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Having the Tough Conversations
Ben Klutsey and Mónica Guzmán discuss bridging political divides, fostering genuine curiosity and how to talk to your crazy uncle during the holidays
In this installment of a series on liberalism, Benjamin Klutsey, the director of the Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, talks with Mónica Guzmán, a senior fellow for public practice at Braver Angels, about Washington vs. Oregon voters in the 2016 presidential election, the extent of polarization in America, the role of journalism and social media in our divided society, and much more.
BENJAMIN KLUTSEY: Today we have with us Mónica Guzmán. She is a senior fellow for public practice at Braver Angels. She’s also the author of “I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times,” which is the subject of our conversation today. She’s also co-founder of The Evergrey newsletter. She’s a former columnist at The Seattle Times and a recent fellow at Harvard’s Neiman Foundation for Journalism and the Henry M. Jackson Foundation. Thank you so much for joining us, Mónica.
MÓNICA GUZMÁN: Thank you, Ben. This is great.
Washington vs. Oregon
KLUTSEY: We’ll just delve right in. In your book, you talk about how in 2016, right after the election, you and your fellow residents of King County in Washington state took a trip to visit residents of Sherman County in Oregon. Why did you go there, and what did you learn?
GUZMÁN: We took this trip to Sherman County because we had found out, via an interactive map that we had stumbled on online, that Sherman County was the nearest county to King County that had voted exactly opposite in the 2016 presidential election. I believe it was 76% that went for Clinton in King County, 76% went for Trump in Sherman County. Sherman County is one of the smaller counties in the state of Oregon. It’s toward the north by the Columbia River, and it’s almost entirely agricultural, very, very small, fewer than 2,000 people.
We had asked the readers of the newsletter that I founded, The Evergrey, after the election, “Hey, one of the values of this community we’re gathering is curiosity. What we’re hearing from you is that it’s difficult to be curious about this election because we’re so blue, we’re so Democratic-leaning here in the county. What would you say if we could figure out a way to visit neighbors farther afield, both politically and perhaps geographically, to learn from each other’s perspectives and get curious about each other with each other? Would you be up for it?” They said yes. Several people wrote back and said, “Really? We could do that?”
In the meantime, I was thinking, “I don’t know if we can, but it sure would be cool.” Then, as I detail in the book, one thing led to another. We just did some Googling; we reached out to folks in the community of Sherman County, and they were incredibly gracious. We ended up working with a longtime agricultural agent who knew everyone in the county—he’s become a close friend now to me—and put together this trip that was about that. It was about getting curious about each other with each other. Because when we get curious, when we want to know about each other . . . but from other sources in such a highly hyperpartisan and hyperpolarized time, we’re not getting the truth. We’re getting a lot of projection, and that’s hurting us.
KLUTSEY: What did you learn from that experience, the broad strokes?
GUZMÁN: One of the big lessons for several folks—because I talked to them after, and I talked to them years after—was that it’s worth pausing when we have the assumption, “Someone who opposes what I support electorally must hate what I love.” Folks from King County, several of them showed up with the assumption that I voted this way because of the environment, because I want to protect civil rights in certain ways, because I want to protect these things. These people who voted the opposite must not want to protect those things; that must be a key part of their motivation.
More specifically, we learned while we were there about how many farmers in Sherman County were worried about something called the Waters of the U.S. rule. The Waters of the U.S. rule is a federal regulation that determines when a body of water could fall under federal regulation. For these farmers who have acres and acres of land, if there’s a big rainfall and a pond forms on their land, oh my gosh, could the government suddenly claim some control over it? You would think that would be absurd, but there’s actually been some close calls in agriculture.
They were pretty worried about that, and for them, Donald Trump being a businessman, Donald Trump being a Republican, Republicans tending to understand that lifestyle and those concerns more, they just trusted Trump a lot more on that question. All of us from King County were stunned, A, that we had never heard of this, and B, that that and other economic motivators were such a strong reason that these folks ended up voting for Trump. And we had no idea.
