More than 200 attendees filled the Edmonds Waterfront Center main ballroom Thursday evening to join in a community conversation with journalist and author Monica Guzman on finding common ground during divided times.
Guzman is a bridge builder, journalist and author who lives for great conversations sparked by curious questions. She’s senior fellow for public practice at Braver Angels, the nation’s largest cross-partisan grassroots organization working to depolarize America, founder and CEO of Reclaim Curiosity, an organization working to build a more curious world. She was a 2019 fellow at the Henry M. Jackson Foundation, a 2016 fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University and was named one of the 50 most influential women in Seattle.
Her newly released book, I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times, tackles this subject head-on, and is packed with examples and techniques for maintaining civil discourse despite deep-rooted disagreements. The book was recently featured on the Glenn Beck podcast and named a New York Times recommended read.
A Mexican immigrant, Latina and dual U.S./Mexico citizen, she lives in Seattle with her husband and two kids and refers to herself as “the proud liberal daughter of conservative parents.”
Attendees were welcomed by Edmonds resident Amalia Martino, founder and president of The Vida Agency, a multicultural communications firm in downtown Edmonds. She spoke of her personal interest in the topic, having experienced growing up as the only person of color in her “very conservative blue-collar family,” where she grew up “having tough, painful conversations to bridge understanding.”
Martino then introduced Guzman and event host and moderator Teresa Wippel, owner, editor and publisher of the My Neighborhood News Network family of publications.
The conversation began with Wippel posing a series of questions to Guzman aimed at establishing an informational baseline for attendees by clarifying her thoughts, ideas, and the main concepts presented in her book. Wippel stressed that while we all know the problem, solutions can be elusive, and that this would be the primary focus of the evening.
Asked what prompted her to write the book, Guzman shared that she considers it a personal mission to help people understand each other, in part by restoring conversations she feels have become endangered during our divided times – those that are characterized by understanding without judgment.
“Part of this is helping people to understand who they are and why they do what they do so that the whole system can be better informed,” she said. “It’s a really difficult thing to do. Everybody has their reasons, and we don’t always understand what these are, but appreciating these is essential if we’re to become better informed as a community.”
Guzman cited as an example the disconnects she personally experienced in the wake of the 2016 elections when the blue/red divide became a reason for some people to stop talking to each other, even splitting families.
“Again, everyone has a reason for what they believe, and realizing this rather than dismissing those with whom you disagree is an essential step in bridging the divide,” she added.
Wippel then asked about Guzman’s concept of “SOS” – sorting ourselves into groups with which we are comfortable, othering people who disagree, and then becoming stuck in our silos of belief.
“The question ‘what am I missing’ is the most important question we tend not to ask,” Guzman responded. “When we are so deeply entrenched in our own belief rather than ask ourselves what we are missing we’ll jump to characterizing the other person as crazy, stupid or evil. This kills understanding. You’ve lost the chance at the kind of understanding that makes relationships work and leads to further conversations. We need to be humble enough to acknowledge that maybe we are wrong.”
Wippel next asked about our use of social media, and how these seem to focus on easy answers that move us away from embracing the complexity of the issues and reach the understandings Guzman says are necessary for having effective conversations and bridging the divide.
“Social media is getting a bad rap these days for good reasons,” she began. “But it still has incredible potential to connect us.”
She went on to explain that in her view, social media is really bad at containment – that is, containing the conversation to those you intend to take part – and with the conversation open to the whole world, participants will be less likely to be candid and instead tend to borrow talking points under which others have taken shelter. Also, with the lack of visual cues – smiles, laughter, etc. – many opportunities for conversation are simply not present.
The next question focused on how Guzman’s book stresses the need for “bridging conversations” that are self-fueling, bonding, and tend to build trust.
“One of the best things about conversations is how unpredictable they are, and that’s scary,” she began. “In a bridging conversation we are brought to the point where we see the humanity in each other, and fears of saying the wrong thing tend to fade. Eventually enough trust builds up that it becomes self-fueling – conversations have this power to open us up.”
Wippel then asked Guzman to relate her experiences about her road trip to Sherman County, Oregon, and why it was special.
“This was just after the 2016 election, and we in blue Seattle looked for a place that voted exactly opposite in the election, figuring this would be a good place to practice and hone our techniques for effective conversation with people who hold very different beliefs,” she explained. “We found an interactive app to do this, and it brought us to Sherman County.”
