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Featuring guest Mónica Guzmán

Mónica Guzmán | The Gift of Curiosity

In a world of increasing division, Mónica Guzmán offers advice for approaching conversation with curiosity


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In a world of increasing division, Mónica Guzmán offers advice for approaching conversation with curiosity

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In a world of increasing division, Mónica Guzmán offers advice for approaching conversation with curiosity. When we attempt to understand those who we disagree with, instead of merely attempting to change their beliefs, we are able to see people more fully and to even learn more about our own beliefs and ideas.

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  • Originally aired on January 26, 2023
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Transcript

Guzmán:

When you give somebody the gift of your interest in them, and it is not accusatory, it is curious, it is not cold, it is warm, for most people most of the time, that’s a surprise. 

I am Mónica Guzmán, I am the author of I Never Thought of it That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times. And I’m Senior Fellow for public practice at Braver Angels.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump. I’m very happy to be back at the microphone after some time away. I’ll have more to say about that in some future episodes. But for now we’re just going to jump back into things. 

Today’s conversation is a conversation about conversation. Mónica Guzmán is a journalist and has built a career out of talking to all kinds of different people about all kinds of different topics, but always driven by curiosity about who a person is and where they come from. But in the past few years she started to notice a relational shift toward what seemed like a waning of curiosity, not only in people she disagreed with but in people she did agree with, who seemed uninterested in trying to understand what was at the heart of a disagreement. Curiosity was replaced with assumptions and stereotypes and even hatred at times. And so she struck out to see if she could figure out what was going on and maybe even help to change it. And that exploration resulted in a book called I Never Thought of That Way. And we’ll talk about that in the interview. 

BioLogos is committed to gracious dialogue, though it’s not always easy or what comes naturally. And it’s always good to be reminded to be driven by curiosity, which is another way, I think, of being driven by love. And so, as we attempt to follow the example of Jesus, who spent his time with so many people across political and social divides, curious and interested in who they were, and motivated by love, we’d all do well to take some of Mónica’s advice, to go out into the world, curious and interested and open to what we might learn. 

Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Stump:

Mónica Guzmán, welcome to the podcast. 

Guzmán:

Hey, thanks for having me.

Stump:

So the main topic of our conversation is going to be having conversations, particularly with people who aren’t just like ourselves. But before we jump right into that we like to get to know our guests a little bit. And interestingly for you, your life story is directly connected to the kind of work you do on conversation. So if you would start just by giving us a little bit of autobiography. Where did you grow up? What was your family like?

Guzmán:

Yeah, so I was born in Mexico. And in the year 2000, after we’d lived in the States a number of years, me and my family became US citizens. And it was right at that moment that something interesting happened. I came home from high school and plopped my bag down in the office. And I looked up and I saw a Bush, Cheney campaign sign over my parent’s desk. And I was stunned and I shouldn’t have been. I was very liberal minded and was already leaning Democrat, and my parents were clearly going straight the other direction. So what followed after that was lots of years of talking about our, you know, now adopted country and what we thought was best for it, lots of screaming matches. I grew up in New Hampshire, for the most part. And we spoke Spanish as a family. There weren’t a lot of Spanish speakers around us. So we’d go out to restaurants a lot. And I’m pretty sure that we felt more comfortable speaking at a higher volume, because we knew that everyone else around us couldn’t understand. We were background noise anyway.

Stump:

So you’ve gotten into this work that we’ll talk about here of conciliation, of depolarization. Is there anything going back into your childhood or growing up that at least in retrospect, you look back and say that was maybe pointing me toward this kind of work? Were you the peacemaker on the playground? Or trying to—?

Guzmán:

Oh, what a funny way, yeah, funny way to put it. I was a shy kid. For the most part. I remember, I took some kind of assessment to hint at what career I should go into. And I expressed just a little bit of an interest in communications. And the results came back saying, you shouldn’t do communications, you’re just, you’re not very good with people. I was like. “Really? That’s too bad.” So that changed. I do remember this. I remember being in my school cafeteria and observing all the girls getting up as a group to go to the bathroom together. And I remember being so annoyed by that. Even if I had to go to the bathroom, I wouldn’t. So I do go back and I detect a sort of allergy to groupthink and to tribes that I wonder might have affected. Conformity makes me cringe.

Stump:

Well give us a few stops, then along the way toward becoming what you are now. How did this happen that you’re the Senior Fellow with Braver Angels?