The Need To Be Seen
KLUTSEY: It’s fascinating. I think one of the things that I learned from your book is that it seems as though our divides are not necessarily left and right. Sometimes they are, but a lot of the times, they’re also rural versus urban. I think you mentioned how a lot of folks just want to be seen, and in the discussions and conversations it seems as though they’re not even considered. Was that your impression there?
GUZMÁN: Oh, yes. That was another big lesson that it took me a little longer to process. I remember being there and going there and planning the event, and in my head thinking, “They have more to learn about us than we have to learn about them.” It was while I was there and I was listening to them that I thought, “What an arrogant assumption. I can’t believe that I believed that.”
Because what I realized, reading between the lines, hearing a lot of folks in Sherman County stand up and say what they hoped to gain from the event . . . And a lot of their comments throughout really hit home for me the reality that they know the cities. They have to know the cities. Their kids go to the cities, their relatives live in the cities—but no one from the city goes to them. It doesn’t happen. For them, this trip, like, “Wait, hang on, 20 people from Seattle are coming here to talk to us about our lives and to talk? Wait, what?”
I spoke with one person who was there in particular, who was very articulate on that point, that he felt, “Oh my gosh, this is our chance. This is our chance to be seen. What do we do? What do we say?” He ended that very short experience where we had just got started—it was just a few hours—thinking to himself, “We didn’t do enough. We didn’t do enough. We barely scratched the surface. They didn’t really even—” and feeling almost guilty, as if the pressures were on him to explain this entire lifestyle.
That is one of the consequences of big divides, especially asymmetrical ones where one side is more generally known than the other. If you don’t venture out to cross that divide, then people just feel increasingly misunderstood.
KLUTSEY: I got really excited about that story. I kept thinking, can we scale this, and should folks across different counties in America just travel to each other’s counties and go and learn and talk to folks like that? What are your thoughts about scaling something like this?
GUZMÁN: I think that would be great. It turned out, while I was there, I learned from folks in their 50s and 60s that when they were young, there were robust exchange programs with the city of Portland, Oregon. Those ended, but when they were young, they would have folks from the cities come in, and kids would spend some days on the farm and learn all that and then go back. And now we’re so removed from that lifestyle. They weren’t sure why those programs ended, but I ended up agreeing with them that, “Wait a minute, why do we do that to ourselves? That was dumb. A society has to be proactive in maintaining the ties that allow us to connect.”
We haven’t needed to be all that proactive in recent years because there’s been a relative amount of civic health at the foundation of our society, and that has frayed. I think we’ve all felt it, that has frayed. There is no trust-building institution in the United States. The trust-building institution is our own web of relationships that form organically across differences—except lately, many of us have been breaking those relationships.
We’ve been moving to places where people culturally and politically resemble us and that we think it’s good. It’s good for our own, I suppose, sense of comfort. I don’t even think it’s good for that; that’s an illusion. We’re all becoming more and more anxious because of the fear we have of people we don’t understand, people who are our neighbors.
The Call for Help
KLUTSEY: That actually is a good segue to the question I was thinking next. You touched on this in the first part of the book, the S.O.S.—the sorting, the othering and the siloing. Can you unpack that for us and how you saw the S.O.S challenge within your own community in King County as well as Sherman County?
GUZMÁN: The S.O.S., the call for help. It’s a fun little bundle of human tendencies that have led us to this place, not because each of these tendencies is always bad, but because of their interaction with each other. It stands for sorting, othering and siloing. Sorting is what I mentioned about we’d rather be with people who are like us. It’s more comfortable; it’s less challenging. When there’s a lot of turbulence and tension in the world, as there is now, we have even less appetite for being around folks who might challenge us or might just be different in ways we don’t like.
Then othering is how we put distance between ourselves and those we deem different. The research going back always shows that those differences don’t even have to be meaningful for people to discriminate, subtly and not so subtly, against people who are different.
