How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times

Monica Guzman Author of Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times

            With the public gravitating toward insular hostile camps, bipartisan cooperation is rare in our current politics. Mónica Guzmán building a bridge between such groups. She has experience in doing so as the director of digital and storytelling at Braver Angels, a nonprofit dedicated to bridging the partisan divide in our democratic republic. 

            Guzmán argues that creating and sustaining a discussion is very achievable in her book I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times. Guzmán shows we can participate in less hostile conversations if we are open to listening and understanding why others have different beliefs.

            This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you have a conversation with someone who sees the left’s agenda being akin to communism, something dark and destructive?

            In the same way I have a conversation with anyone who holds views I don’t share and struggle to understand: by getting curious not just about the perspective but the person. What led them to that view? What have they done or seen that points to it? I’ve had this particular conversation with several people and have found things I can relate to by asking not why they believe what they believe but how they came to believe it. 

Is there a bias in the narrative of mainstream media that contributes to our national divide? For example, Eddie, a man in rural Kentucky, told you he’s tired of the news lecturing him as if he were a racist.

            What we call our mainstream media does tend to lean left in its views, when they arise, and what we call conservative media does tend to object and react to those views. The hostility we see between these two amplifies the already exaggerated hostility each “side” sees in the other. A majority of working journalists are liberal. That doesn’t mean we’re incapable of truly listening to people like Eddie. But when we’re this polarized, we’re going to have to work harder to do it. And fast.  

Why were you afraid to tell your fellow Seattle liberals that you speak to and understand your Trump-supporting parents? 

            I was afraid that the liberals in my life would look at me differently and with suspicion — especially in 2017, when our anxiety about the country’s future had reached soaring new heights. It was one thing to tell them that I knew my parents’ reasons for voting for Trump. It was quite another to say that I’d come to understand and accept them. I don’t mean to imply that I agree with them (ha!), or that I’ve stopped sharing my own political views, fully. We don’t change each other’s minds on big questions when we talk, but we often see each other’s views as less threatening — and less divided than we thought. 

You point out that social media platforms enhance the opportunity for people to sort themselves into groups that have the same political philosophy. Since that sorting significantly contributes to a divided nation, is there a need to limit social media from feeding this trend?

            Yes, but I hesitate to point the finger at technology and media. They’re part of the problem, but when we throw it all on them, we miss how each of us — in our own assumptions, conversations, and actions — contributes to the broken, incurious culture that to me is the biggest threat of all. The internet is a nonplace that makes us into nonpeople. We need tech platforms to come up with creative ways to help us see each other clearly again, immediately. As businesses, they have to give users what they want. So where we go, our social media platforms will follow. 

Researchers found in a 2020 study that Republicans and Democrats think the other despises them about twice as much as they do. Could public education encourage more one to one discussions?

            Yes! We can’t pretend to be informed when we’re not informed about each other, and the more aware we are of how warped our view of the “other side” has gotten, the more likely we’ll be to get curious enough to fix it. Whoever is underrepresented in our lives will be overrepresented in our imaginations, so we have to talk with each other instead of just about each other. Not on social media, but in contained one-to-one conversations where we stand a better chance of being honest, clear, and most importantly, heard.

You say that bridging can lessen our nation’s divide into hostile camps. How does bridging work? 

            We are Sorting into like-minded groups, Othering people who are different from us, and Siloing into spaces that amplify our favorite voices and drown out so many others. It’s an SOS — a call for help — and the only way to answer it is to take steps toward each other even when so much is pushing us apart. That’s bridging. We each move on our own terms — no one else’s. But here’s the good news: The most important thing you can do with a bridge is to keep it, not cross it. So as long as you can have another conversation with the same person about the same topic, you never really left it, and bridging is still possible.  

“Mind the gap” means that your curiosity seeks to fill the gap between what you know and don’t know, it’s a thirst for knowledge. From your experience, who is more curious: liberals or conservatives?

            Curiosity is a practice, not a personality trait, and I’m not convinced that whole groups of people are more or less curious. Many liberals I’ve talked to assume that they are more curious than conservatives, but based on my conversations with conservatives, I just don’t think this is true. People can only hear when they’re heard, and I’ve found that all people I’ve talked with — conservatives, liberals, and everyone between and off that spectrum — are capable of practicing curiosity as long as they feel heard, respected and never condescended to.

Nick Licata is the author of Becoming A Citizen Activist and Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties. He is the founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of over 1,000 progressive municipal officials.

Subscribe to Licata’s newsletter Citizenship Politics

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