.
One of the most common dead ends in conversation is what the authors call the “true for” stance, meaning this is true for me and therefore cannot be questioned. Everybody has encountered this maddening stance which insists on the only superficially understood relativity and subjectivity of knowledge. What it fails to understand is that rational discourse is only possible if both parties agree that there are things which are “objectively” true in the sense of a shared description of the world.
A simple way of understanding this is to use the example of the natural sciences. There are no final truths in science. This doesn’t mean that it is a free for all, however. There needs to be a shared understanding of the method of deriving knowledge and there needs to be shared insights to build on, in order to make discourse possible. Would you want to fly in a jet constructed by an engineer who strongly believes in her truth, even though it substantially differs from the laws of thermodynamics?
Boghossian and Lindsay suggest this ingenious intervention, one my favorites being: “If someone says something is true for them, ask to borrow one of their possessions, such as their water bottle, sunglasses, phone or keys. Then claim that you believe “Possession means ownership is true for me, so it is true for me that this is mine now.” When they object, you can immediately ask them “Why can things be true for you, but not true for me?” I love this idea and am looking forward to applying it.
I hope I have convinced you at this point that “How to Have Impossible Conversations” is a terrific book, a treasure trove of interesting ideas, backed up by solid research and a thorough understanding of philosophy and science. From the point of view of reaching its objective, however, of actually helping people to change their behavior, there is a problem. It is an academic book written by a mathematician and a philosopher who seem to lack an equally thorough understanding of didactics and the psychology of learning.
Say Please and Thank you
Here is the table of contents of “Seven Fundamentals of Good Conversations”: Beginner Level: Nine Ways to Start Changing Minds, Intermediate Level: Seven Ways to Improve Your Interventions, Five Advanced Skills for Contentious Conversations, Six Expert Skills to Engage the Closed Minded, Master Level: Two Keys to Conversing with Ideologues. 36 skills you need to master, with a large number of subordinate skills, all in one book, which claims to be a “Very Practical Guide”.
Even if I build a “golden bridge”, skill two, intermediate level and grant that some of the skills are very basic and most people won’t need to train them, like for example “be courteous, say please and thank you” subskill nine, from main skill three, “rapport”, this is simply way too much to handle and nearly impossible to operationalize.
Be the change
I have been working on “active listening” skills with participants in communication training for years. I would argue that active listening, i.e. fully concentrating on listening and understanding, suspending judgment and quelling the urge to discuss or formulate a reply while the other person is talking, actually covers a lot of the ground that Boghossian and Lindsay aim for.
They list it merely as skill four of the “Seven Fundamentals of Good Conversations”. The insight I’ve taken away from training active listening and trying to apply myself is how very difficult it is to actually do consistently. The instances where people are able to apply active listening after the first time they encounter it is rare.
I am referring to a training situation, where the trainees first get an explanation, then watch a video and read a text about the skill. Once they are asked to apply it in a role play, the majority of trainees struggle to suspend judgement and many fall into the trap of turning the conversation into a friendly discussion and the normal exchange of views.
The Noble Quest
This doesn’t say anything about the intelligence or level of education of the trainees. Most of them were highly educated, intelligent and competent people. It just shows how difficult it is to break the habit of a lifetime. Modern organizations are competitive environments where wisdom and intellectual humility are not regarded as career enhancers. What is rightly seen as career enhancing is intellectual dexterity, strong rhetorical skill and the ability to intelligently bullshit when you don’t know the answer.
How many times can you honestly say “I don’t know” in a meeting or a presentation, subskill 17, Skill 9, Beginner Level, before your boss and/or your colleagues will have the impression that you are incompetent rather than wise and intellectually humble?
They might make the counter argument that their advice is not intended for the workplace but that is where people spend most of their time, if they are lucky enough to have a well paid white collar job. If people can’t train and apply the insights from the book there, its value is questionable.
