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MBA Essentials
OCT 23, 2020

Have Conversations You Want to Avoid—It’s Worth It

By Laura Abbott
by fizkes @iStock

Think of someone you cut from your life because of something they said. Maybe you stopped taking their calls or joining parties you knew they’d be at. Maybe you even left a social media platform, all because that difficult conversation made you feel threatened, angry, or anxious.

We’ve all done it. These days, it’s a common solution when you find someone who doesn’t share your beliefs. Having charged conversations is rough, and between COVID-19, global political tensions, and, well, all of 2020, nobody wants to add any more stress to their life.

But avoiding these conversations comes with its own problems. Disagreements never get closure. Tribes of opinion become more partisan. Gridlock intensifies. We can’t craft a better world by excluding 50% of the people in it. We have to include everyone, and that means engaging in difficult conversations.

Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay’s How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide will help you do just that. Here are five selected points of wisdom from the book.

The person you’re talking to isn’t an adversary—they’re a partner.

Assuming you both walk into the conversation in good faith, it shouldn’t be hard to see your conversation partner as just that—a partner. The point of conversation has never been winning, shaming, or forcing someone to yield. Indeed, the harder you push towards any of these, the stronger the other person will cling to their beliefs.

The more you try to understand instead of argue, cooperate instead of lead, and learn instead of teach, the more positive the conversation will remain. Remember, a discussion is a learning environment for both participants.

If you’re not willing to learn, now is probably not the right time for you to have a conversation.

Making points won’t help your case.

We’ve all seen posts on social media we disagree with. It’s easy to think that the original poster is simply uninformed. If they just knew the facts, they would change their mind!

But sharing facts to reeducate someone doesn’t work. People tend to reject information in one-way transactions—in other words, a message—in favor of their own ideas. But a conversation is about give and take, which is why Boghossian and Lindsay recommend that you only deliver messages, facts, or data if your partner requests them.

Instead, ask them questions.

When in doubt, focus on a question.

Boghossian and Lindsay recommend that you “approach every conversation with an awareness that your partner understands problems in a way that you don’t.” Even when talking to people you agree with, they probably understand the issue differently. This is doubly true when speaking with someone whose beliefs differ.

Focusing on a single question—something like, “Should HR departments make an effort to hire more diversely?”—helps the conversation remain focused and allows you to explore the question as a team. This helps keep things from turning negative, too.

Once you’ve agreed on a question to explore, ask follow-up questions that get to the heart of the issue. Specifically, ask open-ended questions. These invite more than one-word answers. They often start with how or what (“How would you feel if 40% of the local population were foreign, but none of the employees were?”),but they can also start with can, is, are, and do (“Do you think if X happened, your opinion would change?”). The use of open questions keeps your partner from feeling cornered, and helps you remember that both of you are conversing to learn.

Be authentic and curious with your questions—it’s easy to tell when someone is interrogating, as opposed to inquiring.

Social media turns conversations into arguments.

Though social media relieves the pressure of responding in real time, online conversation comes with several serious disadvantages. Most importantly, without someone in front of us, we can’t accurately read tone, body language, or facial expressions. These cues clarify nuance and give depth to what you’re trying to say. Misunderstanding nuance is often at the heart of disagreement.

Another problem is that the public nature of social media platforms makes people cling to their views more tightly than if the conversation were private.

As a result, Boghossian and Lindsay recommend never having any kind of combative conversation on social media. If you absolutely must, reach out privately. But in general, the nature of social media makes it a toxic place to discuss religious, political, or philosophical topics. Remember, it takes kindness, compassion, and psychologically safe environments to influence people.

Practice walking away.

Conversing well is a skill, and as with all skills, you improve with practice. Remember, all skills feel difficult—even frustrating—in the beginning. If you practice, this will not always be the case.

But all conversations have to end, and it’s important to walk away on a positive note. If your partner seems ready to stop, then stop. Push them to continue, and you could damage any rapport you’ve built. Instead, walk away when things are still positive, especially if you think you’ve caused them to doubt one of their beliefs. This leaves you with the opportunity to converse again another day. They may find themselves mulling over your conversation in the meantime.

On your way out, don’t forget to thank them.

The other major reason to walk away is a sour conversation. If your partner has escalated into anger or insults, or assumes you have bad intentions, it’s better not to waste your time. Both sides must be willing to learn, or the conversation is unlikely to be positive for anyone.

Take your conversation to the next level.

These foundational skills Boghossian and Lindsay recommend in How to Have Impossible Conversations are just the beginning. The book is a must read for anyone looking to become a thought leader or an influencer. Even if you hold no such grand plans, it can be a big help to anyone seeking to better understanding the world around them.