Conversations for the BA Curious: Russ Roberts


If I was asked to sum up the eight aspirational norms that define "The Braver Angels Way" into one piece of advice, I think I could get most of the way there by telling people this: Make a human connection with whomever you talk to. And the best way to do that is by simply and generously expressing a little benign curiosity about who that person is. You don't need to be super charismatic, polished or extroverted. You do need to be genuinely interested in the human being standing before you. People who don't share your view of the world can and will surprise you, given the chance, once you have mastered your fear of disagreement. And one can witness this brave and enlightened approach to conversation in nearly every episode of Russ Roberts' EconTalk podcast.   

We believe that, in disagreements, both sides share and learn.

 For 18 years Russ Roberts, American economist, professor, and writer (now located in Israel and serving as President of Shalem College), has quietly exemplified "our better angels" as host of the weekly podcast EconTalk. His "Conversations for the Curious," are congenial affairs during which he consistently treats any differences of opinion with his guests as opportunities to learn and reflect on one's priors. These interviews are engaging, even if you don't have a good grasp on statistics and monetary theory, etc.. In fact, Roberts' work defies the stereotype of Economics as that "Dismal Science" which reduces people to data points feeding cold-hearted calculations of losses and profits. He and his guests make the underlying economies of social engagement and decision-making relatable, as they follow the universally human incentive to "trade" information and ideas with each other and to "spend" their time learning new things. Check out the archive of EconTalk episodes, and you see a wide variety of topics covered, with guests offering insights into sheep-herding, the existence of free will, Artificial Intelligence, or poetry, or (one of my favorites) the ins and outs of making and distributing potato chips. Should you choose to invest the time, EconTalk will greatly enrich your store of knowledge. 

Especially germane to the Braver Angels' mission to Depolarize America is Roberts' talk with reporter and author, Charles Duhigg. Duhigg, who is no stranger to Braver Angels (see his 2020 article, "How to Talk Politics . . ." on the BA website), has just published his book Supercommunicators. In it he connects many of the values underlying the Braver Angels Way to the science of human communication. Duhigg points out that, when you "let the other person have their say in the way they want to have it [ . . .] they will be more willing to listen to you have your say in the way you want it." Most people instinctively perceive the fairness in this. 

There are many parallels between the skills we learn at Braver Angels workshops on Bridging the Divide and the approach to engendering trust that Duhigg calls "Looping to Understand," but Duhigg and Roberts bring us fresh insights into why they work, as well as useful tips for putting them into practice. What I found most useful is Duhigg's suggestion to ask what he calls "Deep Questions," which can be a low-key way for conversation partners to offer up to each other a little vulnerability, an exchange that has been shown to increase a sense of trust between strangers. For volunteers who would like some fresh language to better understand how to engage across disagreement, or pick up some practical tips to hone your own skills in talking productively with someone who has a different worldview from your own, "The Secrets of Great Conversation" episode of EconTalk is well worth your time.    r 17 minutes)

 – H. Chapman, Braver Angel and Foot Soldier Philosopher 🕊️

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