Talking Across The Divide | Review & Notes

Justin Lee. Talking Across The Divide: How to Communicate with People You Disagree with and Maybe Even Change the World. Tarcher Perigee, 2018. (259 pages); Penguin Random House publisher page


Oh how I wish that everyone who thinks arguing anything and everything online is a good idea would read this book. It could save Western civilization. 😉

Marshall McLuhan famously quipped, “the medium is the message.” This is the main reason Talking Across The Divide has become one of my top recommendations for anyone engaged in conversation with, well, anyone else on the planet. Lee’s gems of wisdom and advice are grounded in thorough research and studies, academic work that is perhaps more relevant today than when they were done. But the power of the book comes from Lee’s having lived this for so many years. It is almost as if we’re getting a tour through Lee’s conversational museum (“So, this principle? Yeah, that comes from when I had this one conversation with…”)

Relevant to marriage, child-rearing, politics, and international relations, Talking Across The Divide is accessible, instantly applicable, powerfully transformational, and a crap load of emotional work. But if our common humanity could embrace, not just these techniques, but Lee’s posture toward the truth, well, yes, that could even change the world.

Thanks Justin, for a remarkable contribution to our common humanity.


Chapter 1 Echo-Chamber World

Physically speaking, we can not separate. We can not remove our respective sections from each other nor build an impassable wall between them. A husband and wife may be divorced and go out of the presence and beyond the reach of each other, but the different parts of our country can not do this. They can not but remain face to face, and intercourse, either amicable or hostile, must continue between them. – Abraham Lincoln, 1861

There was an advantage, I realized, to being caught between worlds: it made me culturally bilingual. (5)

Theoretically, we’re all fighting for the truth as we see it…

[via: Emphasis on the word “theoretically”!]

The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser

We’re no longer have a single national conversation on the issues that shape our lives, and that has devastating consequences for all of us. (13)

Chapter 2 But I Can’t Talk to Those People!

Isolating ourselves only makes the problem worse. (15)

The Danger of Echo Chambers

cf. Solomon Asch‘s 1951 Conformity Study.

Echo chambers don’t just nurture conformity; they can also nurture extremism. (17)

This “group polarization” effect has been seen so often that researchers Helmut Lamm and David G. Myers wrote that “seldom in the history of social psychology has a nonobvious phenomenon been so firmly grounded in data from across a variety of cultures and dependent measures.” (cf. Lamm, Helmut, and David G. Myers. “Group-Induced Polarization of Attitudes and Behavior.” (.pdfAdvances in Experimental Social Psychology 11 (1978): 145-95. (18)

Echo Chambers are the enemy of the truth. They tear apart communities and stifle communication. And in our society, they’re growing ever more powerful. (18)

Chapter 3 The Fourth Tool

Not All Dialogue Is Created Equal

Dialogue is often treated as the opposite of action, and with so much at stake, the idea that I promote dialogue is deeply disappointing to them. (27)

What Is Strategic Dialogue

It’s a technique designed to reduce tension, change attitudes, and remove obstacles to the truth. (28)

Strategic dialogue is not about manipulating or tricking someone into believing what you want them to. There are no sleazy sales tactics here, and there’s no guarantee that the other person will change their mind–especially if your case turns out not to be as strong as you thought it was. But in situations where egos, polarization, and lies are clouding people’s judgment, strategic dialogue offers the most effective way to clear all that away. (29)

Basic Principles of Strategic Dialogue

1. Everyone thinks they’re right. (29)

2. We want to change each other’s minds. (30)

3. Dialogue is more effective than debate at changing minds. (31)

If anything, we’re just going to wind up further apart than we started. (33)

4. Finally, dialogue isn’t a substitute for action. (33)

You can’t have a war or a lawsuit or a protest every time someone’s in the wrong. If you do, you soon become the bully, imposing your will on everyone else through force. (34)








Chapter 4 How to Prepare for a Successful Dialogue

I .. never could make a good impromptu speech without several hours to prepare it. – Mark Twain

Step 1: Prepare Yourself

Anyone can call a meeting, but it takes effort and intentionality to make a meeting productive. (38)

Learn about the issues at stake. (39)

Decide on your goal. (40)

Get to know your audience. (41)

Get ready emotionally(42)

Try not to imagine the other person as your enemy but as a potential ally who might surprise you with how well they respond to the dialogue. (42)

