Live Well, Do Good

Telling the Truth Today

Brandon Sun, January 13, 2020 - David McConkey

How do you know what is true? How do you tell others about the truth? How do you tell your story? What if you are talking to another person who believes something that seems untrue? Can you change their mind? Are you open to changing your mind? Two recent books explore these topics. And they say much about the time we live in.

The first book is The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr. Written in 2015, it reveals a simpler, more carefree time. Remember? Before the Trump era with its disinformation, conspiracy theories, “alternative facts” and “fake news”?

Karr refers to a word that comedian Stephen Colbert coined in 2005: “truthiness.” That retort from before the Trump era appears downright playful now compared to our daily grind of “post-truth” trolling, gaslighting and “weaponizing.” And where we are today divided into warring tribes, echo chambers and filter bubbles.  

Memoir Karr is an American memoirist, poet and literature professor. She demonstrates how to tell a story well, including gritty vignettes of her own hard-scrabble past. Readable and usable, the book would be ideal if you aspire to write your own memoir or if you enjoy reading memoirs.

The second book, written in 2019, is imbued with the tension and unease of the Trump era. The book is presented as a corrective and is titled How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide. The authors are American professors of philosophy and mathematics, Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay. Their first two sentences outline their prescription for our troubled time: “This book is about how to communicate effectively with people who hold radically different beliefs. We live in a divided, polarized era . . .”

Let me make an aside. The Trump era is, of course, an American phenomenon, affecting us less as Canadians. But Trump is everywhere; he dominates the zeitgeist. Trump pervades Canadian space: our news, our conversations, our consciousness. And Trump is a warning to every country. There is no guarantee that progress will continue; anywhere can stall or even regress.

But the Trump era has a silver lining. The vital role of citizenship is put into keen focus. We citizens are challenged to step up our game: to be more engaged, more informed and more critical in our thinking. And to be more caring and skillful in communicating with others – especially those we disagree with.

Impossible Many books written in the Trump era have a sharpened awareness that is absent in books from before 2016. And we Canadians can tap into that new sharpness, that new awareness. We can tap into that new sense of urgency to find the truth and to find better ways to think and to communicate.

How to Have Impossible Conversations is filled with wonderful insights and practical tips. But it is not a book that you simply pick up and read from start to finish. Each chapter is dense with theory and stuffed with useful suggestions. As the authors say, “There is no fluff.”

The authors advise that you read a chapter, absorb their analysis and practise their conversing recommendations. Then advance to higher levels in subsequent chapters. The book would be a great resource for individuals and for classes, book clubs and organizations.

I would like to conclude with four specific suggestions from How to Have Impossible Conversations. Implementing these techniques would make anyone a better conversationalist and – as a bonus – a better person. (Is there still time for one more New Year’s resolution?)

  • View your conversations as partnerships. You are working together to learn and to generate fruitful exchanges.
  • Don’t “parallel talk.” If your conversation partner mentions – for example – their recent trip, resist the urge to chime in about one of yours. “Don’t make their stories about your life.”
  • When speaking, eliminate the word “but.” Change “Yes, but . . .” to, instead, “Yes, and . . .”
  •  “If at any point the conversation becomes tense, listen more, talk less, and don’t rush to fill silence with words.” You reduce the chance for an adversarial relationship if you are “an excellent listener.”
* * * 

See also:

The Art of Memoir on

How to Have Impossible Conversations on

Memoir Writing: Ten Tips

Six Words To Describe A Life?

More Than Ever, Words and Ideas Matter

From the Résumé to the Eulogy: Describing Ourselves

How Can We Learn to Think and Argue Better?

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