Guzmán:

Yeah, well, it wasn’t very hard for me to figure out that journalism was what I needed to do. I loved writing. I was the movie reviewer for my college weekly, Bowdoin College in Maine. Before that in high school, maybe even in junior high, my dad, who is a computer programmer, helped me set up a movie review website, it was called Phantasmia’s Movie Musings. I loved movies. I grew up watching lots of movies. And in fact, that ends up being interesting too, because it wasn’t until fourth grade or so out in the recess field, that it finally dawned on me that all my friends did not go see a movie in the movie theater every week, the way that I did. And my parents took us to the movies every week. It was very unusual. Movies are extraordinary, right? They’re a little bit of fiction, most of them, and they end up telling you stories where you have to understand the character’s motivations or nothing makes sense. And so as I went into journalism, there’s a thread there where I thought, everybody has their reasons. The question is, whether I know them or understand them, or I don’t. Nobody’s crazy. Nobody’s out of their minds. You know? People do what they do for a reason. And it’s just whether you know those reasons or not. I did an internship because I knew I loved writing in journalism, my freshman year of college. And I remember sitting outside an old movie theater in New Hampshire, an independent movie theater that had just played a movie called My Big Fat Greek Wedding. 

Stump:

Oh, yeah, I remember that.

Guzmán:

Remember that? I was interning for New Hampshire Public Radio. They had given me a seven minute feature. I was a little squawky squeaky thing, you know. They actually gave me voice deepening lessons, because I sounded like a child. That was—I don’t know that that actually helped. But I remember getting completely lost in this person’s story, the owner of this movie theater, and why he created it. And it was a beloved institution in this town in New Hampshire, and it was part of the renaissance of independent cinema. And I just told myself, this is, if I can have conversations like this, where I disappear into people’s stories and learn about them, and then get this enormous responsibility and honor of trying to explain them to their community, I will die happy. This is what I need to do.

Stump:

Nice. Okay, well, we’re a podcast that’s normally talking about science and religion. And a lot of why we want to talk to you is because of the kinds of conversations that we have to have, that we get to have, with people who often believe very differently on those kinds of topics. So we’re gonna get into that a little bit. But before we do, is there anything from your background in science or religion, or the intersection of those two, that might be interesting?

Guzmán:

Oh, yeah. You know, yeah, I don’t usually get asked this. I was raised Catholic, my whole family being Mexican, it’s a fairly prominent religion there. I went through the church, and I got confirmed. And within a year or two of getting confirmed, I completely lost my faith. And I actually remember the moment. So I’m not a practicing Catholic anymore. I’m, I don’t know how I would describe, you know, religious belief or lack thereof. And as far as science, I did major in sociology in college and social sciences. I loved it, I loved it. And the phrase that sticks with me is from sociology, is “live life in the form of a question,” always wonder, why do we do what we do. And it makes for a very curious, very curious living.

Stump:

Well, let’s talk about curiosity. So you have this new book out that I’m holding up to the microphone for the help of our listeners. It’s not quite working out. I Never Thought of it That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times. I found this really interesting. Give us the elevator speech for the book, and then we’ll dig in and a little deeper on a few of the parts that stood out to me.

Guzmán:

Yeah, so the main thesis is, it begins with this that we are so divided, we’re blinded. There’s all this research that shows us that when people on one or another side of the political divide are asked to estimate the views on the other, they grossly exaggerate. I mean, to the point that you have to wonder, how can we pretend to be informed when we’re not informed about each other? When we don’t know about each other’s perspectives, we are judging each other more, while engaging each other less. This is a vicious cycle that takes us away from reality. But at the same time, we’re plagued by certainty, and we’re plagued by fear. And it turns out that these are two arch villains of curiosity. And curiosity is this mental capacity we all have, there’s this misconception that curiosity is a personality trait. It’s not. It’s a practice. We can all do it. And it’s the power of a perceptive question to bust through the barriers between us is astounding. So the book spends four fifths of the time—only one fifth is dealing with how we got here. The rest of it is, this is how we can put curiosity to work. This is how we can change the mindset, the approach and the tactics and the contexts of our conversations across disagreement so that we can enrich our perspectives, by learning about others so that we get out of this stuck place where we believe that we already know everything we need to know about those people. And we get out of that. So yeah, it’s mostly solutions and tactics and strategies.

Stump:

Good. Okay, so this is super interesting and very relevant to the kind of work we do. And I think super relevant to everybody who lives in this country today, right? So I want to walk through some of the different aspects of this that you bring out and have you tell us a little bit more about them. So the first one that I want to talk about are these three spheres of discourse that we ought to have with any person. So the sphere of consensus and the sphere of legitimate discourse and the sphere of deviance. Can you tell us about these and why we really need to be paying attention to them when we’re looking to have conversation with somebody else?

Guzmán:

Yeah, so this model goes back decades. It’s called Hallin’s spheres. So he talked about, in a society, discourse is split up into these spheres. The sphere of consensus is, you know, the sky is blue. Nobody’s arguing about that. Right? The sphere of legitimate discourse is those debates that are alive and that are valid, and that are accepted as debates, you know, guns, abortion, there’s some really tough ones. There’s some not so tough ones, red light cameras, you know, speed traps, that kind of thing.

