How to have hard conversations better

This month I’ve taken a deep dive into motivational interviewing and street epistemology: two rhetorical techniques that work to explore why we believe the things we do to a high degree of confidence.

Why might this be interesting? Think about the person you know who is sure that climate change is a hoax. Think about the aunty you have who keeps trying to enlist you in her spiritual healing circle. Think about the colleague you have who doesn’t want to get vaccinated, or the friend who has become so engrossed in leftist student politics that they can’t talk about anything else.

Conversations with these people can be hard—on both sides.

And these conversations can be hard for two reasons. First, because it is uncomfortable to have our views challenged by different information. Second, because we treat conversations that involve competing world views as an arena in which to change each others minds.

The tendency—for both people in the conversation—is to lay out swathes of information for our opponent as we gradually talk them around to our point of view. Maybe it feels incredulous that this person is just ‘walking around being misinformed’? They should thank their lucky stars that we’ve arrived to set them straight!

But this view, and this approach, strip away the reality that each of us is an autonomous human, who doesn’t think we’re wrong. So how can we have better conversations about hard things?

This sticking point is what led me to start learning about motivational interviewing and street epistemology. Both emphasise active listening and both promote the idea that a good goal for hard conversations is to walk away better understanding the other persons view. Both techniques also zoom out from the specific arguments for or against a thing (that approach to debate is called topic rebuttal). Instead they operate at a meta-level, guiding people to understand their own thinking fully.

Motivational interviewing works to draw out people reasons for ‘positive change’, for example, to describe the reasons they don’t give more than 50% of their income to their yogi, or why they aren’t less willing to stop smoking. Street epistemology focuses on metacognition—exploring how we arrive at our views to a high degree of confidence, and how we decide those lines of evidence are reliable.

I don’t intend to dive into a summary of either motivational interviewing or street epistemology here and now, but I have collated a small set of entry points to these methods that I have found invaluable…

This podcast episode on Vaccine Hesitancy by David McRaney, host of You Are Not So Smart. The portions of dialogue with Misha Glouberman are particularly instructive. I attended a free online course he ran recently, at it was extremely beneficial.

This YouTube channel from Mark Solomon, called Being Reasonable. His podcast demonstrates street epistemology in a distilled form that is easy to wrap your head around.

This chat bot from Karen Tamerius, which lets you practice the techniques of motivational interviewing. The chat bot is available via subscription to the NY times or if you haven’t hit your ‘free article’ quota.

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