Then lastly is siloing. Siloing is the stories that we hear and don’t hear, the connections we make and don’t make, based on who we’re around and who we’re pushing away. Our phones have a big role to play in that, the technology and the ways that we can create our own customized worlds of information. It’s not that we’re not exposed to different voices and different perspectives. It’s that when we are exposed to those voices and perspectives, they come to us filtered through layers of judgment most of the time. That’s extremely skewing.
Everything becomes a fun-house mirror, and we end up so divided. We’re blinded; we’re not seeing people’s perspectives for what they really are. We’re not seeing the debates that are animating our society for what they really are. We’re largely fighting projections, which cause us to act more recklessly, make more reckless policy and continue to judge each other more while engaging each other less, which makes no sense. It’s like a spinning-out-of-control kind of a thing.
The way I saw that in Seattle, I remember just feeling a sense of confoundedness because I love Seattle. Before we started recording, I was telling you how much I love Seattle. I love everyone I’ve met here, and it’s such an educated city, and it’s such a compassionate city. It really puts that upfront. Caring for people is very important in the culture of Seattle.
When I started to hear people say things about Trump voters that were so dehumanizing and were so obviously not checked by real-world experience with people who voted for Trump, I felt confounded and disappointed. Like, this isn’t us; this doesn’t feel right to me. The reason that I had the check on that is because my own parents voted for Trump, who are Mexican immigrants. They ran up against this idea that, “Wait. Trump had all this rhetoric against Mexicans. How could they possibly?” To me, that was a result of sorting, othering and siloing, making us forget what we don’t know, making us forget what we should not be certain about.
The Extent of Polarization
KLUTSEY: In many ways, you had a bit more of an advantage going into this stuff than a lot of people around you, perhaps.
There’s a couple of narratives that I hear when we talk about polarization, and I wanted to hear your take on this. One narrative says that, yes, we are polarized, but it’s really at the elite level—Congress and academic institutions like universities and on Twitter and so on. Regular folks, they really don’t care. They can get along. Then there are those who say it’s everywhere, and we are almost at civil war levels. I’m wondering what your take on these perspectives or these narratives is? You probably have a third version of this that maybe cuts across both.
GUZMÁN: It’s important to define polarization. Different people mean different things. There’s ideological polarization, which is how far apart we really are in our actual disagreements about the issues, that tends to get exaggerated. We really are not as ideologically polarized as it may seem.
Another kind of polarization is affective polarization. That’s the polarization that comes from our animosity toward the other side, our sentiment, our feelings about the other side. That’s where most of what I think most people refer to as polarization really resides. We see the research: Each side thinks the other side despises theirs twice as much as they really do. That one was a pretty incredible statistic.
Sentiment, it’s funny because we think about, how polarized are we really? Is it really just a feeling? For me, the feeling is the reality. We can discount how people feel, but it is relevant because how we feel determines our behavior, determines our approaches, our attitudes. The only agents in the world are people. How people feel matters.
As far as the idea that the polarization only is happening at the elite level, it is true that the more partisan people are, the more engaged with the political landscape, the more maybe deeply rooted in partisan views—they tend to show more of the effects of hyperpolarization and toxic polarization than those of us who maybe are not as engaged, et cetera.
Even still, and even taking into account the fact that it is the more partisan, more engaged folks who tend to be the lion’s share of the discourse out there, it’s still creating an information landscape and an overall accessible cultural discourse that is vastly exaggerating and causing a lot more animosity and anxiety when people do tune in. It’s a tricky question to answer. Is it real, is it not? I can tell you it certainly feels real, and that makes it very relevant. People are changing their lives based on this. They are inviting or not inviting people to Thanksgiving. They’re changing their lives, and they’re walking around more anxious based on this polarization.
For me, it begins at the grassroots. It begins on the level of people. We could choose to wait until media and politics figure it out on their own, but I’ve been in media; that’s not how this works. These institutions mirror us, and you can’t say, “First one, then the other.” It’s got to be simultaneous, and it’s got to be collaborative. It’s going to be an enormous cultural change. We’re going to need to change the structures that hold these institutions in such unhealthy places.
