How to Make Impossible Conversations Possible | Spotlight Convo

Priya ParkerAnand GiridharadasJonah BergerWhat if the path to healing our divided world began with a conversation? I don’t know about you, but my heart aches seeing the divisions fracturing our society. I desperately want to bridge the widening gaps between us. Still, where do we start?

In an era of polarization, we’ve lost faith in the art and practice of gathering, listening, and convening across divides. Conversations become minefields, differences seem irreconcilable, and empathy feels impossible. Nearly everyone has felt this. But what if there was a path back to mutual understanding, or at least co-existing from a place of dignity and respect for each other’s humanity?

What if there was a way to rediscover the art of discourse in way that might rekindle the ties now fraying between us? What if we relearned how to truly listen, relate, and influence?

Today, I’m joined by three inspiring guides lighting the path back to mutual understanding. Deep thinker and facilitator Priya Parker reveals how to create spaces where we bear witness to each other’s full humanity. Anand Giridharadas takes us to the frontlines of persuasive conversation, exploring how minds and hearts can change. And Jonah Berger uncovers the hidden language of influence, equipping us to choose words that connect rather than divide.

Through their stories, prompts, and guidance, we uncover simple, powerful tools designed to help us reconnect, begin to see each other on a more human level and heal relationships at the heart of our hurting world.

You can find Priya at: Website | Instagram | Listen to Our Full-Length Convo with Priya

You can find Anand at: Website | Instagram | Listen to Our Full-Length Convo with Anand

You can find Jonah at: Website | Twitter | Listen to Our Full-Length Convo with Jonah

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photo credit: Mackenzie Stroh, Michael Lionstar


Episode Transcript:

Priya Parker (00:00:00) – To me, the most powerful gatherings are ones where people take risks, share stories, show a part of themselves that they may not be used to showing, or perhaps have in the past even feared showing, and that the people around them are willing to allow that to be. And by doing so, they are witnessing a moment that because it is witnessed and lasts in multiple people’s memories, it exists.

Jonathan Fields (00:00:31) – So what if the path to healing our divided world began with simple human, 1 to 1 conversation? I don’t know about you, but my heart aches seeing the divisions fracturing our world these days. I just desperately want to bridge the widening gaps between us. But where do we start? In an era of polarization, so many have lost faith in the art and practice of gathering and listening and convening across divides. And not just the art and the practice, but the skill. Conversations become minefields, differences become irreconcilable, and empathy feels impossible. Nearly everyone has felt this. But what if there was a path back to mutual understanding, or at least coexisting from a place of dignity and respect for each other’s humanity? What if there were ways to rediscover the art of discourse in a way that might rekindle the ties now fraying between us? And what if we relearned how to truly listen and relate and influence? Today I am joined by three inspiring guides lighting the path back to mutual understanding.

Jonathan Fields (00:01:33) – Deep thinker and facilitator Priya Parker reveals how to create spaces where we bear witness to each other’s humanity. Anon Giridharadas takes us to the front lines of persuasive conversation, exploring how minds and hearts can change, and Jonah Berger uncovers the hidden language of influence, equipping us to choose words that connect rather than divide, and through their stories and prompts and guidance and wisdom and insight, we uncover simple, powerful tools and ideas designed to help us reconnect, begin to see each other on a more human level, and start the work of healing relationships at the heart of our hurting world. So excited to share these conversations with you! I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life project. So our first guest is sought after facilitator Priya Parker, author of the Art of Gathering How We Meet and Why it Matters, which is a book that just completely changed the way that I imagine bringing people together. She illuminates why gathering well matters now more than ever. She knows the challenges that we face in bridging divides, yet remains unflinchingly hopeful.

Jonathan Fields (00:02:45) – Priya has decades of experience guiding diverse groups through fraught conversations and everything from race to politics and trauma. She reveals how we can structure dialogue to build trust and bear witness to each other’s full humanity. And her wisdom left me inspired that the permanent, disagreeable conversation at the heart of what is going on these days can be renewed through the art of gathering. So how can we rediscover the power of coming together? So let Priya be your guide as we explore the transformative power of true listening, here’s Priya. It feels like we live in a world where we want answers fast. We don’t have tolerance for slow and complex, and increasingly we don’t see the grey, which is 98.9% of everything. We just immediately want it to be a yes or no. We want it to be this or that. We want the answers to be, you know, very crystal clear and in that heated context. And then you pile on the speed and the acceleration of anything through technology and social media and hyper connectivity, anything that happens becomes amplified profoundly in the blink of an eye.

Jonathan Fields (00:03:58) – And while that can be incredibly useful to get information out, to get news out and to protect people and to start conversations, it can also be incredibly destructive to the sort of intelligent, deliberate, intentional processing of the emotion and the pain and what’s going on, and then figuring out how do we come to the table, how do we come to our own individual tables to figure out, okay, like, what is my role in this and how do I find my way through it? And then how do we come to the collective table when that table is now seating millions and millions of people in real time?

Priya Parker (00:04:36) – It’s a beautiful question. And I think, you know, one of the dangers of a tool like Twitter or Instagram or Facebook is that we forget its purpose and we use it for all types of conversations, when actually it’s very good for very specific conversations. So as you said, getting information out or spreading an idea quickly, you know, some of the darker parts of sort of mob justice that you see on Twitter, you know, people kind of attacking one person all of a sudden.

Priya Parker (00:05:06) – But Twitter is not a place for deeper processing. It’s not a place for deeper listening and deeper, complicated conversations, in part because it wasn’t designed to be that we don’t know how to come to tables in a collective way when there has been so much pain created, and we want to kind of just push these terrible parts of our life away, but we don’t actually have the tools to look at the darker parts of our communities and figure out how do we actually first acknowledge and see what happened and see the truth of the darkness. So one of the reasons why this lynching memorial in Alabama is so powerful is because Bryan Stevenson has created this entire and his and his team, and that entire organization has created this incredible monument to witnessing a dark part of our past. Before you do anything else, to go back to that word of witness, to see what happened to Owen, what happened, and then and to face what happened, whether it’s campus sexual assault or whether it’s lynching. And to not avoid it.