Stump:

So these are the kinds of things where we recognize that other people have legitimate differences from us. 

Guzmán:

Yeah, there’s legitimate differences. Now, there, you know, we can talk about the edges of abortion and guns, there’s enough animosity and strength of thinking that’s for some people, it goes into the other sphere, which is deviance. So deviance is, “man, the people who hold these beliefs, right, these beliefs are just off.” We don’t consider them legitimate areas of debate.

Stump:

So I’m wondering if there’s some way of determining what those topics are very easily? Or is it just something I have to test out? And I see what somebody’s reaction is when I bring up something like that? Or if I hear that they’re a flat earther? Am I immediately like, oh, well, I guess this conversation is not going very far.

Guzmán: 

Right. I mean, a lot of it is exactly that. It’s a gut feel, it’s a reaction. But for the most part, there are shared ideas of where the boundaries between these spheres are. The thing is that in the last 10 years or so, there’s been so much tension and anxiety, and so much transition in our society, that for a lot of folks, where the heat is getting turned up really high things that would have previously been seen as being in the sphere of legitimate discourse, are now for them in the sphere of deviance. This tends to happen at our political extremes, where people say, man, if at this point, you believe that, you know, this legitimate thing, 20 years ago, then you are, you’re crazy, you’re deviant. I don’t want to engage with you because I dismiss you, I condescend to you, something’s wrong with you. Now, there are deviant beliefs that lots of people do accept, right? Something about racism seems pretty darn deviant, right? Something about being a Nazi, something about thinking you’re going to jump off the roof of your house and fly. You know, you can put a lot of these things in there. But for some folks too, there’s a fear that deviant beliefs are coming into the sphere of legitimate discourse when they ought not to.

Stump:

Okay, so maybe one of the ways to get us past there is something that you say here in the book, which is what happens in the world matters. But our interpretation of what happens in the world matters more. That doesn’t mean we should pay any less attention to facts, it means we should pay more attention to perspectives. Unpack that a little bit for us, and how it might help us understand that these others are maybe not quite as different from us as we thought they might be.

Guzmán:

Yeah, I mean, the key part here, I think, is that we tend to forget, in our world, where the power really lies. The power lies with people. The only agents of change or any activity at all, are people. Now institutions, obviously very important, very, very structurally significant. They certainly organize their activity, you know, ideas, very important, they flow around, some get stronger, some get weaker, but everything starts and stops with people. And so, you know, events and news and the things that happen, yes, they are really important. But it’s really, really critical that we understand how all these events are flowing into the minds and lives and values of people and how they sit and how they filter and how they get interpreted and what it means for, you know, the hopes and the fears and the concerns that people have. That is where our political self comes out. And politics—as much as we all cringe hearing the word—it’s really about how we thrive together. It’s about how we improve and how we progress together across so much difference, which is something this country is known for, and it’s a beautiful part of us. Like we are at the most difficult level of trying to form cohesion when we have so much difference, and we’ve taken on this task, and we’ve done relatively well, and I have faith that we can continue.

Stump:

So I want to talk a little bit more about this difference between ideas and people. Because this is another thing that comes out in your book that I thought was really important, because it seems to me, and from our own work at BioLogos in dialogue with people who disagree about what we think are facts about the world, scientific facts about the world, that we have long conversations with, I’ve found that it’s a lot easier to be dismissive and even disrespectful of ideas and maybe the caricature I have of people who hold these ideas, as opposed to when I actually get to know those people and spend time with them, and realize that okay, these things that they believe why I don’t agree with, it doesn’t seem quite as crazy, as it did just in the abstract. Is that a fair way of putting that? 

Guzmán:

Yes, absolutely. And I think one of the things to keep in mind, especially when—and a lot of us are in these situations where you get the sense, I don’t want to approach that invalid idea, what to me is an invalid idea, therefore, I don’t want to approach people who might hold that idea. And the key distinction here is you don’t think of approaching an invalid idea. Think of approaching a valid person. So there’s a really interesting distinction between what’s true and what’s meaningful that I think is worth bringing up. And this comes from my friend and author Buster Benson. He talks about how there’s three types of conversations across disagreement: the conversation about what’s true, the conversation about what’s meaningful, and the conversation about what’s useful. And because it’s ultimately all about people and we tend to forget that, as soon as we come up to a wall in our conversation where there’s a disagreement about what’s true, and it is strong, right, then it feels like we have two options. Either I sit here and yell and convince you to change your mind and agree with what I see as reality, or I walk away, right? We’re done, there’s nothing else I can do. And so for when we think that’s the only option, it’s worth it to remember that you can also have the conversation about what’s meaningful, and that, in fact, that’s the more important conversation to have, at that moment. The conversation about what’s meaningful. Again, people’s fears, concerns, hopes, that is what builds trust. And once you build trust, hopefully, you can get to a point where you calibrate your perspectives enough that you can begin to say, okay, thank you for sharing that with me. It makes sense why you see things this way. Can I tell you why I see it differently? Can I tell you what I mean? And once people have, you know, if you imagine that point of conversation or kind of warmth, right, a kind of calibration. That’s what brings persuasion back from the dead. Because basically, the persuasive ability of the society to keep talking up the good ideas, is endangered when there’s so little trust. I mean trust has just dried up, right? We need to build that back. We do that by talking about what’s meaningful, not requiring each other to agree first with what’s true.

