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Building Bridges in Polarizing Times

January 11, 2023
Mónica Guzmán
Mónica Guzmán

Mónica Guzmán is a journalist, a senior fellow with cross-partisan organization Braver Angels, and an interview host with Crosscut. In her work and in her book I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times she strives to build bridges between people who disagree, and to overcome division in society.

In her presentation at the January Series on Jan. 10, Reclaiming Curiosity in Divided Times, Guzmán suggested that curiosity and listening can be powerful tools in bridging division between people with differing opinions.

Citing research, opinion polls, and statistics, Guzmán said the good news is that society in the United States is not as divided as many people believe it is. The number of people who hold radical views on either end of the liberal-conservative spectrum is smaller than many believe, and there is more common ground in our concerns than many expect.

The bad news related to this, she suggested, is that what we think about the division can itself increase the division.

“Each side thinks the other side despises them twice as much as they actually do,” Guzmán said. “As a result, we’re so divided that we’re blinded. We’re not seeing debates for what they really are about, because we’re not seeing each other’s perspectives for what they really are and where they really come from. We’re judging each other more as we engage each other less. And that cycle is leading us farther away from the truth.”

The problem, Guzmán suggested, comes from a pattern she calls “SOS” which stands for “sorting, othering, siloing.” Sorting, she said, is a natural human tendency. In a social context, this usually means we look for people whom we consider to be “like ourselves” so that we can be comfortable in our own lives and not encounter a lot of challenges. For some in today’s society, this has gone as far as some people moving from one postal code to another to be surrounded by people who vote like they do.

When we encounter “other” people, Guzmán noted, we begin to build distance between ourselves and whoever is deemed different. We create boundaries and can start to become suspicious of people whom we consider different. She suggested, “Research going back decades shows us that we don’t even need to be that different – the ‘us’ and the ‘them’ – for subtle discrimination to begin to arise. But when the differences are meaningful, when you start to think the other side is ‘out to get me,’ the other side wants to ‘destroy America,’ or the other side doesn’t respect a person’s humanity – then it gets really intense.”

Siloing, said Guzmán, is a result of sorting and othering. It occurs when you hear some stories but not others; some perspectives but not others. Our technology feeds into this, she said, by filling our news and social media feeds with people and perspectives that align with our views. The danger, said Guzmán, is that “whoever is underrepresented in your life is being overrepresented in your imagination. You are hearing the judgments, and you are subscribing to them. And no one is immune to this.”

A solution to the SOS problem, suggested Guzmán, is to build bridges, checking out the world from another point of view – choosing to look at another point of view curiously. This requires courage, she said, and it can be lonely – but it’s worthwhile to see what the world looks like from another point of view.

Guzmán believes this kind of curiosity is key to solving polarization, and it can be animating and motivating. She distinguishes between “deprivation-based curiosity” – something you feel you really need to know – and “interest-based curiosity” – finding something that interests you and choosing to learn more about it. How we view the things about which we’re curious will affect the way we proceed to find answers.

In pursuing curiosity, Guzmán gave four steps to keep in mind on the journey: mind the gap (keeping your attention on the gap between what you know and what you want to know); gather knowledge (work to inform into that gap); reject easy answers (resist the urge to manufacture certainty around the first easy answer that arises); and embrace complexity (choose to see things as complex rather than confusing, as a process of learning rather than an unsolvable puzzle or mystery).

To begin the learning process, Guzmán said, “The key question to ask, across all divides but particularly the political one, is ‘What am I missing?’ When you think you know, when you think you understand the other side on an issue, ask yourself, ‘What am I missing?’ There is an assumption baked into this question that’s key, and the assumption is that you are always missing something.” The reward for finding out what you're missing, said Guzmán, is what she calls the “I never thought of it that way” moment. “That's proof that some insight has crossed that chasm between their perspective and yours.”

To illustrate her point, Guzmán told a story about gaining perspective from a friend about the frequent rain in Seattle. After moving to the city, Guzmán became a bit down about the endless gray weather. A friend pointed out to her the “aural beauty” of the rain – how soothing the sound of it could be. From then on, Guzmán’s perspective on the city’s weather changed.

Enemies of curiosity, warned Guzmán, are fear and certainty. If you’re afraid, you run away. If you’re certain, you think you know all you need to know, so you never ask questions, and there is no friction to challenge your beliefs.

Guzmán suggested several measures that can facilitate good discussions, where understanding can be reached. When people are present and attentive in conversation, tuned in to body language and words, they are more likely to understand each other. They also need to be on what Guzmán called an equal platform – neither one is “in charge” of the conversation. The discussion needs to be contained to the people participating in it; it’s not a performance, a presentation, or a debate, but a discussion. There also needs to be sufficient time to have these conversations, where no one is rushed, and there is space for reflection.

It’s also important, said Guzmán, to focus on people rather than ideas. She suggested that if you can’t understand how someone came to think so differently from yourself, ask them. Ask what their concerns or hopes are, what has led them to believe the way they do, and then listen to the answers. Don’t dismiss them or get stuck on your own perspective, but seek to understand rather than to win.

Something we may find when we invite people’s stories, listen to their concerns, and are open to their reasons is that we often share similar values but different priorities, suggested Guzmán. In questions about vaccines, airport security, or land use, the shared values may be safety, freedom, and stewardship, but the priorities may be different.

Persuasion, said Guzmán, rarely happens in one conversation – especially an aggressive or hostile one – and needs time and trust to happen as you explore truth, values, and priorities together. “People only hear when they’re heard,” she noted.