Step 2: Prepare Your Audience

Set the stage for productive dialogue. (43)

…make clear that you want to hear their perspective on the issue and that you’d like to discuss the situation and work on a way forward together. (44)

Every time I run a public dialogue event, I always begin with a quick explanation of what dialogue is and isn’t. It isn’t saying “everyone is equally right,” and it isn’t debate or argument. It is a chance to hear one another out and seek to build understanding while acknowledging that we still want to change one another’s minds. (44)

Give them a reason to take the time. (45)

Step 3: Prepare the Space

Find a relaxing environment. (46)

Set ground rules. (47)

Chapter 5 Shut Up and Listen

Listen now. When people talk listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never listen. – Ernest Hemingway

What is Strategic Listening

What do they want?
What do they believe?
What do they think you want?
What are their sources of information?
What language do they use?
What are they worried about?
What do you have in common?

Be inquisitive. (53)

Be sensitive. (54)

Be sincere. (55)

Your number one goal at this point is to understand this person as well as you possibly can. … When I’m listening to people in these situations, I don’t have to act interested, because I genuinely am interested. (55)

The First Barrier | Ego Protection

Chapter 6 The Villain’s Side of the Story

Ego protection is a kind of self-defense; he doesn’t want to be humiliated. (64)

Real-life villains are rarely as one-dimensional as they are in the movies. In real life, there’s always another side–another version of events. (68)

Tips for Finding a Nuanced Narrative

Humanize your opponent. (69)

But strategic dialogue isn’t always about what’s fair. It’s about what’s effective. (69)

Listen for their motivations. (70)

…as the [Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton of Getting to Yes] put it, “focus on interests, not positions.” (71)

Don’t settle for straw men. (71)

[via: On page 73, Lee writes, “But unless they see themselves as unabashedly racist or sexist or selfish or cruel, there’s still an unanswered question, the question of what they think their motivations are. There’s nearly always more to the story.” Agreed, however, the challenging psychology is that we don’t see our true motives and the reasons behind our positions. All of us need others to point that out to us, if we are willing and humble enough to receive such feedback.]

Explain; don’t excuse. (73)

Tell their story back to them. (74)

When someone tells your story the way you would tell it, it makes you feel heard and understood in a way few others things can. As human beings, we want to know that someone else is paying attention to what we think and feel–that our views and experiences matter to someone. (74)

Know your limits–but don’t be hasty. (75)

[via: On page 76, Lee writes, “But that doesn’t mean you have to sit down with the KKK. Sometimes you have to draw a line, and it’s up to you to decide where your own line is.” There is of course Daryl Davis (Accidental Courtesy, PBS page, NPR) whose work is sitting down with members of the KKK!]

[via: On page 80, Lee references a conference in which “anti-protestors had quietly organized a way to block {a Westboro protest} from view and ensure that conference attendees would hear messages of love, not hate. It rained that morning, on protestors and supporters alike. But the parents and local church members kept smiling, greeting people, and singing songs, as–I kid you not–a big, beautiful rainbow appeared over the whole scene.” Yup. I was there:]

Expect the unexpected. (80)

The Second Barrier | Team Loyalty

Chapter 7 Challenging Us-vs.-Them Mindsets

Cohen, Geoffrey L. “Party Over Policy: The Dominating Impact of Group Influence on Political Beliefs.” (.pdfJournal of Personality and Social Psychology 85, no. 5 (November 2003): 808-22.

Fighting the Team-Loyalty Barrier

Get outside your own bubble. (91)

…before we can effectively fight team loyalty on their side, we need to fight it in ourselves. (91)

But beware: As you listen to those outside your bubble, it can be tempting to focus on only the loudest or most extreme voices on the other side… (92)

Talk about your individuality. (93)

Redraw the team lines. (96)

so that you’re both on the same team. (96)

Find common “enemies.” (98)

Chapter 8 When Teams Get Tense

“Are you coming to bed?”
“I can’t. This is important.”
Someone is wrong on the internet.”

– Randall Munroe’s xkcd

…sometimes you need to work to understand their team’s story just like you worked to understand their personal story. (104)

Telling the story from an opposing team’s perspective is good practice. It gets you into a mode of thinking that gives you valuable insight into other groups’ motivations. And that is key to breaking through other people’s team-loyalty barriers. (107)

When people feel trapped or disadvantaged, it can change (110) their perspective. They’re no longer just fighting for what they believe in; they’re fighting for their right to exist. (111)

Chapter 9 Are You the Problem?