Stump:

Okay, so there are several parts of that I want to probe a little bit more. That last part of the transition that may bring us back to persuasion, I want to come back to, but first before we get there, conversation has to be a two way street almost by definition right? And you said in your elevator speech at the beginning that curiosity isn’t just a personality trait, which is interesting, because if I had written down here, one of my questions about are some people more curious by nature than others. And so you can talk further about that if you want. I mean, I wonder if there are some ideologies that curiosity tracks more with than others, but regardless of that, if people can be trained to become curious, there has to be a willingness to do this. And again, I’m speaking from our own experience at BioLogos here where there’s one group that we very productively entered into conversation with some people who disagreed. We tried the same with another group that said, we don’t want to do that. I mean, you have to find people that are willing to reciprocate, or do you? Is there is there a way of even having conversation of entering into of you trying to learn something about this other group, even if they don’t  want to learn anything about you back or is that a non-starter?

Guzmán:

Well, I know that that is possible because I’m a journalist, and that’s an interview. So that’s certainly possible. Curiosity is contagious. There is—and here’s why. There’s a bedrock principle that I think informs a lot of everything we’re talking about, and that is that people cannot hear unless they are heard. People cannot hear unless they feel heard. So when you give somebody the gift of your interest in them and it is not accusatory, it is curious, you know, it is not cold, it is warm. For most people most of the time, that’s a surprise. That co mes, you know, it depends on what your relationship is obviously, you know, hopefully they don’t think you’re playing some agenda, you’re playing some game. If you build up to that point, you really want to know about them. This reminds me, not long ago, I became aware of something that happens fairly regularly but without my awareness. I was meeting up with a friend, but we had some stuff we had to do, right. And so we only have a little bit of time to do it. But something kind of cool had just happened to me. And you know, she could see it on my face, I guess, because she said, “Hey, how’s your day?” And I said, “Oh, you know, like, really good. We’re having a good day.” And I just figured she wants to keep going, we got to get stuff done. But she said, “Well, what happened? Like what’s going on? Tell me about it.” And I begin to tell her and again, I kept clipping my answers thinking she, we just need to get to work. But she kept asking questions. “Tell me more about that.” And I just realized, oh, yeah, she’s a friend, it’s okay for me to share these parts of myself. Now, I’ll say this too a lot of times, there is an asymmetry. A lot of times, there’s an asymmetry in the amount of curiosity that people bring in. Curiosity is really interesting. It’s a craving for knowledge. But it doesn’t work like hunger or thirst and hunger. And when you’re hungry, you’re hungry until you eat, you’re thirsty until you drink. You’re curious, only as long as your attention is on the gap between what you know, and what you don’t know, what you know, and what you want to know. As soon as your attention is diverted, you’re no longer curious. And if your attention is not in that gap between what you know, and what you want to know, you’re not aware of that gap, you don’t see a gap, you’re not curious. It’s as simple as that. So it can take some seeding and some openness, just to see where those gaps might be that you become curious about. The more that people come into prospective conversations with judgments, preconceived notions, certainties, the less curious they are likely to be when you think you know, you won’t think to ask. So this is particularly relevant when we claim to stereotypes and labels. A lot of the asymmetry that I see in politically contentious conversations comes when, you know, let’s say I’m a liberal, you’re conservative, or vice versa, right? And I come in and go, Oh, that’s a liberal. And I know what a liberal is, and I know exactly what he’s gonna say. So I’m just here for the battle. I’m not curious, I think you are a stand in for something in my head. Right, instead of seeing you as a person that I don’t know. And a lot of us are doing this and are killing our curiosity as a result.

Stump:

Do you have any stories, either success or failure stories of trying to enter into conversation with people who were resistant to that, and the successes of eventually, them becoming curious as well, or we’ve other stories where we tried this, we tried, and then we try it again, and it just didn’t work?