KLUTSEY: The one thing that always surprises me is on marriage. The notion that negative attitudes toward interparty marriages are much higher than interracial, interfaith and all these other things—which goes to your point that partisanship and political partisanship is incredibly heightened as a sense of identity for a lot of people, and there’s a lot of polarization at that level. It’s affecting things like relationships and marriage and things like that. I find that really incredible.
GUZMÁN: I’m really glad you brought up identity. Identity is so key. I remember in a talk that I gave, I referred to someone who I knew who had voted for Trump as a Trump supporter. Later I heard from him, and he said, “Hey, I voted for Trump once, but I held my nose, and I do not identify as a Trump supporter.” I was like, “Wow, ‘Trump voter, but don’t call me a Trump supporter.’” I said, “Okay, okay.” Our political identity is so important. And I’ve also heard from a lot of folks who hide that in their circles. They can’t come out as whatever they truly are.
KLUTSEY: It also touches on a point you made toward the end of the book about how our opinions and views are snapshots at a certain point in time, and they’re constantly changing as well. One Trump supporter voter might not be so much so at a later time in the future.
The ‘I Never Thought of It That Way’ Moment
KLUTSEY: “I never thought of it that way.” I’ve used this approach many times, and it’s been incredibly helpful, so thank you for that. How did you develop this?
GUZMÁN: Do you mean the particular idea of the “I never thought of it that way” moment?
GUZMÁN: It started by being conscious of the physical sensation, and this is weird. This is weird, but as I was thinking about the ideas that would lead to this book, I was trying to become hyperaware of how new ideas entered my mind. As I was doing that, I was also asking myself, “Well, Mónica, one of the things that’s going to be really hard for you to get across is that conversations across difference can be really delightful. A lot of people are not going to believe you. They’re going to say, ‘No, it’s terrifying and exhausting 100% of the time. What are you talking about?’”
I wanted to explore what is it that makes this actually delightful, and I was paying more attention to how ideas entered my mind. That’s when I realized that when I’m talking to someone who knows a lot of different things, and I might ask a question or get curious, and then they might give me an answer, and something about their answer lands in my mind, crash lands, makes an impact, makes a dent—that the sensation is where I think and say, “I never thought of it that way.”
The sensation is being in a stuffy room you didn’t realize was stuffy, and someone just opened a door and there’s this breeze, and you’re like, “Whoa,” and all of a sudden, the rooms in your mind look different. You want to walk some of the hallways in your mind again because something’s going to look different. Now you’ve gleaned this insight; what does it mean for this and this and this? That’s delightful, even when it’s challenging.
When it lands in your mind, you can’t deny it. In the moment of a conversation, if you feel defensive against whoever you’re talking about, you might be like, “Yeah, no big deal, man, no big deal, whatever,” but you know that something’s moving in there. And so you might process it later as you go. It came from a lot of self-awareness, and I started journaling. I journaled for months, the “I never thought of it that way” moment that I could notice.
And some of them were accompanied by more of a fear response, like, “Oh no, I’m wrong,” and noticing that too. But even those moments were delightful because it was still an invitation. It was still an undeniable invitation to recognize that something has changed in your own perspective, even if it’s teensy-tiny or something that might make a difference, but it might get dug out of the ground tomorrow. You’ll reflect on it and then go, “Eh, never mind,” or it really might change your life.
KLUTSEY: I see. What was the biggest “I never thought of it that way” moment or experience, if you have one?
GUZMÁN: I’ve never been asked that. They’re all so different.
KLUTSEY: The most significant.
GUZMÁN: The one that’s come up a lot recently—it happened several months ago. I work at Braver Angels. I’m on the leadership team, and it’s an organization that works to depolarize America. We’re all over the country, and I’ve met so many incredible people: conservatives, liberals, everything in between. And it was when I was talking with a conservative leader at Braver Angels, a man named Paul. We were talking about all kinds of things like what is it that folks on the left may not understand about folks on the right, especially in media and the ways that we talk, because my specialty is media.
