How often have you been in a ‘cat and dog’ conversation? You come away feeling hopeless or despondent or a failure. In our current political moment, this happens too often to too many of us. One personal example still haunts me.
Dick and I had just introduced ourselves at a dinner event and after a bit of friendly small talk, Dick said ‘I have been reading The Case for Trump by Victor Davis Hanson.’ Without a moment’s hesitation, I replied ‘I don’t think I could read such a book.’ Recognizing almost (but not quite) immediately my mistake, I tried to recover by saying nice things about the author who I was familiar with but the damage had been done. The conversational energy was gone. It was my fault and I knew it.
Peter Boghossian & James Lindsay in How to Have Impossible Conversations have written a book full of helpful insights about how to have “conversations that take place across a seemingly unbridgeable gulf of disagreement in ideas, beliefs, morals, politics and worldviews.” Their book is full of hope and built upon the idea that anyone can learn the skills necessary to make impossible conversations possible and productive.
The book is divided by skill level, from beginner through master. In a future blog that can be found on paulmuses.com, I will describe some intermediate and advanced skills that can help you both think more carefully about your own perspectives and sow doubt in the thinking of your conversational partner. In this blog I will report on several fundamental skills—political discussions 101—that once mastered should give you the confidence needed to enter difficult conversations.
Why engage in political conversation? When Dick mentioned The Case for Trump, I, without thinking, slotted him as an adversary and the ‘case for Trump’ something I was sure needed not to be understood but rebutted. Boghossian and Lindsay suggest a better way to think about political conversation is as a partnership, with the goal understanding and not winning. Here is an imaginative reconstruction of how the conversation with Dick might have gone, with partnership and understanding replacing adversary and winning.
Dick: ‘I have been reading Victor Davis Hanson’s The Case for Trump’. Paul: ‘That’s interesting. What is the case for Trump?’ Dick: [Describes the case for Trump] Paul: ‘What do you think about the case Hanson makes?’
If the initial conversation had continued down this path, perhaps Dick and I could have increased each other’s understanding of the other’s point of view or even begun to doubt our own. As it was, my adversarial and must win approach stopped the conversation before it could begin.
Reframing political conversations as partnerships working toward better understanding is a game changer for me. Boghassian and Lindsay put it this way, “approach every conversation with an awareness that your partner understands problems in a way that you don’t currently understand.” Adding to this wisdom, the authors remind us that Aristotle said the mark of an educated mind is understanding a position without accepting it.
The picture here is of a Pete Buttigieg house conversation event my partner Rebecca Wiese and I hosted last Sunday. You see about half the people in attendance. Look closely, at how intently people are listening. There were democrats (progressives and moderates), Republicans, and independents all paying close attention to what others were saying. Boghassian and Lindsay on listening, “if you do not listen, you cannot understand. And if you cannot understand, there is no conversation.”
How does one listen? You pause and wait, and then pause and wait again and again. Do it enough, pause and wait, and you develop the habit of listening and with listening, understanding.
Partnership, understanding, and listening and not adversary, winning and talking, can these and other fundamentals be the keys to engaging with those who see the world differently than we do?
Imagine listening more and being listened to more. Imagine understanding more and being understood better. Imagine seeing your political opponent as having a necessary truth, to fill in the half-truth you have.
In the world you have just imagined, all that is lost is your (and my) current fear or refusal to have what we wrongly believe are impossible conversations.
There is something that is lost in the current climate of not having these difficult conversations. It makes changing minds harder. If you think the ideas people have influence on the actions they take, then giving up on influencing these ideas is giving up on one tool to change the world.