Guzmán:

Let’s see one that comes to mind. I learned about on my book tour, I think I was in California, and I met a woman who is very liberal, very pro-choice. And she had learned that her daughter, who was also liberal and pro choice had become close friends with a boy who was very conservative and pro life. And she wasn’t particularly open to ever having that conversation. And she was pretty suspicious, just because of knowing that that difference existed. But over time, got to know this boy, and, you know, they started having conversations like when, you know, he was over and whatnot. And they ended up in this conversation where she had what I call an I-never-thought-of-it-that-way moment. They ended up with opening that door a crack and then just talking about abortion. And she learned some of his reasons for being pro-life that she, you know, had never really considered, or at least not through a warm relationship. And then at the end, she realized she had a really interesting thought. And she thought, oh my gosh, maybe there’s a part of me that wants my daughter to end up with someone like him. Because if she were to get pregnant, he would have so much responsibility and so much respect, you know, for what would happen next, rather than sort of dismissing it, right. And so she had never thought of it that way. She had never kind of taken the time. So she brought that up at an event that I did because it was something that surprised her and made her realize there’s a lot that I might be missing about the other side of this divide and debate. And it may not all be malevolent and it may not all be against me or against women. and whatnot.

Stump:

And it grew out specifically of learning more of his story, right?

Guzmán:

Right, exactly. And it began with, just get to know the person, right. And then that door begins, it begins to crack open until aha, maybe you can talk about this thing that seems scary and learn something that you didn’t expect.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hey Language of God listeners. If you enjoy the conversations you hear on the podcast, we just wanted to let you know about our website, biologos.org, which has articles, videos, book reviews, and other resources for pastors, students, and educators. We also have an active online forum. We discuss each podcast episode, but it goes far beyond that, with lots of open discussions on all kinds of topics related to science and faith. Find it all at biologos.org.

Interview Part Two

Stump: 

Okay, so you give a real practical tip in the book for how to gauge when such conversations may be ready to happen. And you talk almost about like this device that I wonder if you’re getting a patent for that has all these dials on it? Can you walk us through this a little bit? The five dials of time, attention, parity, containment and embodiment. What are these and how do they factor into us determining whether a conversation like this, like we want to have is ready to happen?

Guzmán:

Right. So before you even think of what you want to say, how you’re going to approach the conversation, you have to think about the context. Where is the space, the platform that you’re even trying to have this conversation? What are the conditions around the conversation that make success or failure more or less likely? And so the abbreviation that a reader just came up with, that I can’t believe I missed is EPACT. So embodiment, parity, which is P-A-R-I-T-Y not about humor, but power, attention, containment and time. So embodiment is—I tend to gesture a lot, which our listeners cannot tell. But it’s the whole, it’s the face, it’s the arms, it’s how your body and all the tools the human has, it’s that. It’s really important. Maybe the most important one, the one I’ve really become conscious of is laughter. When, you know, when you see a written conversation or a transcript, they never transcribe the giggles, never. [Jim giggles] And too bad, right? Because you can see the connections forming with every little bit of laughter. Parity is about whether you are on an equal playing field on the platform.

Stump:

You say this is the toughest one to measure too, of these fine.

Guzmán:

This one’s tricky, because it’s so different. And it’s so intangible. But you know, on Facebook, for example, if I’m posting something and you’re commenting who has the power? Well, I do. I can hide you, I can block you. And I’ve already kind of conditioned my audience or whatnot to just agree with me or go away. Then we have attention. And this one can be tough with platforms as well. If you’ve ever been on a zoom call online, and you’re looking at someone you’re talking to, and suddenly their face gets really bright. That might be a cue that they’re looking at another tab [Jim laughs] on their browser, that just became really bright. It’s very, very hard to know, unless you’re totally in person, if you actually have the other person’s full attention. Then there is containment. And this one, I think, is probably the most important. The extent to which your conversation is actually contained to the people engaging in it. So there’s so many spaces on social media where we have an invisible mass audience, it’s like a panopticon, we end up performing our perspectives, instead of exploring them together. Because we don’t know who’s listening. But we imagine all our insecurities project, you know, bad things. We better behave, we better conform to whatever our group would expect of us. And then finally, time. A lot of times we bring up tough topics when someone’s out the door, or feeling stressed or under pressure. This is not a time when you’re going to be reflective, you’re going to be reactive, you’re going to want to try to close the door and move on. 

So the conditions of great conversations where you’re really going to get across a big divide may be more rare, but not as rare as you think. The important thing is this, wherever a conversation starts is not where it needs to stay. Everybody makes this mistake. It starts on Twitter, it stays on Twitter. Noo! No! Please pick up the phone, right? Take it at least to a private message where containment is higher. Whatever you need to do to turn up the dial. Can we talk about this later? And time? Right? Can we meet up at attention? Can we get on the phone? Add—what am I thinking that I’m missing? Oh, add everything else you can add the at least the embodiment of your voice, right? So and the containment. Containment so important.