He told me something that absolutely shocked me, which is that calling our government a democracy to many reds comes off as very blue. And I was like, “Shut up. What are you talking about? That sounds nuts.” And he said, “We’re not a democracy. We’re a democratic republic. And so, when you lean on the democracy piece, you’re leaning on things like majority rule, you’re leaning on things like the popular vote, things where Democrats have a clear advantage right now. But that’s not the whole story. There’s a republic. We’re a representative, constitutional republic.” So there’s that whole piece, and so I realize, “Oh my gosh.”
There’s many, many journalists right now who are covering—“threats to democracy” is the term, right? And I’m like, “Oh, man, to notice and realize, I never thought of it that way, that whole conversation is coded blue. Oh, man.” And so, ever since then, I changed my behavior as a result of that moment. I don’t refer to our government as a democracy. I refer to it as a democratic republic. We are obviously a democracy in certain ways, but I try to bring in the term “democratic republic” in case anyone’s listening with that question, “Is she even including me?” Yes, I am. I’m including every American.
The Role of Journalism
KLUTSEY: That’s amazing. You obviously came from a journalistic background. In what ways do you think journalism is contributing to some of these problems? I think earlier in the book you talked about how additional information doesn’t really help and does not ameliorate this kind of polarization. So how should journalism be reconstructed, if you will, to advance a more pluralistic society?
GUZMÁN: Yes, it should. To me, curiosity is and should always be at the heart of journalism. Not a sleazy, voyeuristic curiosity, but a curiosity that is concerned with the overall health of our society and that acknowledges that we are all a meaningful piece of it. That there’s not much to be gained by saying we have nothing to learn from X, Y or Z type of person. There’s something about that that feels critical to me.
I think that one of the reasons that we don’t often think of for why journalism is contributing to polarization—there’s lots of reasons—is that the research shows us that the folks who are most engaged and might hold some of the most partisan views and are reading these anxiety-inducing headlines all the time, are the folks who then come back and say things with more fear, with more anxiety, with less hope. That’s a lot of journalists. That’s a lot of journalists.
We have a lot of advocacy journalists out there who are very straightforward with their opinions, but even the journalists who are not, who are in the more objective beats, even they are drowning in this stuff. It’s very anxiety-inducing for them. Journalists are human beings, and when you have to read the news every day at a time like this, it affects you mentally. And so it’s that much harder for you to create journalism that sees people’s dignity, that gives people agency and hope, to use a framework by my friend Amanda Ripley, who’s a wonderful journalist thinking about this. I think that’s one of the things.
And journalism, I don’t think has had a robust enough conversation about what we miss and what we lose when we don’t have ideological diversity in the newsroom. It’s a lot easier to vilify and dismiss and not get curious about different points of view, and then accept and pass on narratives that would codify really, really solid straight judgments. They’re just bad. I don’t think journalists are doing this intentionally, but many mainstream journalists are more liberal, and there that is, but it leads to a discounting—especially at a time like this, when everything seems so scary.
KLUTSEY: Now, in the book, you note that there are these five core values that drew you to pursue this engagement with Sherman County. It includes curiosity, honesty, usefulness, boldness and inclusiveness. And as I was reading that, I kept thinking, where did these values come from for you? I thought it was very powerful when you said your internal model to guide your relationship with readers is, “Where others are distant, we’ll be close.” I just kept asking, where do these things come from for you?
GUZMÁN: For me, it’s a philosophy. I have been very obsessed with a kind of journalism that is fully engaged. When I came into the newsroom for the first time in 2005, there were habits and conventions that were more about, what gets covered gets decided by a bunch of people sitting around a conference table. And they know everything they need to know, they’re experts on their community, and that’s that. I also saw other journalists say, “Don’t read the comments. It’s just drivel, people’s responses to our stuff. It’s often angry. It’s not worth reading. They don’t even know what they’re talking about”—things like that, that I really rebelled against.