This discrepancy between the ideal world the authors are painting and the reality of the existing professional environment again points towards the political naivety I will deal with at the end. For the time being, my focus is on how to help people actually apply all of the great ideas the authors present in their work.
The Psychology of Religion
If my task was to develop a full time curriculum to train all of the skills up to “Master Level”, where they delve into fascinating questions regarding the connection between identity and morality, I would say that a year long full-time course would still be an ambitious time frame. And it would certainly entail a fair bit of reading after class.
Especially the “Master Level” covers a lot of challenging content and you need to wrap your head around quotes like this one: “The psychology of politics is really the psychology of religion, understanding national elections is not about what’s the most efficient policy. It really is the psychology that we evolve to be religious; we evolve to do intergroup conflict; we evolve to make things sacred and encircle around them.” If you are not familiar with evolutionary biology, the work of Jonathan Haidt and the psychological turn in philosophy, you have a lot to read up on.
Communication seminars normally last 2 or 3 days and if they are good, the majority of the time is devoted to actually practicing the skills. It is obviously impossible to even cover the “Beginner Level” in such a time frame. The only way to deal with the wealth of content accumulated by Boghossian and Lindsay would be to break it up into a series of seminars, streamline the content, boil the 36 skills and innumerable subskills into something a lot more manageable, say five skills each for every level.
That would be an interesting project and a valuable series of seminars. A crucial point would be to create practical exercises for every single skill. It would take time to get the concept to a level where it flows well since creating good seminars depends on actually running them several times to smooth out the kinks. So much for some constructive criticism and a suggestion on how to remedy the book’s shortcomings.
Let’s now turn to the problems that have no obvious solutions. The main problem that I see is the insistence on “civility” and “rational discourse” being the solutions that America needs right now. We find ourselves in their version of the “agora”, the public square of ancient Greece where the philosophers assembled to hash out their differences, jointly seeking truth through the application of reason.
Straight White Guys Are Liars
If only, they seem to say, the United States could be more like this, less divided, less ideological, less irrational, then America would be great again. You can read the whole book as an academic version of “Why can’t we all just get along?” They have very little time for “radicals” and “extremists” and seem to conceptualize politics in the United States as a failing debating society that needs to read their book.
They are amusingly tone deaf to the anger of minorities since they see the righteous anger not as necessary propellent of social change but as something to be avoided at all costs. There is a very telling example in the book, where they talk about a feminist colleague who said to Boghossian: “At this point, if a straight white male told me 2 + 2 = 4, I wouldn’t believe it.”
The two communication specialists take this statement at face value, not as an expression of exasperation with a society that continues to treat women and minorities unfairly. They hilariously suggest applying their methods to the statement and recommend asking questions such as: “If you went to the emergency room and the doctor happened to be a straight white male, would you believe him if he told you that you need an immediate emergency surgery to save your life?”
It would be interesting to know how they would react if a black man said the same thing to them. Since their underlying philosophy is nothing if not conventional, they would probably shy away from giving such a silly, patronizing response. Convention has made white Americans very sensitive about belittling the righteous anger of black people but it’s still ok to mock the feelings of women and queer folk.
This is not the place to discuss the real problems of identity politics. Suffice it to say that America’s gravest problems are not to be found in the powerful position of the “grievance studies” in American academia.
More Than Rational
The most serious intellectual error they commit lies in their shortsighted critique of ideology and the assumption that the problems of ideology can be remedied by a good helping of “reason” and “rationality”. As much as they might dislike Focault and modern political philosophy, it is baffling that they fail to appreciate that politics in modern mass democracies is not a debating society, especially since they hail from a country which came into being through a violent revolution.
Ideology, understood correctly in this context, is the necessary legitimization for a political struggle that is fundamentally about power. It’s not amenable to reason, its very point lies in the fact that it cannot be questioned and thereby legitimizes action. “We hold these truths to be self-evident”. Very little room for sowing doubt there.