Stump:

That one seems so important to me, and particularly in our day and age where say having television cameras in the halls of Congress has not helped the kind of conversations that happen there when it becomes more about a performance for my followers than it is genuine. That’s the kind of thing you’re talking about. Right? Where–

Guzmán:

Absolutely, and we don’t pay enough attention to the plague that this represents for our elected leaders. They have so many of their resources, go to the show, you know, and is our country a show? Is that really what we want?

Stump:

Okay, let’s talk about Braver Angels. So this is an organization you became involved with. We at BioLogos are pretty interested in that because our founder Francis Collins has also been heavily involved with the organization too, having conversations with somebody that’s on the opposite side of things like vaccines and the role that government should be playing in such things. So for those who haven’t heard of it, tell us a little bit about the organization, what It aspires to accomplish.

Guzmán:

So Braver Angels is the largest cross partisan, grassroots organization committed to depolarizing America, which is a tall order. 

Stump:

That’s a lofty goal. 

Guzmán:

But we have, you know, 50,000 members, or 50,000 new subscribers, we’ve got over 10,000 members, we’ve got almost 90 chapters across the country that we call alliances, cities and towns. We have the Braver Angels rule, at every level of leadership, there must be 50%, red conservative leaning, and 50%, blue, liberal leaning leadership. So that’s extremely important to us. And when I first encountered the organization, I thought it was impossible. I thought, wait a minute, this exists. And the bread and butter and where it started is workshops, it’s experiences where people from either side of the political divide, come together, get through this structure that either trains up, build skills to bridge the divide, or we have a workshop called families divided by politics, which helps you understand the roles that different family members play around the Thanksgiving table, and how to how to help bring you know the kind of productive engagement to that context. We have our depolarizing within workshops, because frankly, this curiosity begins when you aim it inward, and you understand where your biases are, and your stereotypes and your own curiosities. But the idea of Braver Angels is, once you experience illumination across the divide, once you see that you are, you know, that you might have been pretty wrong about this or that judgment, you go, what else am I wrong about right? And there’s a sort of humility and openness that people get from it. And so you might take more workshops, or you might just export some of those questions and some of those norms and skills that you’ve learned into your own life. What’s really exciting now is we have something called Braver Politics, and Braver Politics is taking these workshops and these methods into the halls of power. So we’ve done our workshops with sitting members of Congress, with the problem solvers caucus in DC, with the legislature in New Hampshire, in Minnesota, and it’s just spreading. And we’ve also done, we have our signature Braver Angels debates which are like nothing you’ve ever heard, the most heated issues, we get folks to give speeches, you know, for and against, they do not hold back, they speak without fear their full truth and meaning and perspective. And then people ask curious non-accusatory questions to better understand. I have to date, I have never—I’ve seen a lot of media, I’ve never seen a kind of conversation where so much of the truth of the perspectives of both sides actually gets to come out. It’s extremely illuminating, and it complicates what’s become way too simple.

Stump:

So I’m wondering if the kind of people you get to agree to be involved in something like this is that a selection sample error than for it being a reflection of the full— If you’re finding people that are willing to enter into those kinds of things, there must already be some kind of willingness to listen to the other side. So are you—this is the, you know, the cynical question coming out in me—are you only converting the people who are already willing to do this? Or is there some way— You say you’re taking these into the halls of Congress, so there must be some elements that no, you really are working on people for whom this is not their natural tendency to want to engage?

Guzmán:

Oh, absolutely. And I mean, it is logical that it is true that, you know, folks who may not be as extreme on the partisan side, have a shorter path to some of these methods and to some of these events. But that being said, there are paths that bring folks from, you know, the more partisan sides right to us. A lot of people’s stories, when we ask what brought you to Braver Angels starts with pain, pain in their families, you know, pain in their communities, where they go, something’s broken. I don’t know what to do. But somebody told me about Braver Angels so I’m going to check it out. And I have met a lot of incredible people with extraordinary stories that are a lot like that. And so they didn’t come, you know, because their politics are moderate or extreme. They came because something has broken, that shouldn’t be broken, and they need to figure out what’s going on. So there’s a lot of that, frankly. So Braver Angels started, our co-founder is a marriage therapist. Just the analogy is between republicans, democrats and couples on the brink of divorce. Except that in America, divorce is not an option. You know, it shouldn’t be. We’ve got to figure this out. So yeah, our workshops are based on methods and family therapy. And they’ve been studied by Brown University and others, and shown to have depolarizing effects.

Stump:

So how long has it been going on? When was it founded?

Guzmán:

Just right at the top of 2017, right after the 2016 election.

Stump:

So are we far enough in yet to know any results? I mean, you have this big lofty goal of depolarizing America. How are we measuring that? Or how can you tell if it’s working?