I thought, “Wait a minute, if we’re the fourth estate, if we’re the storytelling institution, if we are part of what helps hold the society together by telling its stories responsibly, then we have to be more connected. We have to get closer to people.” And so that has always animated my journalism. Once I got a little bit of courage and a little sense of innovation, I started working on that, and then it just became a mandate to me.
It does produce complications, though, because it’s also a marketing thing. You have to know your audience. You have to be close to your audience so that they’ll be loyal to you, so that they’ll click on your stuff. You have to write your headlines in such a way that they can’t not click on it. You have to get into their skull. You have to make them feel something so that they’ll share it and make sure that you survive in this cutthroat industry.
Of course, that led many journalists to oversensationalize, to exaggerate threats and whatnot. We know that that’s a problem. For me, engagement is more about, we need people to feel invested in each other. The way to do that is to make sure that they know that they’re a piece of the story. The way to make sure they know they’re a piece of the story is to consult them, ask them, bring them in as participants. The way to do that is to make sure that there’s value in that for them, too.
All of that led to those values at The Evergrey. We built The Evergrey to be as much of a vehicle for this as possible. We had extraordinary successes. I was so proud, so happy and so delighted. Curious, honest, useful is so important. Be useful; don’t just drone on and on. What are you adding to people’s lives? And be bold, don’t be shy, don’t do it the way other people do. Then inclusive—everyone who’s in Seattle, if they arrived last week, if they’ve been here their whole lives, if they’re this race or that, I don’t care. We’re all here. We’re all a part of this. Whenever we forget that and we put one group above the other, what are we doing? Yes, all those values matter deeply to us.
KLUTSEY: Great. Now, what makes for a good conversation? The holidays toward the end of the year are coming up. It’s possible some people are a little worried about conversations they might have. You talked about time, attention, parity, containment and embodiment as the right mix of ingredients to generate a good conversation. I wonder, in the age of social media, whether these interactions are possible, or does it present new opportunities for you to explore?
GUZMÁN: Yes, social media gets a pretty bad rap these days. We’ve really come around from 2010, when it was all like, it’s going to save us all and make us better people. Now we know, like anything else, everything gets populated with our good and our bad. Nothing only gets populated with our good. Social media continues to connect us across difference if we let it. But because many social media platforms are driven to capture our attention, and it’s harder for us to give our attention to things that challenge us, the opposite has happened for many of us, where the things we already think are amplified for us, and often more social status given to them, and more social threat. That’s a bummer.
As far as conversation, I do believe that on social media, it is possible to have great conversations across difference and across disagreement. It takes an inordinate amount of skill, and a very artificial kind of skill, the skill of taking goodwill and intent and tone and putting all of that into words. We’re not used to doing that. We have not really developed that intrinsically, the way that we have in conversation. Having conversations is such an extraordinarily sophisticated thing. We do it without thinking about it; we’re all really good at it.
What you don’t have on social media is the moments of laughter, the smiles, the gestures, none of that, that comes with the full embodiment, the full toolbox of human communication. That’s what it means: It means you have to translate all of that into words, or you will be misunderstood. People will take things personally. One of the most terrifying things about social media that we don’t think about is, we don’t witness people listening to us. I mean, that’s extremely important for human communication. You speak, and you watch the faces of those who are receiving you. Am I making sense? Is this resonating?
On social media, you write a whole thing, and then you hit publish. Some people like it. Some people don’t; they ignore it. It’s up to us to just guess what people really think. Most people, when they react—they don’t actually like it or leave a comment even. That’s only for the strongest reactions. We have no idea what people are thinking, which leads us to just dip into our imagination and imagine the worst in some cases or basically just let our anxiety direct our communication.
Whatever we’re worried about is going to determine what we say and don’t say. That’s what social media does. That makes it extremely hard for us to be candid, to really say what’s on our minds, to feel vulnerable and be safe, feeling vulnerable and true. If we’re not honest, what’s the point? That’s the challenge.
