Looking Beyond Anger and Judgment for Shared Concerns and Mutual Understanding
By Mónica Guzmán – Journalist, entrepreneur & director of digital and storytelling at Braver Angels
Divided We Fall: In the book, you recount your incredible bridge-building story with your parents. How can Americans who do not have a trusted family member or friend across the aisle productively engage with the other side?
Mónica Guzmán: We curse the Internet and social media for their role in fracturing us, but they also present a ginormous opportunity to encounter and understand other points of view. The trick is to listen long and listen well. Look behind any anger, judgment, and hyperbole for honest concerns and you can learn a lot. Most don’t appreciate lurkers or snipers who are only there to judge. Be aware of the judgments and assumptions that come up as you explore the conversation, notice when further listening fills in gaps in your understanding, and stay curious. Turn your judgments and assumptions into questions you can ask in a private message where you might introduce yourself and your intent to learn.
Conversations with others are always actually two conversations: your external dialogue with the other person and your internal dialogue with yourself. So even if you are in the deepest silo of all, you can still strengthen your curiosity just with that internal dialogue—even when you have no one else to talk to! Next time you see a headline in a popular source that expresses an opinion you oppose but is widely shared, and all you want to do is use the article to affirm your disgust or to find ammo for your next rhetorical battle, click on the piece with a goal of learning something. Read it while keeping two questions at the very forefront of your mind: “What is the genuine human concern behind what’s being said here?” and “What might be the strongest argument for this side of the issue?” You will naturally veer into judgment as you read. That’s fine, and useful—make note of those judgements. Turn them into questions (Do people who want the government more involved in regulating gun ownership want to take away people’s rights? Do people who want to outlaw more abortions stop caring about children after they’re born?) and come back to curiosity whenever you can.
Reorienting Our Mindsets
You discuss the difference between “deprivation” and “interest” based curiosity. Can you explain? How can we stay focused on interest-based curiosity when our instincts oftentimes sway us in the other direction?
Mónica Guzmán: To generalize research from Dr. Jordan Litman and others, deprivation-based curiosity is like a bad itch you’re dying to scratch. When will the vaccines be available? When will my government drop these mask mandates? Why in the world would someone support that terrible policy or candidate? You are driven to find an answer—any answer—because not having it stinks. With interest-based curiosity, it’s like opening a bunch of birthday presents. You’re driven to unpack answers not because it’s irritating not to have them, but because it’s exciting to find out what you’re gonna get.
With issues that really matter to you, where you’re confounded by or angry about other people’s opposing beliefs, switching from something like deprivation-based curiosity to something like interest-based curiosity is really tough and may not happen at all. Which is ok: simply being curious about an opposing view you’ve been largely judgmental about is plenty! The magic of interest-based curiosity—even if it only lasts a few moments in conversation—is that it makes it possible to enjoy parts of a learning process that would otherwise feel like a total slog. Those moments can fuel you up to listen longer and ask more and more perceptive questions, rather than leave the conversation relieved as soon as you find one rushed and semi-satisfying answer.
The best way to dip into interest-based curiosity across a big political divide is to turn the core of your attention from the issue to the person (which often happens naturally in good conversation). What led them to their views? What sparks, what passions, what divergent experiences have shaped their ways of thinking? Everyone is a bottomless mystery. Illuminating our paths illuminates a lot.
Recognizing our Limitations to Build Understanding
In Chapter 10, you cite research by David Smith on how, contrary to popular belief, we do not choose our opinions. Can you explain?
Mónica Guzmán: David Smith is a philosopher, and his argument that we do not “choose” our opinions—rather, they emerge over the course of our lives—was an “aha” moment for me. We debate and argue across big divides as if people could change their opinions as easily as we can change our clothes. But that’s not true. We couldn’t possibly: Many of our views have deep roots that go back through years of experiences and personal conclusions about what matters to us. It should take a lot more than some supposedly mic-dropping meme to shake us out of that!
This means recognizing that the thing we most want to do in a conversation with someone we disagree with—try to “win”—is not only extremely unlikely but also extremely counterproductive. Persuasion works when there’s trust, goodwill, and a baseline of understanding. When we judge and shame people we barely know and act as if they are holding on to opinions we don’t like for reasons we’re not curious about erodes trust even further. Persuasion stands no chance.
People can’t hear unless they’re heard. Hear people out on what led them to their views and they’re much more likely to hear you out on what led you to yours.
Finding Common Ground
You encourage readers to try to understand others’ concerns and values to find common ground. What are common stumbling blocks our readers might expect to come across?
Mónica Guzmán: When asking about each other’s concerns, people end up talking about their values and that is a goldmine of common ground. That may seem counterintuitive, as there is a misconception that people who don’t share opinions don’t share values. But we do share our values. We just rank them in a different order for different issues.
We do ourselves a disservice when we forget this (when we believe, for example, that people who support vaccine mandates don’t care about people’s freedom or that people who oppose vaccine mandates don’t care about people’s safety). Ask each other what concerns you have around tough issues, then keep asking. Tough issues put good values into tension with each other. More often than not, when you explore perspectives curiously, you’ll find those tensions inside yourselves, too.
Recently, Braver Angels hosted what we call a Braver Angels Community Debate around abortion. (Our community debates don’t declare winners but are structured to allow ordinary people on both sides of an issue to engage as much as possible in a collective search for truth.) Prompted to reflect on the prospect of very young, abused girls not being able to get abortions in some states, a woman with deep conviction for the pro-life stance broke down in tears as she imagined what she’d do if something like that happened to her 11-year-old daughter. “I’d want to protect her,” she said, “and I don’t know what that means.”
Mónica Guzmán, author of I Never Thought of It That Way, is a bridge builder, journalist, and entrepreneur who lives for great conversations sparked by curious questions. She’s director of digital and storytelling at Braver Angels, the nation’s largest cross-partisan grassroots organization working to depolarize America. A Mexican immigrant, Latina, and dual US/Mexico citizen, she lives in Seattle with her husband and two kids and is the proud liberal daughter of conservative parents.