Guzmán:

Yeah, I mean, I mentioned, you know, there’s been research that has, you know, scientifically looked at the methods and shown that they do work. We have reached 10s of 1000s of people with these events, and it has spread around the country. This is a movement too. It’s not just Braver Angels, there’s lots of organization, there’s a sort of bridging space now, that’s rising, and that you can see beginning to rise, even within media, within politics, lots of lots of civic organizations are turning their attention to this problem of polarization, lots of nonprofits and philanthropic organizations. So that’s where I think there’s a lot of excitement, is more and more people are saying, “enough of this nonsense. We can’t take much more of this.” And if we continue to wait for politicians or media to figure it out, they’re even more exhausted than we are, you know? The systems they’re in incentivize so much division, it’s so difficult to escape. They need our help, you know? So I think that the more we understand the contexts that we’re in, and how they tend to trap us, and the more that we begin to behave differently. It’s this behavior that is going to chip away at these systems. At least that’s what I believe, that yes, there’s gonna have to be some top down some real structural reforms, but we can’t make the real change we need without the grassroots movement, you know, without people themselves saying, me changing the way I have my conversations is not too little. It’s actually required. It’s what we need to do. I need to show other people there’s a different way, I need to up my curiosity, I need to turn up the dials. I need to say no to the stuff that divides us. 

This reminds me of a moment. So Bill Doherty, a co-founder of Braver Angels did a workshop recently. And one of the attendees was a blue liberal leaning landlord. And apparently, he had gotten to the point where he would not rent to a conservative, if he knew someone were conservative he said, I’m not renting to you. That’s how angry he was. The end of the workshop, he came up to Bill with tears in his eyes. He had spent the workshop talking with someone conservative and getting to know them. And he said that he told the conservative man, “you know, I disagree with everything you just said. But powerful people want us to hate each other. Let’s not do it.”

Stump:

Okay, so that’s powerful. Because then the question, the next question I was going to ask was related to these systemic issues, and the path by which individuals and their own stories can help to change that. And I was going to talk specifically about media. And so long as media keeps showing us what the masses want to see, which is conflict and the most extreme voices, is the way around that for us to just say, I’m no longer going to listen to that news story? I mean, how do how do our individual stories change something that taps so deeply into, I’m afraid, human nature and wanting to see the spectacle of—

Guzmán:

Oh, I mean, that is the question. That’s exactly the question. I mean, as a journalist, I can tell you, I know, the people in journalism who have also had enough and are changing things. And it’s gonna be hard, but they’re working on it. You know, the best journalists have always been the most curious and they know that something’s broken, and they’re working on it. But again, this is an example I think of where we forget our own power, right? And we tell ourselves, well, the media is this way. So we’re just helpless. So I’ll tell you, I mean, just an example. For me, I thought it would be impossible. But I took email off my phone, I took social media off my phone, and my life is so much better. I did this in May. And the amount that my mind has opened up to more questions between me in the world and those people I’m with is just extraordinary. I’m not as reactive. So I’m more proactive, and I let my curiosity guide me a lot more. But that’s just one tiny example, right? There’s Amanda Ripley, who’s a friend and an incredible journalist and thinker talks about how news itself has to change. And she wrote a wonderful column in the Washington Post. News should be giving people agency and dignity and how important those things are and how in media we seem to have forgotten that or we’ve gotten so you know, addicted to addiction that we need to get people to click, we need people’s attention at all costs. And pay in journalism, the economics are pretty harsh, you know, if you can’t get people’s attention, you die. We don’t have geographic boundaries anymore to sort of give everybody a space. There is no small pond in journalism. It’s one giant pond, and you have to stand out. So how do you do that? By making loyal audiences. How do you get loyal audiences? By connecting with them emotionally, and trying to carve us versus them division so that they know who they are, and they know who they hate. This is bad for us. It’s good for the economics of media, and it’s bad for us. So good people are working this out. But in the meantime, I think individuals do have to exercise their own power. No, you are not helpless. No, there is not no way to escape, you know, the psychological sorts of baiting that that we get. As you read articles that represent different perspectives from yours, try not to get baited by the anger, look behind the anger and ask yourself, what deep down concern is this person expressing that I may not share? You can still get curious, you can still find a way to think differently, as you read about different ideas.