Having the Conversation
KLUTSEY: Yes. It’s interesting, whenever I speak to students about all these things, I oftentimes will get a question from one of the students who will say, “Hey, my dad voted for Trump. I’m a progressive; I disagree very much. How do I engage effectively with my dad?” As I said, the holidays are coming up. Do you have any tips for folks who are a little bit worried about these types of things? They’re going to be sitting at the dinner table with their families. Any tips that they can use?
GUZMÁN: Yes. For one, just because the holidays might be a time where this is your chance . . . If you want to bring something up that you’ve been curious about or you want to resolve or you’re even irritated about, doesn’t mean it has to happen around the dinner table. That’s a beautiful ritual of connection across this country. Lots of people want to keep it that way. That doesn’t mean that politics can’t come up. It just means that if it does, hopefully you or someone else at the table has a little bit of that sense of being a good host of an engaging conversation, making sure it’s productive and people feel heard, but that no one goes on the attack.
It’s different when someone brings something up or even snipes at you, “Oh, yes, Ben and what he did or what he believes.” Then it’s up to you to take the bait. How do you react? For some folks, well, if they just ignore it, then they’re letting this other person walk all over them, or here they go again. They feel weak and servile. It’s about finding language to say, “I know we disagree on this, and I’m happy to talk about it later, but for now, can you pass the salt?” And then going to that person and saying, “Hey, I know we disagree on this, and I know that it matters a lot to you. I’ve seen some of what you’ve said.” If it’s true, say, “I care about a relationship. I don’t want this to get between us. Let’s go have a slice of pie out on the deck and chat about it a bit. I’m good with that.”
A lot of it is having the conversation about the conversation. If you really want to show up with someone and do that and talk about it, don’t jump right in. Start humbly and ask for that buy-in. “Hey, Uncle Bob. I’ve sensed from some social media conversations that you and I have different opinions on this. I really do want to understand. I really do. I want to understand more where you’re coming from. I know that in the past”—if this is true—“I know that in the past, our conversations haven’t been that productive. I haven’t been paying as much attention to what I could do.”
Then you could say, “I know I interrupt a lot. I know sometimes I take things personally. I’m working on that. What do you say? Can we just take a few minutes? Can I just ask you a little bit about it?” You could begin like that, and then see what Uncle Bob says. Because the connection really does matter. It really does matter.
KLUTSEY: What you just said up there, I think, indicates that there has to be a certain disposition toward curiosity, that you’re just honestly and candidly and truly interested in wanting to learn something about someone else and treating this as a mystery and something to explore. That’s an important factor.
GUZMÁN: Yes. I think one of the things people miss, of course, is that our curiosity really comes with irritation. We want to change people’s minds. We’re tired of them; we can’t stand that they believe what they believe. Coming into conversations like that is not going to do anything good for you. It’s just not. Maybe if you have a really good relationship with this person, and there’s a lot of trust, and you’re already into banter and teasing and insulting in good faith, fine. That’s great. Most of us aren’t there.
You really have to ask yourself, and really your first conversation has to be with yourself. Am I here to prove something or to learn something? If I’m here to prove something, I don’t know, what good is that really going to do? Am I going to win? What do I think winning is? I’m not going to win. It’s an illusion.
KLUTSEY: I like how you put in the book. You said, “Winning is losing."
GUZMÁN: Yes, it’s totally losing. It really is an illusion. We imagine those mic-drop moments that we see in the movies. Those don’t exist.
KLUTSEY: Yes, and you still need the time, the attention, parity, the containment and the embodiment.
GUZMÁN: Yes, that’s real life. We have very, very few places where we can witness conversations in all their messiness the way they happen in real life. We believe a lot of fantasies about how conversations go and what it means to be strong and confident. They’re all wrong. They’re all wrong.
KLUTSEY: What do you do as a senior fellow for public practice? What does that mean? What does that look like?
GUZMÁN: Since my book came out in March, I’ve had the extraordinary privilege of being invited out to communities all across the country and sharing what I know but also learning from people’s questions and challenges. I’m sitting here obsessed with what’s in our way and what will it take for more people to find their own on-ramp into a better, braver way to communicate across difference. That’s my big question: What does it take? This role at Braver Angels for me is to open that funnel as wide as I possibly can, give myself the opportunities to listen as deeply as I possibly can.