Priya Parker (00:06:10) – And facing it doesn’t mean minimizing it. It actually makes it a little bit bigger, because we have to see what we have done to each other and then begin to figure out how do you actually restore a community. And my work now is to create kind of transformative experiences for groups and communities that change their relationships because of the gathering, but also that helps them often face the taboo or the important conversations in their kind of communal life, in part because that’s where the heat is. That’s where our values lie. That’s where our identity is. There many of the conversations we’re not always sure how to have or the conversations with the most meaning.

Jonathan Fields (00:06:52) – What is it that stops conversations from getting their the gatherings from getting there? Because like you said, most people, when they come together, even if it’s with the intention of doing some work, don’t come close to hitting the potential of what is possible. Why not?

Priya Parker (00:07:07) – Some of it is pretty simple stuff. I think one of the, frankly, travesties of our kind of language around gathering is that we tend to focus on stuff rather than people, so we tend to outsource our knowledge and our wisdom about how to gather.

Priya Parker (00:07:23) – You know, I mean, no offense here, but to the Martha Stewart’s of the world and part of that generation of gathering is focused on table settings and floral arrangements and the kind of the three steps of how to actually make a crudités stay fresh over three days as you prepare for the gathering. And not that they necessarily intended this, but hosting became, over the last 40 years or so with the equivalent of entertaining. And entertaining is a problematic word when you’re bringing people together, because it basically means you’re putting on a show. And most of the ways that we think about gathering and by proxy, think about creating meaningful moments is focused on the physical environment. So flowers and lighting and not that that doesn’t create a context, but it doesn’t end there. And then the second thing is focusing on food. And you know, I my husband will be the first person to say that I’m not a good cook. And I think some of the best gatherings of my life have been around pizza and takeout. And I think in part, one of the reasons why we never get to the conversation is because we’re not paying attention to it.

Priya Parker (00:08:27) – We’ve focused most of our attention on the things of gathering rather than the technology of conversation. So the first thing I would just say is, you know, don’t worry so much and don’t spend so much time on the food or preparing kind of the things of the gathering. Focus on preparing the people and think about how you want to structure the conversation to get to much more meaningful conversation. You know, one of the things I think also prevents us from having powerful conversations is, frankly, kind of embarrassment that we to admitting that we want to have those conversations and rather than talking about like what’s happening at work or what’s happening kind of I don’t know. In politics, though, that’s a very interesting conversation itself. And I think a lot of hosts, you know, myself included, and I write about this in the book. Once people are actually in the room, it feels a little bit embarrassing or awkward to kind of feel like you care too much, or that you want to actually impose a question on people or that you’re not chill.

Priya Parker (00:09:21) – And so I think a lot of the reasons we tend to not connect is because we’re embarrassed to admit that we want to. Yeah. You know, I think a lot of the reasons we’re starting to see among our generation, among the millennial generation, desire to have more meaning in depth in our common culture and community is because of the shrinking role of traditional institutions of meaning. So the church, the temple, the mosque, and the assumption, Trust and institution declines. The desire for meaningful conversation doesn’t decline. It just moves elsewhere.

Jonathan Fields (00:09:55) – Yeah, we don’t have those same places to have it.

Priya Parker (00:09:57) – Exactly, exactly. And so I think the, you know, for for better or for worse, and we could talk about this for a while, the kind of the, the priests and the shamans and the kind of the people who used to kind of hold this space are now self selected and kind of decide like, hey, I’d like to do a dinner on this because, because why not? And so at some level it’s kind of been open sourced.

Priya Parker (00:10:18) – That’s both beautiful, but it’s also dangerous because there are a lot of these conversations need to be held and with care. And so, you know, when you don’t have seminary, you don’t have a priesthood, you don’t have the equivalent of medical school for the people who are training to have these conversations, social workers or rabbis, it is also possible to get, you know, in over your head or to have conversations that aren’t grounded in any common text. And so there’s also a, you know, there’s as much opportunity as there is danger in the fact that we’re now just kind of making it up.

Jonathan Fields (00:10:51) – Yeah. I mean, that’s the first thing that came to mind when you’re talking about this. I do agree that the need and the desire, and I think the willingness to have these conversations has never been higher. And yet all the places that we used to feel safe having them, and we used to trust somebody to create the safety in, in the context, to go where we need to go, to actually have a real conversation that either don’t exist anymore or were fleeing them.

Jonathan Fields (00:11:15) – You know that the fastest growing group in spirituality are the nuns. You know, the people who are non-affiliated, yet they consider themselves spiritual and want to have the conversations. And your point about to get that real in a conversation can be dangerous, emotionally dangerous, and potentially physically dangerous if it elevates. And if you don’t have somebody who understands how to create the safety, how to plant the provocations in a way where real things, real conversations can be had and people can be vulnerable and people can can tell their truths, and it not turn really ugly and really combative. And instead of having some sort of constructive, intentional end ending up in just, you know. Outright brutality. So how do you go there and be okay?

Priya Parker (00:12:05) – Absolutely. Whenever a community is deciding to intentionally create a gathering, one of the things that it’s important to begin with is, is a set of explicitly is is a set of common values and ground rules. And different communities do this in different ways, and you can have some amount of porous ness in your boundary to allow different things that you didn’t expect to come in.

Priya Parker (00:12:28) – But you need to have some non-negotiables so people know who they are and who you’re you know, who do you want to belong here? That’s another way to think about it.

Jonathan Fields (00:12:38) – Yeah, that makes so much sense to me.

Priya Parker (00:12:40) – The most powerful gatherings are ones where people take risks, share stories, show a part of themselves that they may not be used to showing, or perhaps have in the past even feared showing, and that the people around them are willing to allow that to be and by doing so, they are witnessing a moment that because it is witnessed and lasts in multiple people’s memories, it exists. When I use the word witness, I mean the ability to see another person, the ability to observe and to consciously pay attention to somebody else’s experience. So it’s.