We live in worlds of intersecting cultures. When you’re talking to someone on another social team, what you’re really doing (116) is interacting with a member of a different culture. (117)

Dr. [Milton] Bennett’s proposal, the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS), (.pdf; Weebly) is widely used today in research on cross-cultural communication. (117)

Stage One: Denial of Difference

We’re simply not aware that other cultures exist; we know only about our own cultural experience, and we assume it’s universal. (119)

The antidote to Denial of Difference is to maintain curiosity about other people’s cultures and open yourself up to learning how other people see the world beyond your bubble. (119)

Stage Two: Defense Against Difference

Polarization makes a home in stage two: Our team is good; their team is bad. (120)

If you can’t yet tell a convincing story with their team as the protagonist, there’s a good chance this is the stage you’re in. (121)

Stage Three: Minimization of Difference

When group identity is very important to someone, attempting to ignore or gloss over it can cause them to feel like a big part of their identity is being erased. That doesn’t help your attempt to dialogue with them. It only makes them feel misunderstood. (125)

Recognize and appreciate what they like about their team. (125)

Clarify your language and learn theirs. (126)

Be aware of values and assumptions that might be culture-specific.

Make a case from their values, not yours. (129)

Some people have proposed a slight rewording of the Golden Rule, dubbing it the Platinum Rule: Do unto others as they would do unto themselves. Perhaps that captures the spirit a bit better. (Though I’d argue it’s exactly what the original means.) (131)

The Third Barrier | Comfort

Chapter 10 The Power of Your Story

The story–from Rumpelstiltskin to War and Peace–is one of the basic tools invented by the mind of man, for the purpose of gaining understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories. – Ursula K. Le Guin

When you ask someone to change their position on an important issue, it’s the emotional equivalent of asking them to get up off the couch and go to the gym. (138)

In many areas of our lives, as long as we’re comfortable, human beings are inherently biased in favor of keeping things the way they are. Psychologists call this the “status quo bias.” (139)

Rather than just offering statistics about poverty, tell stories about specific people who’ve been impacted by it. Rather than just arguing that certain behavior is morally wrong, tell stories of the damage you’ve seen done by allowing the behavior to go unchecked. Tell aspirational stories, too–stories of what can happen when things go right, to give us something to hope and work for. (144)

Finding Your Story

Focus your story on one person–usually yourself. (146)

Kick it off with commonalities. (148)

Talk about your emotions(149)

When you talk about that pain, though, remember to inject a little hope. Talk about how you overcame the struggles or how there’s light at the end of the tunnel if we work together to change things. A story with no hope just sounds depressing, and it doesn’t motivate people to do anything. Be real about the dark parts of your story; just remember to leave a light on somewhere. (151)

Show the stakes. (151)

Show what’s wrong with the status quo–without making the other person the antagonist. (152)

Ultimately, the most powerful story is the one that is told. (156)

The Fourth Barrier | Misinformation

Chapter 11 Fighting Falsehood

So many of our cultural debates comes down to a disagreement about what the actual facts are. (163)

On some issues, there is a legitimate debate about what’s true. … But on other issues, the facts are absolutely clear–or at least they should be, to any unbiased person… (1630

If we want the truth to prevail, fighting misinformation is vitally important. (164)

[via: This was a more difficult section for me, and it warrants caution. While I agree with the fundamental premise of what Lee is writing, the psychological barriers to getting at “the facts” have proven extremely challenging, and too many conflate and confuse that which could be “debated” and that which are “absolutely clear.” Navigating this territory requires extreme rigor.]

Discover the misinformation. (164)

Educate them without belittling them. (168)

Use stories to show the truth. (170)

When possible, get ahead of the misinformation. (171)

Chapter 12 Why Won’t They Accept the Truth?

Problem: The Lie Is Simple, but the Truth Is Complex.

“Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?”

If you oversimplify the truth, you wind up contributing to the problem. But a long, boring explanation isn’t likely to get shared and make an impact. So what can you do?

[via: Raise and train citizens to be critical thinkers.]