She went on to relate how she brought 19 Seattle liberals in a van to Sherman County with the goal of building conversational bridges with a fervently pro-Trump population.
“It wasn’t about convincing anyone of anything,” she stressed. “I was about being curious and learning from each other.
“In the end it was incredibly enlightening,” she said. “We learned things we never would have imagined that were the real reasons folks thought and voted the way they did – reasons we never even knew existed – and in this context their voting decisions made perfect sense.”
The last question to Guzman concerned the importance of honesty in conversations, including restating something you think you heard the other person say to be sure you heard it correctly.
“One of the best ways to demonstrate your interest in people is clarifying,” she explained. “The worst thing is to be misunderstood. And by asking for clarification, you tell the other person that you want to understand what they’re saying.”
The evening then moved on to what Wippel called a mini-curiosity workshop, where two audience volunteers, Alan and Jamie, agreed to be subjects in modeling what a curious conversation should look like.
It began with one asking a question of the other. After receiving an answer, the original questioner asked a followup question based on the answer, which would lead to another answer, another followup question, and so forth, building a self-fueling exchange.
The first question was from Jamie: “Tell me about your best vacation ever.”
Alan: “First trip to Hawaii – biggest pool and most interesting bartender in the world.”
Jamie: “Why was he interesting?”
Alan: “First was his name – Woody.”
Jamie: “What was the backstory of this name?”
Alan: “His nickname when he was young.”
Jamie: “What was interesting about the pool? Did you swim with Dolphins?
Alan: “No, but I did swim a long way.”
Guzman then jumped in to point out how the conversation flowed with each question and response, building momentum that would lead to a self-fueling conversation.
Next the roles were reversed with Alan asking Jamie if she’s always lived in Edmonds.
This led to Jamie explaining her southern California roots, which led to additional conversation threads about perceived anti-California attitudes in our area, and how Edmonds has recently become more open to people who came from other locales.
Switching the format, Guzman then posed a question for both prompted by the recent local discussions regarding whether police officers should serve as community resource officers in schools.
Alan began by admitting he is biased on the issue, having himself served as a school resource officer. He stated that in his view this is central to the role of police, being involved in the community and putting them in direct contact with those they serve.
“The more segregation with police, the more stereotypes and misinformation about them will grow,” he explained.
Jamie: “Have you ever talked with someone who disagrees with you on this? What do they say.”
As before, the conversation continued, with each taking cues from the other to keep it rolling. Along the way it came out that Jamie is not a supporter of police in schools, and by following the guidelines of respectful conversations they were each able to articulate their views and gain understanding of the other’s beliefs and their underpinnings.
“Notice how humanizing both perspectives were,” remarked Guzman at the close of this segment. “This is a conversation that could have evolved into screaming, but by asking clarifying questions, maintaining respect, realizing that there are real reasons people believe what they do even if we don’t share, agree, or understand these, we were able to bridge the gap.”
This concluded the formal part of the event, and Wippel opened the floor for questions from the audience.
One attendee asked about those conversations where it begins with a person telling about an experience, and rather than express interest, the other instead relates an experience of their own, which has the effect of shifting the focus on themselves and off the original person.
“This is a common thing,” explained Guzman. “People will naturally want to speak about themselves. This dismisses the other person. But it can be broken when one says, ‘Oh really, tell me more.’ This gives the other person the gift of your curiosity.”
Another asked how to break through to folks who simply don’t want to engage with someone who feels differently.
“Often people see those who disagree with them as a threat,” Guzman responded. “Anger is a force that protects us. This makes it a cue to curiosity (what are they trying to protect?) and provides an opening to say something like ‘I didn’t realize this means so much to you, tell me about it,’ and watch their anger fade. But it can be a long game and takes persistence.”
Other questions touched on having conversations with people who have had deep, personal experiences that have created strong emotional triggers on certain issues, how family members who have grown up together can harbor radically divergent views and memories of the same event, and how to bridge these around the dinner table. A final questions concerned how deep-seated attitudes about race can thwart effective communication.
The event concluded with Wippel thanking the audience, Alan and Jamie for volunteering, the Waterfront Center, event sponsors the Edmonds Waterfront Center, the Edmonds Bookshop, the Vida Agency, Reefcombers Studios and, of course, Monica Guzman.
A video of the event will be available for viewing soon.
Signed copies of Guzman’s book are available at the Edmonds Bookshop.
— Story and photos by Larry Vogel