Jonathan Fields (00:13:23) – Almost like they play a role in making it real.

Priya Parker (00:13:25) – Deeply. And so in part, I think the power of a witness in a lot of different parts of your life is somebody who can see all of the different parts of you and still want to be there.

Jonathan Fields (00:13:38) – That’s one. Linger on that for a moment, because I think it’s really important. So, you know, when we look at the way the world is right now and the need to gather, need to have conversations and the need to do this not online, but in person, in a room or in a hall or in a, you know, like wherever it may be. And it doesn’t have to be big. Maybe it’s just dinner with a handful of people. How do we begin that? I mean, if somebody’s listening to this right now is like, yeah, I get it, I buy into it. This is important. I don’t know where to start or how to begin. Like, how do I take the first step?

Priya Parker (00:14:11) – Think about the people in your community that you would like to invite. So here’s a challenge for your listeners. Within the next month, host a dinner ideally in your home. Ask people to bring things or have takeout. Don’t spend a lot of time on the food in advance, but spend time thinking about what it is you want to talk about, and I would encourage you to have some structure.

Priya Parker (00:14:32) – So some of my favorite questions, actually, there’s a The New York Times list of 51 questions to Fall in Love With anybody. Many of those questions are beautiful. Questions. Ask in groups and choose a question or a series of questions that you want to explore together over the course of an evening that would be meaningful to you. So a couple of questions that I love. Some of these are from Theodore Zeldin of the Menu of Conversations project in the UK. One is what have you rebelled against in the past and what are you rebelling against now? It’s a question that I love because there’s so many different ways the conversation can take. Another suggestion is in this book, the Art of gathering, I write about a process that I developed with some with a colleague, Tim Lebrecht, called 15 toasts. It’s a lovely I love structure because I think structure just the right amount of structure. It shouldn’t feel like it’s you’re being beaten over the head with it, but just the right amount of structure allows a group to organize and have a common focus.

Priya Parker (00:15:22) – And so you could hold a 15 toasts dinner, which is you choose a theme that’s interesting to you. The theme could be everything from fear to risk to community to borders, to what does it mean to be American, to goodness, to evil, to to anything? And you gather together and 15 people and at the beginning of the night you introduce a theme, or you could send it in advance. And you basically at some point in the night, some everybody has to kind of ding their glass old school style stand up and give a toast to that theme. And their toast needs to be a story or an experience, something in their life, a moment in their life that they can speak to, that relates to the theme and then to to toast. Based on that story. And the only rule is that the last person has to sing their toast. And so the night ends in song. And at least in the US context, most people don’t like to sing. And so it’s make sure, you know, you’d rather it’s making the toast less scary than singing, right?

Jonathan Fields (00:16:14) – And it also makes people want to get up sooner because they know exactly.

Priya Parker (00:16:18) – Exactly. And, you know, friends of mine and I’ve done this with different companies and organizations. It’s a beautiful process. That’s just a little bit of structure that gets people’s stories out in ways that you would never otherwise hear. It’s one conversation, and you hear the most amazing stories from people that you wouldn’t otherwise hear. And the other thing that we’ve found is when the theme has a little bit of darkness in it, or a little bit of complication in it, it’s a much more interesting night. So themes like fear, risk, we did a dinner to a stranger, however you want to interpret that tend to bring out stories that people don’t often hear. And you can talk after the toast and ask people questions. But sometimes we actually need. A little bit of structure to bring out some of the stories that we don’t always get to in everyday conversation.

Jonathan Fields (00:17:04) – I love that I’m going to try that now. Okay, so this feels like a good place for us to start to come full circle.

Jonathan Fields (00:17:11) – So I always wrap with the same question for everybody. So context of this is a good life project. If I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?

Priya Parker (00:17:21) – To come full circle. To live a good life to me is to bear witness to others and to be witnessed, to see and to be seen, and to do that consciously in all parts of one’s life, to me, is a good life. Thank you, thank you.

Jonathan Fields (00:17:38) – Surprise. Insights on structuring meaningful dialogue really reignite my faith that we can bear witness to shared humanity, even across divides. Our next guest is a non giridharadas New York Times best selling author of The Persuaders! At the Front Lines of the fight for hearts, Minds and Democracy. And anon takes us to the front lines of persuasion, profiling the activists and organizer who still see complexity in their opponents or those that they perceive as opponents. And through vivid stories, the non shares how we can reimagine civil discourse without sacrificing our values. He leaves us with hope that the permanent rolling conversation that can bridge divides and bring us back together can prevail.

Jonathan Fields (00:18:21) – So how can we restore faith in the language, the art of not just conversation, but persuasion, but persuasion in a way that allows everyone to feel seen, heard, and acknowledged? How do we avoid despair about bridging divides? So anon helps us reignite that belief that with empathy and moral courage, the forces of light can still triumph. Here’s an end. So as we have this conversation, the world is an interesting place. It seems like there is crisis after crisis, but also underneath it there’s like this emerging sense of hope that seems to be popping up in different pockets. And it’s interesting because you’re centering the topic that is fascinating to me on so many levels that I’ve studied from a perspective of marketing, of social impact, of movements. And it’s interesting in that you tee up this notion that you describe a crisis of faith in persuasion, which I thought was a really interesting way to frame it, because I’m thinking a crisis of faith in shared humanity, in kindness and belonging. I get all of those.

Jonathan Fields (00:19:28) – Walk me through the way that you view the state of persuasion as a crisis.

Anand Giridharadas (00:19:33) – Yeah, I think we probably have crises of all those things. You just you just mentioned. At the risk of sounding grandiose about it, I think if you step back and look at the history of humanity, there have been broadly two theories about how we make decisions about the future. Right? There’s no alternative to making decisions about the future. Like inevitably in any society hunter gatherers, agricultural societies, modern information society, things come up and we got to decide, do we ban that fertilizer or do we not ban that fertilizer? Do we let those people into the village, or do we not let those people into the village? And broadly speaking, throughout human history, when societies, communities, confronted with those decisions for most of history, the theory about how you resolve them is that they’re too complicated for all of us to weigh in on. So let’s just get one guy to just decide for us. And it’s hard to remember if you’re born in the modern era, that was the dominant theory, and that most people bought into that.

