Krista Tippett on How to Have Big Conversations

Krista Tippett, Photo by Chris Daniels
Krista Tippett, Photo by Chris Daniels

The journalist and creator of 'On Being' shares her tips for navigating complex discussions.

For nearly two decades, Krista Tippett has held deep, probing discussions with artists, scientists, religious figures, and nearly every type of person in between about what it means to be human on her show, On Being. One of her greatest strengths as an interviewer is her ability to approach heavy topics with an attitude and vocabulary that encourage nuance and exploration during conversations that, in less masterful hands, might dissolve into standoffs or simply reach an impasse. In 2014, this work of “thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence,” as President Barack Obama put it, earned her the National Humanities Medal.

Here, she shares some of her insights into how to navigate big conversations.

Spotify for Podcasters: You begin each of your interviews by asking about the religious or spiritual background of your subject’s childhood. How does asking a big question like that set the tone for a conversation about heavy issues?

Krista Tippett: The reason I do that is because of where it plants the conversation. I'm actually trying to get people to not be in the presentational mode that we're all so trained to be in. And there's something about asking people about the background of their childhood that actually gets them into their body and out of their head. It's a place of memory. It ends up being people talking about questions they had, that often have animated this work they've gone on to do, or how they formed as a human being, even if the story is about leaving religion behind or growing up atheist.

What are your conversation techniques with such heady thinkers?

What [I look for is to] really get somebody to go places they haven't gone in other interviews, or maybe even say something aloud that they haven't ever quite said that way before, which in our medium—that's just gold, right? Because there's a moment when somebody surprises themselves, and everybody who's listening is kind of in this time-travel in the room when they tune in to listen.

What I've found is that the way to help that happen is not to actually try to know what they know or what they think, but try to figure out how they think. And how their thinking and the way they live and what they do and what they're passionate about has evolved, so that I'm asking questions that are interesting to them. That's quite different from just asking questions that are interesting to me. If you ask a question that is interesting to them, they stop being in this mode of being a person who's answering a question. It stops being an interview or a Q&A and it starts being a conversation.

Do you ever find yourself at a loss for words? And if so, how do you move forward?

At some point early on, I started to make this distinction in my mind to find a way to show up between a conversation and an interview. And so, one aspect of being in a conversation, as opposed to just an interview, is that I'm actually responding to what they say, right? I'm not just moving on to the next question. And in the course of a real conversation, there are definitely moments where I'm just taking something in, and yeah, possibly being at a loss for words. So, I guess the answer is yes. I think of that as a real event if you're really in conversation with somebody. I don't think it's a problem.

What's the best way to deal with something like pushback or tension from a subject when discussing sensitive topics?

Let's say somebody starts saying something or even using language that is uncomfortable for me or that I know will be uncomfortable for some people listening. I'll just say, in a way that is genuinely curious, "Can you tell me what you mean when you use that word? Can you tell me what you mean when you say that? Or when you ask that question?" Because I think a lot of the knots we're tied up in, just in our culture, are about us being so puritanical about the way another person says something. If they push any of our buttons with a word or phrasing they use, then we just give up on them. But in fact, we're all carrying all kinds of different connotations with the words we use and the ways we phrase things.

Another thing that I will do that is really effective, is if I have a hard thing to ask somebody—let's say a meaningful criticism, that is either on my part or out in the culture about things they think or do or have said—rather than me confronting them, to instead say, "You know, some people would say this about you, right? Some people might hear what you just said, and have this reaction." To put it in the third person. When I do it that way—and they know I'm really curious, even though what I'm saying is pointed—people don't get into their defensive mode. They actually walk toward it and start explaining in ways that are helpful.

I think one of the barriers to having these types of conversations that happen on your podcast is that people are unable to grant themselves permission to do so. Do you still feel the need to grant yourself permission to have them? How can others do the same?

Part of the reason it feels scary to walk into a lot of these subjects is that they’re so divisive and the vocabulary around them is so loaded. There's a framing we're all familiar with, like, "You're for this and you're against that and you speak this way and not that way." And what's really effective, and very refreshing for people who are listening, is to approach one of these subjects and look clearly at what the framing is and the dead-end that we all know, and just refuse to frame it that way. There are words I consider to be really important, like the word "justice," that I use very sparingly, because what it's describing is so important but it's been so loaded down and frayed and politicized. Those words themselves will trigger all kinds of reactions that people can't get past.

—Matt Williams