Solution: Create catchy summaries. (178)

Problem: They Think They’re Already Experts

This is called the “illusion of explanatory depth.” In reality, most of us don’t know that much, but we don’t know that we don’t know that much. (179)

[via: cf. the Dunning-Kruger effect:]

The Knowledge Illusion by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach

Solution: Ask questions–but be careful. (180)

The important thing is to always remember to treat them as the protagonist of their story, never as the villain or the idiot. (182)

You don’t want to embarrass them; you just want to give them a hunger for the truth they don’t yet know. (183)

| This is a choice between “winning” and winning: If you want to succeed in bringing the truth to light, you have to give up the urge to “win” the argument by proving you know more than they do. Resist the urge to antagonize them or bash their ego. Let them recognize the limits of their knowledge, then back off. (183)

The result of exposing contending factions in a social dispute to an identical body of relevant empirical evidence may not be a narrowing of disagreement but rather an increase in polarization.” (Lord, Ross, and Lepper, “Biased Assimilation and Attitude Polarization,” 2098.)

belief perseverance. In many circumstances, once a belief takes hold, we’ll continue to believe it even once our initial reason for believing it is proven invalid. (189)

Solution: Repeat the truth–again and again and again. (189)

Repetition breeds familiarity. (190)

Chapter 13 An Uplifting Story–Starring Them

The key to getting around people’s ego-protection reflex is learning to present your information, questions, and ideas in the context of a narrative the other person can accept as their own, where the image you’re offering is one that they identify with or want to identify with. (196)

You can show them how changing their course of action is actually consistent with the interests that were motivating their earlier behavior. … My interests have stayed the same even though my positions have shifted. (200)

Show how your solution solves their problem. (201)

The best narratives show how you’re offering a solution to a problem they face. (201)

Paint a hopeful picture of the future. (202)

Offer opportunities for them to help tell the story. (203)

…this isn’t about selling a product. This is about reaching across lines of difference to find agreement and move forward with a shared vision. (203)

The Fifth Barrier | Worldview Protection

Chapter 14 Making the Ask

Our beliefs aren’t all independent of one another–they’re connected. (209)

…when you’re trying to change someone’s mind on an issue, it’s not just that issue you have to keep in mind. You have to think about the relationship of that issue to their larger worldview, and even if you disagree with that worldview, it may be wise to pick your battles. (215)

Chapter 15 Reflection

You’ve got to make your intentions clear and ensure the other side understands the goals for the dialogue. Otherwise, they may not show up. (228)

Of all the possible motivations for people to agree to dialogue, I’ve learned the hard way that there’s one motivation to watch for: You’ll find that some people are willing to dialogue only because they enjoy debating; their sole motivation to talk to you is so they can win the argument. This is a red flag. (233)

This book is written with the assumption that the other side isn’t familiar with strategic dialogue, because you can’t very well require someone to sit down and read a whole book about dialogue before you’re even willing to have a conversation with them. Most of the time, we’re entering dialogues with people who are suspicious and skeptical of us, and it’s on us to do all the heavy lifting and make the conversation as smooth as possible for both sides. (238)

| But if both sides have these tools and are committed to this kind of dialogue, that’s good new for everyone! It’s a good thing for both sides to be working to clear away the barriers: We shouldn’t be making decisions based on team loyalty or misconceptions or protecting our own egos. We should be listening to each other, telling our stories, and trying to understand one another’s underlying interests. What makes these techniques so powerful is that they’re honest and they’re all about getting to the truth, whatever that truth may be. (238)

Chapter 16 Hope for the Future

Sometimes I simply have to say to someone, “I think I need to take a break from this conversation for now; I feel myself getting very emotional, and I don’t want to say anything that would damage our friendship.” (241)

There are two important things to remember here. The first is that any attempt at dialogue is better than no attempt at dialogue. (243)

…the second thing to remember is that this isn’t all about you. (243)

…don’t give up. Keep going. (244)

We need people out there taking a stand for grace and dia-(244)logue. We need people who won’t give in to our culture’s penchant for polarization. (245)

| Because that polarization is killing us. And the only way out of it is for people like you to do the difficult, thankless, exhausting work of sitting down to talk to your opponents, to listen to them, to try to understand how they see the world and why they do what they do, and to become a voice they will listen to, helping them understand new perspectives and helping them change their attitudes without fear that everything else will come tumbling down around them if they do. (245)

About VIA


  1. Pingback: The Power Worshippers | Reflections & Notes | vialogue

  2. Pingback: Saving Us | Reflections & Notes | vialogue

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: