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How to Have Better Conversations

Myisha Cherry

Philosophy professor and podcast host Myisha Cherry spoke at Stanford on May 9, 2019.

Photos by Christine Baker
Jul 2 2019
Mike Peña

As highly charged as the current climate is these days for civic discourse, it seems deep discussions we could be having with friends, family and neighbors are increasingly avoided like the measles.

Have we lost the ability to engage in meaningful conversations?

Apparently, Myisha Cherry thinks so. The assistant professor of philosophy at UC Riverside has a new book out, "Unmuted: Conversations on Prejudice, Oppression, and Social Justice," which is based on her monthly social-political podcast "UnMute."

The Ethics Center, as a convener of public conversations about society's most pressing issues, invited Cherry to Stanford on May 9, 2019, to share her insights on an increasingly fraught proposition — talking to each other.

Spoiler alert: The problem usually isn't the topic. It's us.

Audience members speak with Myisha Cherry

Cherry says we should first ask ourselves three simple questions that can reveal the different kinds of behaviors that tend to torpedo conversations.

1. Who are we?

Seeing how others perceive us is a common struggle, but Cherry says we need to understand how we come across because character matters in conversations. She calls out three archetypes that we should avoid embodying, because no one wants to talk to:

  • a hypocrite
  • a bully
  • a know-it-all

Cherry's advice: Be humble. Comfort the other person and watch them open up.

2. What do we do?

As someone who admits to being "obsessed" with conversations, Cherry has identified three "destructive moves" that she’s seen committed time and again:

  • Gaslighting: dismissing the seriousness of someone's experience and questioning the reliability of that person's perception. Example: "Nah, he wouldn't do that sort of thing."
  • Anger policing: controlling the tone or emotion of others and putting your own feelings first. Example: "Can you tone it down? Otherwise, I can't hear you."
  • Grammar guarding: Focusing on a minor faux pas like misspellings or mispronunciations, instead of discussing the central issue. Um, no example needed.

Cherry's advice: Pay attention to whether you make any of these moves, and then stop it.

3. How do we see others?

There’s nothing wrong with having a confidant, but Cherry advocates for greater awareness about the roles we sometimes pigeonhole people into:

  • The audience member: a passive listener, but not a contributor. "Mansplaining," anyone?
  • The epistemic laborer: an individual who ought to teach you about an issue simply because of who they are, not because they necessarily want to speak. "Why don't we let Juan tell us all about immigration?"
  • The emotional laborer: someone who is always your advisor. They're always there for you, even though you seldom reciprocate. “Thanks again for listening. OK, gotta go!”

Cherry's advice: Understand that others have unique perspectives, knowledge, emotions and experiences — but also a shared humanity.

“The reality is, is that we are not what we think we are,” Cherry concludes. “So we need to begin to change, to not see ourselves as superior to other people, and also, not to see ourselves as the center of the universe."

Watch her full talk and excerpts on our YouTube channel

"The Buzz" is the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society's media portal for ethics-related news on campus and beyond. We review events and speakers, and we feature initiatives that are of broad interest. A wide range of voices author the articles, including undergraduate students.