Anand Giridharadas (00:20:38) – Even the people who are not that guy, because almost all people were not that guy bought into the idea that it’s kind of easier for that guy to just handle it for all of us. And then in the last few hundred years, this incredibly powerful alternative idea arose, which is that actually, maybe we should all weigh in and decide this together, maybe through the incredibly complicated act of talking things, through the way you and I are talking things through on a scale of whole nations debating, arguing newspapers, letters to the editor, VFW, halls, schools we should have this permanent, roiling conversation and then weigh in through voting, knock on each other’s doors. And maybe that’s actually a better way. This is the most radical idea in the history of the world that it is, in fact, better for 5 million or 10 million or 350 million people to have a loud, messy, permanently disagreeable conversation about how to make the future and that this is a better way. But it has been vindicated in the last few centuries as not only a more just and humane way to do it, but more effective democracies make better decisions.

Anand Giridharadas (00:21:52) – They’re better at not going to war. They’re better at improving living standards for people. Right? Democracies are based on the idea of talking, of conversation and at some essential level of me trying to change your mind and you trying to change mine. And essentially, if we get to a place where the dominant view and I think we’re now there, the dominant view among many people is it is useless to try to change Jonathan’s mind. It is useless. He is who he is. He’s a this identity. Therefore he thinks this. He lives in that place. Therefore he thinks that he said this once. Therefore he thinks that he refuses to get that once you say. People aren’t worth it. People are never going to change. They are who they are. And by the way, I have said that myself in these last many years, a lot. I think all of us have. Once you get to the place where your fundamental view is, the pursuit of a changed mind and your fellow citizens is futile, work is a futile pursuit.

Anand Giridharadas (00:22:53) – I think you are essentially in a way you may not be realizing, asking the King, asking that one guy to come back. You are opening the door to tyranny. You’re opening the door to political violence, which is trying to get your way by hurting people instead of changing their mind. I think the road to civil war and the road to tyranny is paved by this increasingly popular view that trying to change people’s minds is futile, and I started to check myself and realize what I am saying. What I am feeling is actually inconsistent with democratic life. And so I decided to hedge against myself in a way, in my own limitations. By starting to spend time in conversation with a group of people who refuse to write people off, who are organizers, activists, people in politics, others most of them, I think, in the book with a kind of organizer sensibility more than any other sensibility, and people who are deeply committed to certain ideals, morally grounded and confident and standing for something real, not not blowing in the wind.

Anand Giridharadas (00:24:08) – But unlike too many of us out there right now, people who were interested in reaching out to the other side, whatever the other side, may be on a given issue, and persuading people whose view of those on the other side of them is that they are complicated, always complicated, no matter what they are for or against, and that there’s something there to work with. Not in everyone, but certainly in plenty of people to make a meaningful difference in the trajectory of our communities. And so I started with this kind of fear that the crisis of persuasion, the loss of faith and persuasion was, in a way, one of the major things leading to the breakdown of democracy, not just coups and insurrections, but a belief in so many of us that this whole thing basically doesn’t really work. And through the reporting in the book and writing the book, I ended up getting to a place of profound optimism that it is possible still to persuade that it is possible to try to change minds. It’s possible to build a bigger we, but it’s going to require a whole new set of habits.

Anand Giridharadas (00:25:12) – Then the ones that have come to dominate the pro-democracy side, in which I count myself in recent years. Yeah. And I want to make a distinction between I think it is totally fine to be angry in politics. This is not a book about being gentle with each other. The problem for me, very specifically, is when you begin to say it is futile, it is not worth it to endeavor to change minds. That is different from saying, I’m mad at those people. I think those people are x, y, z. Say that all you want, but when you start to believe that people are unchangeable, you’re actually just dooming your own movement. And I want there to be space for folks on the pro-democracy side to be able to be angry and be fierce and champion a specific and sharp view of the future, and to view every single person who is not with them there yet as possibly someone who could come in and not actually, but a significant number of fraction of those people as people who are actually gettable.

Anand Giridharadas (00:26:17) – And I think we need to find a better way to combine being strident and being clear and being demanding and being ambitious with being magnanimous and welcoming and inviting and not having movements that want all the right things but make people feel like they can’t belong, that they’re like a club that you have to kind of know someone to get into.

Jonathan Fields (00:26:39) – Underlies all of that, like where my brain is going is where does what I see as a wave of dehumanizing the other fit into this? What I see happening, which is terrifying to me, is us looking at the other and not only saying it’s not worth it to try and convince them, but actually saying. And not only do they have a different point of view, not only are they like the other person, but like literally saying like, if you don’t see the world the way that I see it, I don’t see your humanity anymore. You are not worth my time to persuade. Not just because I believe you’re persuadable, but I don’t see you as being human anymore.

Jonathan Fields (00:27:22) – And that’s the reason that I don’t care about trying to actually have a legitimate conversation with you. What’s your take on that?

Anand Giridharadas (00:27:28) – I think it’s very prevalent. I think you’re absolutely right. And I think it is incredibly self-defeating. And what I mean by that is. I may not persuade someone listening to this that refraining from that kind of dehumanizing is is bad because it’s dehumanizing and it’s it’s bad for a bad way of looking at your fellow citizens. I may not even persuade them that it’s a kind of bad way of looking at things, because it’s factually incorrect. People are complicated, much more complicated than that kind of simple story. But let me persuade you by saying, if you find yourself feeling that or thinking that, it’s incredibly self-defeating, because what you are really saying is that your ideas are quite limited in their power to spread and take hold. If you really feel like the kind of political values you hold, powerful or meaningful would make the society better. You should be profoundly optimistic about the ability of those values to conquer all kinds of communities and all kinds of moral frames.