I’ve probably written more words after my book than are in the book. I’m always taking notes about this conversation, I just had that conversation, the story someone shared, what does this mean? What about that? There’s so much more to explore, and I have no final answers on any of this. All I know—my only conviction is that we each have the power. We each have the power in our own lives to do this in a better way and in a way that can ripple out and really save our society from itself on some levels.
That’s my current obsession. And I’m doing it with my feet planted in this community at Braver Angels that has all these incredible people coming to this mission in their own way. I’m also just learning as much as I can from them. It’s a lot, but it’s pretty fun. It’s great.
Reasons for Optimism
KLUTSEY: It’s amazing. Having done this for a while, are you optimistic that we will move closer together as a nation, and that we will continue to improve upon our trust-building capabilities and resist the forces that seek to divide us?
GUZMÁN: I get more and more optimistic the more that I talk to folks one on one. Even elected officials in Congress that I’ve spoken to, none of them like this. They all know it’s broken, and they know that it’s getting in the way of their ability to govern, but they also feel powerless to change it. What’s interesting, though—and this is the same for people in media—what’s interesting is, they are the ones in the position to change it, but they feel alone, and they feel like they’re powerless. Then you go to the next congressman and the next person in media, and they all feel the same way.
At some point, I think we’re all going to lean forward and look around and be like, “Oh, we all want to change. Then what’s in our way?” I know that sounds naively simple, and it is, but I do believe in the power of people, people’s intention and people’s action. I think we’re creeping closer and closer, and I see the signals every day. We’re creeping closer and closer and closer to full-on straightforward agreement that a bunch of the stuff we’re doing is just toxic, and it needs to change. There’s great people working behind the scenes on this already, and I’m really excited for the day when it will be celebrated publicly in a way that accelerates the pace of all this change.
KLUTSEY: That’s wonderful. As we move toward the end of the conversation here, I was wondering whether you have a call to action for folks who are going to be reading your work and so on. You do say in the book, “Surprise yourself,” and I want you to unpack that a little bit.
GUZMÁN: The archenemy of curiosity is certainty. When you think you know, you won’t think to ask. For a lot of reasons, a lot of us are feeling pretty certain—certain that we know why other people think how they think, certain that those around us agree with us in the ways that we expect. But that’s not true. We are so divided, we’re blinded. The only way, I think, to see the real world around us and the real people around us is to invite surprise, is to ask questions.
When you think you already know the answers, you don’t. You may know what the media says about this group of people or people who made this choice. But you go and approach an individual, and you will find a unique story that will add a lot of complexity to what you think you know and will make your world bigger as a result.
The call to action is not to wake up a Zen master of curiosity tomorrow. It’s to just ask one more question in a conversation across difference. It’s to wait a little bit longer in a conversation and hear someone’s story before you jump in with your opinion. On the bus or wherever you happen to be, if someone’s reading a very different news source, ask them about it. Open up those conversations in your own life and lean in and listen, and take it as a way of absorbing knowledge that you can get curious about and that will start to mix in your head and make you say, “I never thought of it that way.”
KLUTSEY: I do want to be a Zen master of curiosity, though. Hopefully one day. What’s the next book?
GUZMÁN: I’m very much still processing this one, but there will be one.
KLUTSEY: You mentioned you’ve written a lot more since the book came out.
GUZMÁN: It’s true, and they’re loose notes all over the place. If I sat down, I could think of a hundred ideas, and I don’t know which one is going to be next. But I am going to be thinking about those values: curious, honest, useful, bold and inclusive, the most important being useful. I set out to write a book that would help people apply these things in their own lives and wouldn’t just explain an idea or a heady concept but could be really applicable. That’s what I will do next as well.
KLUTSEY: Mónica Guzmán, thank you so much for joining us for this discussion, really appreciate it.
GUZMÁN: Thank you, Ben. This was great.