How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide

"This is a self-help book on how to argue effectively, conciliate, and gently persuade. The authors admit to getting it wrong in their own past conversations. One by one, I recognize the same mistakes in me. The world would be a better place if everyone read this book." -- Richard Dawkins, author of Science in the Soul and Outgrowing God

Before entering an argument, identify your priority: is it the relationship? learning? changing minds?

Make understanding your conversation partner’s reasoning your (initial) goal.  "No one cares about how much you know until they know how much you care"  What if they suck? If Daryl Davis can have civil conversations with KKK and help them abandon it, you can understand them.

If the relationship, don't worry about being right.  "You can be right or you can be married"  "I never considered a difference of opinion as cause for withdrawing from a friend"

If you think their motives are off, lead with curiosity: "Could you tell me more about where you’re coming from on that so I can understand better?"  If you think they question your motives, say: "I may be off here. If something is wrong with my reasoning, please let me know."

Introduce scales:

Ask, “On a scale from 1 to 10, how confident are you X is true?”

If they say 8, "What would move you to 6? to 10?"  Say "I'm only a 3, can you walk me through how you got to an 8?

Don't try to change their mind directly. Have them evaluate their epistemology

Attempt to re-express their position so clearly that your target says, “That's right. I wish I’d thought of putting it that way."  Assure common goals, values, and points of agreement.  Mention what you've learned from them.  Only after this should you utter a word of rebuttal

Engaging in respectful dialogue doesn't mean accepting their conclusions  It means understanding not just what they believe but also why they believe it—in that process, maybe they’ll come to understand your reasoning, or see that their reasoning is in error, or vice versa

Make your goals of collaboration and understanding explicit.

Say, “I'm really curious what you believe and how you came to believe it, it might inform my own thinking on the topic."  Lead with curiosity and ask yourself: "Why do they believe that?"

If you try to change their mind directly w/ facts, they'll probably double down.  Instead get them to explain their epistemology--how they know what they know. People are far less defensive about this.


  • Personal experience
  • Others believe it
  • Religion
  • Evidence

Ask “Would every reasonable person draw the same conclusion?”

Or “How come there are so many divergent opinions? I mean, why is it that when 2 ppl look at the same evidence they come away with different conclusions? How does one figure out whose belief is true & whose is false?"

Model the conversation you wish to have:

  • Lead w/ curiosity
  • Be humble about your knowledge

Say "I don't know" & rate confidence from 1-10.

  • Explain your epistemology
  • Change your mind upon hearing better arguments
  • Disavow extremists from your side
  • Steelman their side

Most people borrow second hand arguments from others (Unread Library Effect)

Helping people understand they’re relying upon borrowed knowledge leads them to introduce doubt for themselves  Conversely, if they have a sound epistemology they may convince you to follow their logic.

Ask questions:

What evidence would cause you to change your mind?

Under what conditions could the belief be false?

What value does believing in it provide over not believing in it?

Does believing it make someone a better person?

In 10 years will you believe this?

Try to be cognizant of ways you’ve adopted essentializing views and work to uproot those beliefs in yourself.

Focus on contributions over blame.  Instead of saying "X caused Y" ask, "What role, if any, did X play?"

Learn nonviolent communication.