Anand Giridharadas (00:28:29) – I think an idea, whether it’s a policy idea like universal health care or whether it’s an idea like we should respect immigrants regardless of where they come from or whether it’s a kind of notion of we should be open to the world and engage with the world rather than close ourselves off any of these kind of political values. I believe these ideas are all powerful enough that all kinds of people could be brought along. And what I learned in the book from all these different types of persuaders, I’m messaging consultant, a programmer, race educators, activists, very politicians, very different people. I tried to think at the end of the process, what do they all have in common? What do they all believe in common? And I would say the thing they pretty much all believe in common, that most of us, I think, do not believe is that people on the other side of the divide from you are, as you would say, human. But I think the way I would frame it is complicated. People are complicated.

Anand Giridharadas (00:29:30) – And here’s the thing we all know we are complicated, right? Maybe even I would say no. This is about the people we love. We grant them complexity too. But the dehumanization you’re talking about, the specific way it shows up in politics and and in this conversation about persuasion now, is that we look at people on the other side of certain divides, and we just think they’re not complicated the way we know ourselves to be. They are just monoliths of that view. They are dyed in the wool, committed to whatever it is. And the problem with this view is just empirically, it’s not true. The simple evidence for this is like people swing around in politics a lot. That happens all the time in politics, people are complicated and it’s so obvious when you think of yourself. But if we start to regard others people, we are on the opposite end of as also having that complexity. It’s certainly granting them more humanity and not dehumanizing them. But it’s really also just makes you much more effective, because people who don’t like immigration and think our border is a mess and that people should not be coming here illegally.

Anand Giridharadas (00:30:46) – They also think other things, right? They also think that like families are sacred, or they also think that America is the most humane country in the world, or they also think that they’re good people. They have other things in there right now, in that moment. If they’re obsessed with the alien invasion on the border, that those other values are not winning the battle for their heart right now, we’re all at war with ourselves. They are at war with themselves. And if you see them as a monolith, you got nothing to work with. If you see them as a site of a contest, then you say, wow, I got to arm the rebels in their heart that feel a different way. Those rebels are losing an argument about immigration right now, but it’s not inevitable. And I’m not talking about winning everybody back. But in this country, three, 4 or 5% of people shifting their view about something fundamental is the difference between like heaven and hell, right? So all we are talking about is refusing to get into this thing where you say anybody who is committed to any particular thing is just irrevocably that, or any one of a particular race just thinks this way.

Anand Giridharadas (00:31:53) – It’s just self-defeating. It’s not true. And I wrote The Persuaders because there are people out there on the ground today and every day showing how you do it, showing how you walk into communities, talk to people, listen to people, elicit the formal stance they have, elicit some of the B side stuff that’s not so processed, and maybe start building some of that stuff up so that it starts competing within them. You’re not implanting something on them, imposing something on them. You’re building up a doubt, a questioning a counter story within them. And more often than not, it works. And I sincerely believe we have. To stop believing that we can defeat this kind of fascist threat the country now faces by investigating our way out of it, prosecuting our way out of it, condemning our way out of it, being rageful to get out of it, shaking our fists at MSNBC as a way of getting out of it. We need to organize a better, more magnanimous, more fiery, more angry, more humane, more loving movement.

Anand Giridharadas (00:33:06) – All these things in one. If we have a chance of saving the country.

Jonathan Fields (00:33:10) – A lot of this conversation has been in the larger context of politics. But like I often bring this down to me and my neighborhood, me and my family, me and the person who is in my life on a regular basis. Me and the few people that I work with. I can’t imagine a scenario where even if you can have a successful conversation in the moment where that becomes sustainable change in belief and behavior. If you’re not also creating a community for somebody to step into at the same time, because fundamentally, you’re not just asking people to change their minds, you’re asking them to actively say, I am willing to ostracize myself from the community, which may have provided so much, and maybe for generations, and maybe that’s even my family. I mean, that is a huge ask. So I think part of what we need to understand when we’re asking somebody to change a belief is that if that belief is baked into if it is a core tenet of a community to which that person holds dear and to which there is their primary source of belonging, unless we provide a community that invites them in there, just nothing’s ever going to happen.

Jonathan Fields (00:34:23) – But it gets really complicated. And you talk about this in your book, right? Because what if that person also has done or is perceived as currently doing harm to what that new community would be? Right. So maybe you have a conversation where somebody can actually and these are some of the people you described in your book, say, I’m going to actually step into this conversation, even though I don’t like this person, I don’t believe in them and I see them as doing harm. They are part of the problem. But I’m going to have the conversation, and it leads to some astonishing outcome with a profound shift in beliefs. And yet at the same time, if there’s a dynamic where that community perceives this individual as having been part of the problem, are they even welcomed into that community? Is that even a realistic possibility? Yeah, I.

Anand Giridharadas (00:35:05) – Think you’re absolutely right. It’s a perfect way to put it that the what we are asking, when we ask someone to change their mind or come along with a particular idea, I think we sometimes don’t understand the nature of what we’re asking.

Anand Giridharadas (00:35:19) – We are asking you to kind of. Leave a family for another family, or leave a certainty for another certainty. You got to sell it. If it only feels like a loss. If it only feels like something’s being taken away from you. You can’t say this. You can’t say that. I mean, we’re not selling it properly. We need to make the world we want. The movements we have seem more fun because they are more exuberant, more joyful, more life giving. I think about this with climate change. Climate change is important. It’s maybe the only truly important issue because there will be no other issues if there’s no habitable planet. But there is a general aspect to the climate change conversation that feels dour. That feels like homework. Broccoli. There’s no reason that it has to have that aspect. The battle for the planet could be one of the great life giving undertakings of our time. It doesn’t have to be subjectively experienced as like things being taken away from you. I mean, you talk talked a very serious people who think about this climate change may be the biggest opportunity we’ve had to rectify racial injustice in the past, historical legacies, because the sheer amount of money and social engineering power you’ll have with it, you’ll be able to solve other problems like racial injustice, legacies.

