Talking Big Ideas.
Ben Klutsey recently interviewed me as part of his ongoing series on liberalism. Ben is the director of the Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
Our full conversation was published in Discourse Magazine. Below is a slightly edited segment from our discussion. We focus on the importance of being a conversational scientist.
I encourage you to check out the fantastic work Ben and his team are doing at Mercatus.
BEN KLUTSEY: Today we’re talking to Bob Ewing. He’s the president and founder of the Ewing School, a company that trains leaders to communicate ideas. Bob and I have known each other for a very long time.
Throughout my career at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, I’ve had the opportunity to do a number of talks, speeches, and panel discussions. I have to say that Bob has been instrumental in my career as he’s helped to train and coach me to improve as a communicator of ideas.
That’s the subject of our conversation today, to talk about how we can communicate better in a liberal society that fosters open inquiry, where we can contest ideas, raise questions, and have good civil conversations so we can learn and improve our knowledge. Bob, thanks for joining us today.
BOB EWING: Absolutely, Ben. It’s great to be here.
BEN: Adam Grant says in his book, Think Again, that often when we are confronted with ideas or challenges to things we hold dear, we become either prosecutors, preachers, or politicians.
The politician will say anything to get people on their side. The preacher is unyielding; they have to hold firm to their beliefs and make sure that they’re proselytizing to get more people to bind to the faith. Then you have the prosecutor who’s exploiting the weaknesses in the other person’s arguments to make theirs sound really good.
Grant writes that ultimately you want to be a scientist, where you’re asking questions and learning and trying to figure things out. He says that ultimately we are not in a battle or a war or a debate with our fellow citizens. We’re having conversations.
He uses a story about someone he was mentoring. He kept nudging her to move in a particular direction. Whenever she would ask a question or raise a point, he would logically demolish her arguments to highlight his point.
At the end of the conversation, she says to him, “I really agree with you. I think you’re making a lot of good points, but I still won’t do this thing that you want me to do.”
He asked, “Why?” She said, “Because you’re a logic bully.”
BOB: This is an excellent example to bring to life the fact that we’re not computers. Humans are more than logic machines like Spock. So we should talk in a way that’s friendly to humans, whether it’s the numbers we use, the structure we use, or our specific methodology.
I like to divide effective conversations into three categories: persuasive, useful, and healthy.
Persuasion goes back thousands of years—Aristotle defined rhetoric as the art of persuasion. Cicero talked about the amazing feeling we get when we manipulate people’s minds to come to our way of thinking. There’s certainly a role for persuasion, but today we’re so jaded and turned off when we sense people are trying to manipulate us or push their ideas on us.
I have a background in sales, but at the Ewing School we don’t focus on persuasion. Instead, we teach our clients to be useful.
It’s liberating. Instead of trying to win arguments, or wind up being “a logic bully,” we can simply listen to others and figure out if there’s some way we can be helpful.
And if there’s not, then regardless we can still have conversations that are healthy.
I think of this as the Hippocratic Oath of Communication. “First, do no harm,” to paraphrase Hippocrates. John Rawls, who famously wrote A Theory of Justice, followed it up with Political Liberalism, where he addresses the fact that we cannot agree on everything.
If you believe in Islam and I believe in Christianity, you and I are not going to have a persuasive conversation where we convince one that the other is right. If you are fundamentally pro-life and I’m fundamentally pro-choice, you and I are not going to sit down and have a conversation where we convince one that the other is right.
There’s no way around this. Those are differences in core beliefs.
Rawls says that this is okay. And we have to understand it. Rather than try to use logic to push my worldview on you, I have to understand that we live in a world in which it’s okay that there are differences in core beliefs.
We can still treat each other like adults in a healthy, respectful way.
BEN: You mentioned the Hippocratic Oath of Communication, that we should “do no harm.” What are some of the things that we do in conversations that are harmful, that we may not be aware are harmful?
BOB: A lot of our conversations are based on signaling that we’re part of a particular tribe. If you work at a libertarian outfit, you might speak in ways that resonate with other libertarians. If you are working in a progressive organization, or conservative, you’ll likewise tailor your communication to your tribe.
When you’re with people from your own tribe you may find yourself saying things that help you to feel high status – where you demonstrate allegiance to the tribe’s worldview, how this perspective is superior, and how other people who have different worldviews are somehow less moral or less intelligent.
We often communicate – consciously or not – to try to elevate our status within our tribe, but this only furthers our division with others outside our tribe.
BEN: What role does listening play in good communication?
BOB: The better we understand our audience, the more likely we are to connect with them. Dale Carnegie uses an analogy in his book How To Win Friends and Influence People. He says that he loves to go fishing, and he likes to bring strawberries and cream with him. You can imagine Carnegie sitting there on the bank eating his strawberries and cream and fishing.
He says, “I’ve never tried to put a strawberry on the fishing hook to cast it out. I always use worms.” And why is that? Because the fish are more interested in the worms than the strawberries.
There is no fisherman, to my knowledge, that’s ever tried to catch a fish with strawberries. Fishermen understand they must bait their hooks with food the fish find tasty. This is absolute common sense.
Yet we tend to violate it when we’re trying to reel in people. We tend to talk to other people about things that interest us. Carnegie says that you can win more friends and influence more people in two weeks by being interested than you can in two years by being interesting.
Many of our interactions today are not designed to be conducive to creating meaningful connection. Social media is structured in a way that pushes us not only into tribalism, but also into focusing on being interesting: “Look at how high status I am! Look at this cool person I’m hanging out with, this cool place I went, this cool thing I’m doing, etc.”
We can flip this and say, “Instead of playing the status game I’m going to focus on being interested. I’m going to bait the hook to suit the fish.” We will be much more successful in connecting.
The philosopher Karl Popper wrote about the distinction between dogma and science. A dogmatic person looks for ways to reinforce their worldview while scientists look for the truth. This often means scientists are trying to discredit their own perspective. A good scientist is happy to be proven wrong because it means she’s moved closer to the truth.
Our default in conversations is often to seek tribal loyalty and status. Conversational scientists rise above this. They aim for truth and connection.
For the full conversation, see Communication that Unites Us in Discourse Magazine.