Peter Boghossian: How To Have Impossible Conversations

Looming government insolvency. Ecosystem collapse. Our complete dependence on depleting fossil fuels. Overpopulation. The accelerating wealth gap between the 1% and everyone else. The folly of pursuing exponential growth on a finite planet.

Each of these topics often seem impossible to talk about. Too many people find them too triggering.

We could add many more to this list. Religion. Politics. Abortion.

But avoiding these topics doesn’t help us. It sets us up for firey conflict when opposing beliefs on these topics inevitably collide.

So, how can we successfully engage in discussion on these issues, with those we care about and with society at large?

Peter Boghossian, co-author of How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide, shares straightforward conversational ‘hacks’ for having constructive, respectful discussion on any controversial topic – including climate change, religious faith, gender identity, race, poverty, immigration, or gun control.

People do not formulate their beliefs on the basis of evidence. They think they do, but instead, they cherry pick pieces of information or pieces of data to support the beliefs they already have.

The key thing to understand is that people formulate their beliefs because of some moral impulse, derived from a community to which they belong. They have a strong moral sense of why they ought to believe something.

Arguing with evidence doesn’t work. That triggers something called the backfire effect – it’s well established in the literature – where people just hunker down or double down in their beliefs.

So instead of providing evidence, there are other ways that we have to shift those conversations.

The way to reach people about these issues is through values and not evidence. You have to figure out what somebody values and why they value it. In fancy terms, that’s called moral epistemology.

Once you figure out someone’s moral epistemology, that’s like the lock. And the templates that we use in the book are like keys to unlock that lock. Epistemology is just a two dollar word for ‘how you know what you think you know’. And morality is just a word meaning ‘what ought I to do’.

People don’t really think very much about how they come to their moral beliefs. It’s remarkably interesting how brittle those moral epistemologies are. With a few targeted questions, people can become more reflective about that.

So for example, I’m very interested in the crisis in plastic in the oceans right now and the great garbage gyres. The way to reach people on this subject is not to give them evidence for how bad it is, because that doesn’t tell them why they should care about it. Instead, see what they value in the first place, and then give them a reason for why the ocean should be cleaned up that comports with the values they already have.

Click the play button below to listen to Chris’ interview with Peter Boghossian (44m:26s).

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

As a stimulus package, and to save the planet, everyone in America should be given a copy of this book.

I think the way Chris does. You should be able to start off with the data, that should be enough. However, I’ve noticed that never works. I bought the book. Thanks.
Chris, here’s one to add to your needed impossible conversation list; animal agriculture and consumption of animal sourced foods. Consumption of animal-based and processed foods is the number one cause of death in the US and probably most of the rest of western civilization, so much so that it exceeds all other causes of death combined. Animal agriculture contributes massively to energy consumption and ecological degradation. I won’t provide data after listening to this podcast, but you’re a hell of a researcher.
I forgot to mention the impact of the Western diet on health care. Some speculate that 70% or more of the health care cost that is literally crushing our country, is to mitigate conditions brought about by our atrocious diet. Diabetes alone, is on a trajectory that will collapse our health care system.

Thank you for pointing us to this book and this author and this way of approaching these conversations. Sometimes they just sneak up on you.
Like you, I’ve found that loading up with data ammo can only take you so far, and often is an ineffective manner of persuasion. Having a script that can find someone’s “soft spot” to a hardened position and possibly inserting a seed of doubt may be more powerful than all the data there is.
I purchased the audio book already and am looking forward to learning the techniques in it.
Who knows, maybe I don’t know it all? [yet, ;)]

Darn you Chris. You’ve successfully helped in another book sale.
I might also add another book to that category.
“Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It”
By: Chris Voss

Very helpful ideas. I have ordered the book AND downloaded the Kindle version.
Lets see how Thanksgiving dinner goes this year.

“Let’s say I give you a wand and you can wave this wand and solve any one problem in perpetuity”. Chris said “environment” …good answer.
I would say “solve the problem of lack of empathy, listening, and understanding”. If we listen to each other with true empathy and understanding we will reach solutions for all the problems in the world. Conflict will be impossible.
That takes us back to the purpose of the book. How to improve our conversations.

I downloaded and started listening to the book this evening.

Thanks for the fantastic conversation! I’m buying the book for my husband, who, among other things, teaches environmental issues for non-majors at a university. Helping students challenge their ideas about how to live is a tough job and he needs every tool available.
I think, though, there is a missed opportunity here. I personally hold the free exchange of ideas in very high regard, and trained in the Socratic method starting at 13 years old. However, I recognize that I’m able to think exchanging ideas is so damn important partly because I live an incredibly safe and comfortable life, by historical and global standards.
I’m not in any way defending particular circumstances at particular universities. The pendulum always swings way too far when humans try to do something different, and this has definitely happened in some places with trying to make space for ‘protected classes,’ with bad consequences for critical thinking.
However, it is not a mistake to try to make extra room for the opinions of people who haven’t been heard as much (even though we’re doing it badly). Here’s why: the safest of us loose out if we can’t get any information about what it’s like to live in our country and not be safe.
A less abundant future is probably going to be less safe for all of us, and that is disturbing. It’s disturbing to think that I personally might come to value people at least attempting to be polite to me, over access to every possible idea (keeping in mind that in this thought experiment lots of those ideas have been directly and recently injurious to ‘me’ or could be tomorrow- that’s why protection seemed needed, not first because of hurt feelings, but because of hurt bodies).
I firmly agree that the ecological issues we face are the most important and pressing thing for our species right now, and all effort must be turned on them. But I’m free to believe that at least partly because my immediate safety is not at risk. If I were spending my mental energy trying to keep actual violence from happening to me, my energy had better be on that, and ideas that aren’t instantly useful be damned.
In one of the safest, richest countries in the world, lots of people genuinely are in real danger, physical danger, sexual danger, economic danger, and a few of them have nonetheless made it to college, and a lot of safe folks are getting very screechy at least attempting to listen (badly). This isn’t great, but it doesn’t have to become a decline from the decades when few tried to listen at all. People who still have some critical thinking skills can imagine under what circumstances race or gender issues might become more important to them than slower-moving extinction issues: when a single mom doesn’t earn enough to keep her kids housed tonight, when someone you know is wrongly shot, when you’re personally being harmed now, rather than soon. It’s a useful perspective.

People with different desires can not communicate.
To communicate with people you have first speak to her desires. later the reasons can be bring in.
These are 5000 years old kabbalah teachings.
With this knowledge then, What is a human bean? What is her purpose?, the response to this question will make you clear about what really happen in the world.

This one and the one on integrity are in my top 5.
Love your work Chris. Midway through the podcast I paused and went and brought the book.

Quite so! I turn to Mish (and Martin Armstrong for that matter) on questions of neuroscience as well.