Anand Giridharadas (00:36:36) – You’ll be able to address things like gender. You’ll be able to improve education, right, just through such a massive project of public commitment. And so why wasn’t the climate change movement framed as one of opportunity and can-do and like, Holy shit, this is going to be so fun to live in this new way. Is that the vibe anyone gets from any climate change conversation? I think it should be. I think this could be the most exuberant, life giving, purpose giving thing of our time. So it’s not always to blame the people who are dragging their heels that don’t want to do these things. I think it’s also to be a little hard on ourselves. Why is it that our causes are not appealing to people, and is some of the blame on us for not empathetically, strategically, shrewdly approaching people with the kind of pitch that would hook them based on who they are, what their actual experiences, what their actual concerns are, and summon them into the belief that the world we’re offering them is far superior to anything that they might be clinging to.

Anand Giridharadas (00:37:50) – We’re going to get there. If we can invite people into a future that just frankly feels more fun, more true, more exuberant, more life giving, and I think that has to become the goal of the kind of pro-democracy, pro human rights, pro justice side of the country.

Jonathan Fields (00:38:06) – Definitely powerful.

Anand Giridharadas (00:38:07) – It’s worth remembering that persuasion is a tool, and it can be used for good ends and bad ends. And I think part of my frustration that motivated writing the persuade ers is that this is a tool that right now is being better deployed by people who wish our society ill, then people who wish it well. And I want the people who wish it well. People who want all of us to have a voice. All of us to have a vote. All of us to be included. All of us to be loved and have the right to love whoever we want. Those of us who want everyone’s kids to have a shot, not just the kids of people who are lucky if we continue to treat winning other people over as something that is either futile or just kind of happens on its own.

Anand Giridharadas (00:38:57) – If we pursue the right policies in our heart, is in the right place, that fantasy is going to be our undoing, and we have to have on the political left a revolution of persuasion. We need to become persuaders in a way that can actually beat back the authoritarian menace, this kind of fascist uprising. It is the job of every single person who does not want that to be our future, our common future. So I think, become a persuader and insist on leaders becoming persuaders. I have hope that a better path is possible. I think this is a neck and neck fight right now, a kind of dead heat between the forces of of darkness and the forces of light, in part because the forces of light are kind of half asleep. And my hope is that if they wake up a little bit and get their act together, they can kind of bury this awful politics of hatred and dehumanization over the last many years. Bury it in the garbage dump of history where it belongs.

Jonathan Fields (00:40:04) – Feels like a good place for us to come full circle as well.

Jonathan Fields (00:40:06) – So in this container of Good Life project, if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?

Anand Giridharadas (00:40:13) – I think on the intimate scale. I think it means to me to be a good parent, a good partner, to have friends, real friends, even through adulthood, when it becomes harder because the aforementioned partners and kids, and to really be surrounded by love in a way that sometimes hard when life gets busy and fragmented, and to have space in your life for love and connection. And at the more societal level, I think to live a good life is to engage yourself in the affairs of your community in whatever way is appropriate for you and whatever way you’re called to do, and not just tend to family life and tend to your personal garden, but to make sure that you are engaged in a struggle for a better world, that you are saying the things that need to be said, or organizing what needs to be organized, participating and projects of of merit so that you hold yourself responsible for the quality of the commons that you leave behind.

Anand Giridharadas (00:41:25) – And I certainly when I think of that phrase, I think about it both very much and a kind of intimate in the intimate realm, because if you don’t have that, the other thing can be quite hollow. But I think if you only have the personal, you could end up with a happy family in a burning world. And that doesn’t really work either.

Jonathan Fields (00:41:45) – Hmm.

Jonathan Fields (00:41:46) – Thank you. I love how anon really compels us to renew faith in the power of persuasion, and redefines and reimagines that word itself, persuasion, and reconnects it to dignity with such bold optimism. And bringing it home today is Jonah Berger, professor and internationally bestselling author of the book Magic Words. So as a world renowned expert on influence, John reveals the science behind how language shapes behavior. The really fascinating research he uncovers the rhetorical techniques to really understand influence through the magic of words, and he illuminates how to inspire action, spark creativity, and strengthen connections. So if you’re ready to harness those magic hidden and in plain sight words with everyday speech, Jonah takes us into the extraordinary power that language holds in bringing us together.

Jonathan Fields (00:42:36) – Here’s Jonah the general phrase influence or persuasion. It can come with all sorts of baggage, all sorts of ethical badges. Like it’s not okay to either understand, invest in, or certainly apply tools or wisdom or insights or strategies when it comes to influencing or persuading others. Talk to me a little bit more about the psychology.

Anand Giridharadas (00:43:02) – I would say a few things.

Jonah Berger (00:43:04) – So first of all, we don’t like seeing ourselves as influenced. I’ve done a bit of work in this space, and one because it seems like it’s a bad thing. We want to seem, particularly in American culture, like where we choose our own things, where I have autonomy and agency and I make my own choices. But also we don’t like influence because we’re not always aware that it’s happening. Right. We’re not always aware that influence is is occurring. I think the other thing is influence can have a very negative connotation, right? If you said, hey, I’m going to influence people to eat food that’s not good for them and make decisions that are bad for the environment or get someone to do something they don’t want to do.

Jonah Berger (00:43:38) – That sounds pretty bad. What I think is interesting though, is is influenced by itself is just a tool, right? If I told you I was going to use influence to get people to eat more fruits and vegetables, I was going to use influence to get them to care more about the environment. We’d all say, that’s fantastic. That’s a really great goal. And so it’s not that influenced by itself is positive or negative. And so it’s just a tool. It’s like a hammer, right? A hammer is not positive or negative. You can use a hammer to bang in a nail. You could use a hammer to hurt someone. And so influence itself is just a tool. And I think the better we understand that tool, the more we can both take advantage of its power and defend against it. Decide we don’t want to be influenced or choose our influence. And so I think understanding how influence works has a lot of benefits.

Jonathan Fields (00:44:18) – I completely agree with that. I see it as inert, just as it’s the container, and it’s the intention behind it and how it’s actually used that can either make it functional or dysfunctional, constructive or destructive.