Stump:

One more topic, I’d like to push on a little bit here. And you referred to it earlier. And so the yes or no question was does truth matter in all of this? And I know your answer is going to be yes. But let me see if I can motivate it this way. So much of the ideological divide occurs because what seems true and correct and good to one side is diametrically opposed to the other. And too much of our conversation about a topic is just in my own echo chamber and simply reasserts how obviously right we are and how wrong the others are. And your work is so important here at showing how unhelpful that approach is, and pushing for genuine curiosity, trying to understand this other side. How did you come to believe these things, spending time asking good questions. But then let’s talk about whether there is a next step. Because the goal isn’t just to understand each other better and eliminate the rancor. Right? That’s a wonderful goal. But it doesn’t stop there. Can this approach lead to actually resolving questions about who’s right? Can I even ask it that way? Or is the and again, this has motivated a lot by our own work here that we’ve had dialogue with people that we’ve gotten to know better and have respected and have stopped being mean and snippy over the Internet to each other. But it never resolved with “oh and we now accept that you’re right about this.” It never got to that point. So is there hope for this kind of method, you’re talking about to eventually resolve some of those questions? Or do we just say, It’s good enough if we stop fighting about them?

Guzmán:

Well, when we stop fighting about it, we can start actually getting constructive in our conversation. So that’s step one, right? And a big part of the book, and a big part of the conversation right now is just getting to where we can be constructive. So it comes back to that bedrock principle. People can only hear when they’re heard, you’re not really having that kind of conversation until and unless you understand where each other is coming from. You’ve asked those questions, you’ve had that conversation. But you’re right, the next step is okay, and then what happens then? And so, I think one thing to really keep in mind that I’ll say two ways. One is, even if we were the most utopian, zen-like society, we would have deep disagreements, man. We’re a democracy. There is no absolute right and wrong, that we just need to get the naysayers to stand down on. There’s a term called wicked issues. The wicked issues are abortions, guns, immigrations, the ones that never die. And it’s not because bad people are standing in the way of progress necessarily, it’s because those issues put good values into tension with each other. Right? Immigration puts the values of self direction, you know, people’s freedom to move with concerns about security, and benevolence, which is caring for those nearer to us. You know, abortion puts the value of the sacredness of life with the freedom of people, you know, to get to do what they want with their lives. These are good values. It’s not that one always trumps the other, right? So what we see instead is that as society evolves and changes, you know, where these values stack in relation to each other might change sometimes and other times not. A great example is 911. After 911, at airport security, you know, the value of collective security became the preeminent concern over the freedom to move quickly through the airport. And so we all were like cool. Department of Homeland Security makes sense, right? And we accepted changes and norms. So I think it’s really important for people to remember that if we remain in tension forever on these issues, that’s probably good. Some of these issues, will they get resolved? Well, here’s the thing, if we can make persuasion effective again. So as I was saying before, the point of this is not just to understand each other and go home, the point is to allow the best ideas to come to the top. But also to allow our humility to make room for compromise to make room for I see what you’re saying. So how about this? Right? How about that? What if we tried it this way? And that’s the way progress really happens. But again, when we’re vilifying each other, when we’re not even listening, when we don’t know the walls we’re putting up against others and their perspectives, we’re miles away from that. But that’s where the hope is. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to resolve all these issues for all time, but it means that we can do a great job answering the most important question, what is the best balance for now? What is the best solution to these wicked issues? For now, where we can put these tensions into balance? What actions do we take? That’s a really, really healthy society.

Stump:

That brings us back to one of the passages I read from your book, back clear back at the beginning of our conversation that it doesn’t mean we should pay less attention to facts, because that’s the truth side of things that I was just pushing on right trying to sort out which are the facts, which are which are true, but it means we should pay more attention to perspectives. And that strikes me as where these value commitments that you speak of are so much more intertwined with who we are and our stories, and it’s not simply a matter of being able to go out and tell whether your beliefs are correct or not.

Guzmán:

Right. Precisely, these big questions in our lives and in our society are not a simple matter of what is true and what is not. It’s about what fits and what doesn’t. And for that we need to know each other. We need to get to know what fitting us means.

Stump:

Well, this has been a fascinating conversation, one that has made me more curious about having more and better conversations with people who disagree with us. But I want to thank you so much for talking to us. We’d like to close these by asking something completely unrelated. What have you been reading lately?

Guzmán:

Oh, I am reading the science fiction trilogy by Cixin Liu, who is a Chinese science fiction novelist. It starts with the Three Body Problem. Basically, it’s alien invasion, and it’s super cool and so complex. And I stayed up till like 3am the other night reading the second one. So wish me luck because it may totally disrupt my sleep schedule.

Stump:

Well, very good. Thanks, Mónica, so much for talking to us.

Guzmán:

Thank you so much. This was great.

Credits

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the Fetzer Institute, the John Templeton Foundation, and by individual donors who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Nate Mulder is our assistant producer. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. 

BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum or visit our website, biologos.org, where you will find articles, videos and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

Monica Guzman

Mónica Guzmán

Mónica Guzmán is Senior Fellow for Public Practice at Braver Angels and author of “I Never Thought of It That Way: How To Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times.” She’s cofounder of The Evergrey, a former columnist at The Seattle Times, a recent fellow at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism and the Henry M. Jackson Foundation.


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