10 ways to have a better conversation (even with people with whom you disagree)


  1. Don’t multitask.
  2. Don’t pontificate.
  3. Use open-ended questions.
  4. Go with the flow.
  5. If you don’t know, say that you don’t know.
  6. Don’t equate your experience with theirs.
  7. Try not to repeat yourself.
  8. Stay out of the weeds.
  9. Listen.
  10. Be brief.

Lucid suggestions, IMO. The only bit I struggled with was reconciling some elements of #6 “It is not about you!” (Exactly! I don’t really exist.) and #8 “What they care about is you. They care about what you are like.” (We already established that it is not about me! I am only a means by which social dynamics manifest themselves.)

A few others that I reply upon, in no particular order:

  • Ask for clarification rather than jumping to conclusions.
  • Be aware of casually dropping “we” and “us” in a way that presumes you and they belong to the same culture.
  • To avoid polarization, try to consider every scenario as having more than two probable models. Bucky Fuller suggests using six models.
  • (hinted in #9 above) Critique only the text of another person’s position, not your inferences about it.
  • Absolutes tend to be lazy - for example try to use “some” or “certain” rather that “all” or “nobody”

This is often mentioned in topics like this, but seems always badly explained. It’s basically saying to never try to relate to the person that you’re talking to, despite the fact that relating to other people is often the point of conversation. And it ignores cases where it might be helpful for someone to know that they’re not alone.

Scenario: You and two friends have filed for something, been denied, but appealed, and won on the appeal. Someone else tells you that they filed, but were denied and they’re obviously upset about it and ready to give up. You suggest that they should appeal, but they think it’s not worth the bother. Is it really wrong to mention that you and everyone else you know were also initially denied, but won on the appeal, so it might be worthwhile for them to appeal too? Should you just say “oh well, sucks to be you.”?

Where does that line get drawn and where does it get crossed? These little how-to’s never really address actually relating to people, especially not in a positive way.

Of course people do cross the line, takeover the conversation and make it about themselves. But saying never try to relate to another human isn’t a good solution to that. Better would be to explain when to relate (or not) and how to do so in a way that is positive for the other person.

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There is definitely a tricky balance there. My experience is that many people predominantly focus upon either similarities or differences - and even then these may be good, bad, or indifferent. I know that my own version of autistic existentialism often rubs people the wrong way in that it models each person as being acutely connected to every other, while also being unknowable. To me, the main focus and interest is in differences between people. Somebody trying to appeal to me with common feelings or culture comes off as trying to make conversation about how we both have two ears, or share the same gravitational constant. Dwelling upon the obvious makes it seem as if we don’t actually have anything to communicate.

But many people I meet require establishing commonality in order to feel secure. And in discussion about cultures and societies this means requiring us to inhabit the same “space” of shared value and tradition. But this is also how imperialism plays out in our daily interactions - pressuring a person to share a “common” language, calendar, government, etc. The sharing of preconceptions is its own situational validity, regardless of how objectively accurate it may or not be. So if one even chooses to assume that we have things in common to assuage the other’s insecurities, it is often a game of labyrinthine norms and shibboleths which exist as much to divide as to collect, to establish the ingroup/outgroup split.

Probably the most cogent examples I see are in how people create and react to media. Like how music tends to be based almost entirely upon the poised dance of both cultivating and subverting expectations. Too predictable quickly gets boring. Yet too unpredictable elicits anxiety and the listener is unlikely to discern any pattern, it then becomes predicted and dismissed as simply “noise”.

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