Jonathan Fields (00:44:29) – Not entirely unlike I, which is the Butler rallies these days. Yeah, but when it comes to it, though, your point about like a lot of us feel like we don’t want to be influenced. I almost can’t imagine an interaction that you have from the moment you open your eyes and the moment you lay your head down at night, when you’re in some sort of relationship with anybody, where there isn’t some level of influence happening, and this could be just brushing your teeth in the morning, you’re doing that because at some point along the way, somebody in a position of authority or a social pressure or whatever it is made you feel like this is an important thing for me to do. Like we don’t emerge from the womb saying, time to brush my teeth. Yeah. So there are so many just rote behaviors that we take for granted that we do, because at some point there was an influence process and we’re really glad that we do them. Yes. But my sense is it’s when we feel like we’re being influenced in a way which is against our interest.

Jonathan Fields (00:45:27) – That’s where they’re in the back of our necks. Risen a little bit. Yeah. But I also think that is very often the popular assumption. That’s what influence or persuasion is. It’s the art of getting somebody else to do something that they wouldn’t organically want to do. And maybe it’s not in their best interest, but is in your best interest. And that’s where so many of us really just have friction with it.

Jonah Berger (00:45:48) – Yeah, I actually thought a lot about this. This isn’t just an influence book, right? There are parts of this book which are about how to use language to be more creative. There are whole sections of the book, 50 pages, which are about how to deepen social connection using language. There is a whole section of book about how to use language to better understand others and understand sexism and racism in society. And so it’s not just an influence book. That’s certainly one thing the book talks about, but it’s not the only thing it talks about.

Jonathan Fields (00:46:13) – Yeah, no, for sure you use the word magic words.

Jonathan Fields (00:46:15) – It’s literally the name of your new book, magic. In what way? Like why that word?

Jonah Berger (00:46:21) – A few years ago, our first child was born. His name is Jasper, and this is actually the opening story to the book, but I think it’s a good one to illustrate the idea. And so, like many kids, he got older. Eventually he started getting language. So he’d say words for things he wanted. He’d say, yo, if he wanted yogurt or brown bear, if he wanted brown bear. But what’s interesting is he started using the word peas and he didn’t mean peas. He meant please. But he didn’t have his ells yet, so he couldn’t actually say please. So he would say peas. And what he would do is he’d use it in a very particular way. So we’d say something you wanted, like, yo, try saying it once. If nothing happened, you try saying again, yo. And if nothing happened, he then a third time he would go yo P’s.

Jonah Berger (00:47:00) – And he was basically saying, look, if you’re not getting what I want right away, I’m going to add this thing on the end because I know that it’ll make you more likely to do it. Now, Jasper is five, almost six years old. He has a lot more language. A couple of days ago was like, dad, you’re not being specific enough. When I asked him to do something, I was like, thanks. Where did you learn the word specific from? But PS was to me was really interesting, really fascinating because it was the first time I think he realized that words had power, right? That if you used a certain word, it could make the likelihood of something happen different. And this idea of magic words has been around forever, right? Abracadabra. Alakazam, whatever it is. But I think why I find this concept interesting is, is they’re not magic. It’s actually science. It’s not magic. There are words we can use that will increase our impact. Adding a certain word to request can make people up to 50% more likely to say yes.

Jonah Berger (00:47:50) – We found in our own work that’s saying I recommend something rather than I like something makes people about a third more likely to do it. And in everything from the language you might use in the emails we send at the office to, the language you might use in a loan application provides insight into who we are and what we’re going to do in the future. And so to me, this idea of words having power is really important. And given those words, what are they and how can we harness those powers? How? By understanding the power of magic words, can we use them to increase our own impact? Whether it’s to persuade others to motivate, to be more creative or to deepen social connections?

Jonathan Fields (00:48:24) – Yeah, I love that, and I’m such a believer in that as well. That language matters so much and so much more than I think a lot of people really realize.

Jonah Berger (00:48:32) – I think as communicators, as writers, as speaker, we are constantly using language in all contexts, whether we’re talking to bosses or colleagues or clients or family members.

Jonah Berger (00:48:43) – And while we think a lot about what we want to talk about, the ideas we want to communicate, okay, want to talk about our plans for dinner Friday night or okay, I want to pitch my new idea, okay? I want to get the client to agree to do something we think a lot about, like top level ideas. We want to communicate. We think a lot less about the words, we want to communicate them. And as you just said, that’s a big mistake because there’s a big opportunity in the language that we use. And I think what’s most exciting to me is this is not the first book out there on language, right? There are lots of articles online that say, these are five words you shouldn’t use in resumes, or the six things you should say when doing this and that. And I love anecdotes just as much as other people do, and I think anecdotes can be a good way to illustrate ideas. But for anecdotes to be useful, there has to be some science underneath them.

Jonah Berger (00:49:27) – And so I think what’s exciting is, in the past decade, and even more so, we’ve uncovered some amazing insights from language that are not just opinion, they’re statistical outcomes. Right? We can change this if we do that. And so it’s been a nice opportunity to share those insights and showcase how we can use them. We often think about language is conveying information, provides information to others or collects information. Language also suggests what it means to engage in a particular action, who it suggests you are, and who has agency or control. So I’ll give you a fun example. There’s a study done a number of years ago at Stanford University, where they went to a local preschool and they asked students for help cleaning up. So he’s like 4 or 5 year old kids. Kids are asked to clean up a mess on the floor. They’re blocks, crayons, books, whatever it is. And for some of the kids, the scientists asked them, hey, can you help clean up using the verb help to encourage them to take action for other kids? They use a similar word with just a couple letters different.

Jonah Berger (00:50:25) – They say, hey, can you be a helper? Rather than can you help clean up? Can you be a helper? Now the difference between help and helper is quite small two letters. Yet that difference leads to a 30% increase in students like goal of helping just two additional letters saying being a helper. And it’s not just students in classrooms. Same idea has been shown with adults and more important behaviors like voting. So researchers looked at getting people to vote. Some people were asked, hey, can you go vote? Others were asked, can you be a voter? Again, the difference between vote and voter is extremely small. Just a letter. But when people ask to be a voter, they were much more likely to take that action. About 15% more likely to go vote. And so what gives? Why did helper matter more than help and voter mattered more than voting? And the reason is, by turning actions into identities, we can make people more likely to take those actions right? Voting, helping.

Jonah Berger (00:51:14) – I know those are things I should do, but I’m busy. I might not want to do them. What I care more about than actions or identities. I want to feel like I’m a good person, like I’m intelligent, smart, knowledgeable, competent, all those different things. And if actions are opportunities to show myself and others that I hold desirable identities, well, now I’m much more likely to take those actions because they’re not just actions, right? They’re actions that give me an opportunity to claim a desired identity. Voting. Yeah, that’s fine. But being a voter, well, now more likely to vote if it gives me that that opportunity. Same thing is true on the negative side. Losing is bad. Being a loser is worse. Cheating on a test is bad. Being labeled a cheater would be even worse. And so researchers show that when cheating on a test would make you a cheater, well, now people are less likely to do it because they don’t want to engage in an action that would lead them to claim an undesirable identity.

Jonah Berger (00:52:05) – It’s like that old don’t litter campaign, which they eventually switched to. Don’t be a litter bug. Littering. Yeah, I know it’s bad, but oh, being a litter bug, well, now I really don’t want to do it. And so by framing actions as identities, we can make people more or less likely to change those actions.

Jonathan Fields (00:52:20) – That in particular, that whole concept is so fascinating to me. By way of summary, you identified six categories of words that you say really make a difference activating identity and agency, conveying confidence, asking the right questions, leveraging concreteness, employing emotion, and harnessing similarity and difference. One of the things that I think, and there are a couple of other topics that you really dive into in the book, but one of the thing that I want to tease out a bit with you is this notion of similarity and difference, because this is not just about language, it’s not just about persuasion or influence. There’s certainly broad societal contexts here that really matter in the way that we relate to other human beings.

Jonah Berger (00:52:57) – I think language is a great way to connect with others. There’s a variety of research that speaks to this. There’s some work that shows that the more similar the language we use to somebody else, the more likely they are to become friends. And the more like if we interact, the better those interactions go. If two people on a first date, for example, use more similar language, they’re more likely to go on a second date. Similarly, the language we use can help predict how well we’re going to do at the office if we’re able to incorporate whatever company we join and use language in a more similar way to our colleagues at work, it ends up we’re more likely to get promoted, or at least have the opportunity to stick around at the firm. And so I think it’s not just about one word versus the other. And the book is architect is starting with simpler approaches. So say could rather than should. And it will lead to this impact. The language of similarity is more complicated, right.

Jonah Berger (00:53:46) – Because being similar to someone else’s language involves a lot of different dimensions. But being similar and by being similar can lead to a lot of positive downstream outcomes. There are also benefits to being different. We’ve shown in creative industries, for example, like song lyrics, songs whose lyrics are more different from their genres end up being more popular. Their songs end up going higher on the Billboard chart because they’re more different from what people are useful used to, which is novel and stimulating and leads people to like them more. And so it’s another category of language that it’s important to understand.

Jonathan Fields (00:54:18) – Yeah, and that makes a lot of sense to me. It’s interesting. I recently was listening to an interview with Rick Rubin, a legendary music producer, who really was describing the fact that, like all he knows is his taste, what he likes and what he does and like is absolute confidence. And very often what he really likes is stuff which is counterculture and not mainstream, but within a matter of years, and sometimes because he’s now like stepped into it and helped bring it to the world, it becomes the culture, it moves things forward.

Jonathan Fields (00:54:46) – So it’s almost like the ability to see difference before others see it and then get behind it. There’s an interesting lever to be pulled there to move culture, taste ideas forward. If you’re open to doing that. Yeah, it feels like a good place for us to come full circle in our conversation as well. So as always, rap in these conversations with the same question in this container of Good Life project, if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?

Jonah Berger (00:55:13) – I think curiosity is such a powerful thing, and having kids has only reaffirmed this belief. Seeing something through a kid’s eyes. Everything is interesting, right? Everything is exciting and new and worth understanding. And I think as we get older, sometimes we lose that curiosity, right? We see things and we’re like, I already know what that is. And I remember somebody once said this really interesting thing to me. They said every six months to a year I move the paintings or wall coverings, art, whatever I have on the walls of my house around.

Jonah Berger (00:55:45) – And I do that because if I leave them in the same spots, I don’t see them anymore. But if I move them around, I start to see them differently, right? I see them again. They’re no longer in the same spot and so I can really see them. And I think that idea is a really interesting one for our lives more generally, not just about our wall hangings, but how we see people, how we see relationships, how we see the world. I think if we can remind ourselves that things aren’t as simple as we might think, or as obvious as we often feel they are, we can see things in some new and powerful ways.

Jonathan Fields (00:56:15) – I love that. Thank you. I love how Jonah really dives into the astonishing power of language within our everyday life. I’m so grateful to Priya, Anand and Jonah for lighting the way forward with hope. Their wisdom on gathering, persuading, and the magic of words left me inspired that we can renew faith in our shared humanity and reconnect through discourse centered in dignity.

Jonathan Fields (00:56:39) – Though the path ahead is challenging, their remarkable insights really reveal how we can foster mutual understanding through conversation. And if you love this episode. Be sure to catch the full conversations with all of today’s guests. You can find a link to those episodes in the show. Notes. This episode of Good Life Project was produced by executive producers Lindsey Fox and me, Jonathan Fields. Editing. Helped by Alejandro Ramirez, Kristoffer Carter crafted our theme music and special thanks to Shelly Adelle for her research on this episode. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable, and chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor, a seven second favor, and share it? Maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person? Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know, those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy.

Jonathan Fields (00:57:43) – Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action, that’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields signing off for Good Life Project.

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