I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Courageously Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times by Mónica Guzmán

“To listen is to lean in, softly, with a willingness to be changed by what we hear.”

Mark Nepo

[1] We humans are on an unprecedented hinge of history. It’s hard to imagine a more apocalyptic accretion of worldwide catastrophes: among them the most lethal pandemic in a century; the dismantling of formerly stalwart democracies; the reemerging possibility of nuclear annihilation; and now the near certainty that climate change will bequeath our grandchildren a more hostile if not unlivable planet.

[2] While the scientific challenge of mitigating any of these existential threats is enormous, the greater challenge is social. Can we match our scientific ingenuity with a collective social intelligence that restores the ability of our bodies politic to solve big problems? More fundamentally, can a critical mass of humans resurrect our ability to recognize our foes as fellow humans, no matter how execrable we may find their political positions?

[3] As renowned neurosurgeon James Doty has suggested, the answers lie within another question: to what extent can each of us shift the balance between our neural hardwiring and our neuroplasticity?

[4] Standing between our survival and our suicidal annihilation are two behaviors on opposite poles of the spectrum: tribalism and altruism, the former fueled by fear, the latter by compassion.

[5] Dr. Doty reminds us that the human brain strongly prefers the familiar to the novel. Most of us prefer to be with those who look like us, talk like us, and act like us. We’re hardwired for tribalism.

[6] But because our own tribe requires our cooperation to survive, and our offspring demand nearly two decades of nurturing, we’re also hardwired for altruism. We need one another, and we need to be needed. Most of the time, most of us will do what’s necessary for our tribe and our offspring to survive and thrive.

[7] Our tribalism and our altruism are in constant tension. In any moment, what might tip the balance towards one pole or the other is the relationship between fear and compassion. When we’re fearful and emotionally unsafe, we devolve into fight or flight, driving us towards tribalism. When we’re centered and emotionally secure, our compassion has the opportunity to arise, expanding our altruism to those beyond our nuclear family and our tribe.

[8] The virulent strain of tribalism that has dominated the first two decades of the 21st century has spawned a growing number of organizations dedicated to reversing the unraveling of our social fabric.

[9] Among them is Braver Angels, a group whose mission is to “bring Americans together to bridge the partisan divide and strengthen our democratic republic.” As one of the directors of Braver Angels, Seattle journalist Mónica Guzmán is spreading her organization’s message in her first book I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times.

[10] In her introduction, Guzmán presents her case for reaching across the ideological chasm: “If there’s one thing that most people on the left and right can agree on, it’s that the way we treat and talk to the other side is broken. We can’t stomach the ideas across the political divide, let alone the people who hold them. In one 2021 poll, most Americans thought the biggest threat to our country’s way of life was ‘other people in America.’ By June, U.S. voters rated ‘division in the country’ as the number one issue facing them personally.”

[11] Guzmán characterizes her 17 years as a journalist as “one big evolving experiment on how we can better understand each other.” In a positive and persuasive style, she offers a combination of engaging personal anecdotes and abundant social science research to make the case that “connecting to other human beings is what makes our lives rich and meaningful”. Her sunny optimism and inspiring stories offer the reader hope in our ever-darkening world.

[12] The fuel that feeds Guzmán’s  optimism is curiosity. “Our built-in hunger for understanding is big and it is badass. At its weakest, it keeps our minds open so they don’t shrink. At its strongest, it whips us into a frenzy of unstoppable learning. Nothing busts through the walls we’ve built between us like a question so genuine and perceptive it cannot be denied.”

[13] With an informal and earnest style, Guzmán takes us on an adventure in which she parlays her journalistic skills into strategies for bridge building. Using sticky acronyms and small-scale success stories, she offers an algorithm for how each of us can harness our innate curiosity to break down the formidable walls that keep us confined within our tribal silos.

[14] In Part 1, she employs “SOS” to explain three patterns of human nature that divide us: “Sorting (who we like to be around), Othering (who we don’t like to be around), and Siloing (sinking deeper into our own groups and our own stories).” Drawing on relevant studies, she attributes much of our recent social devolution to the pervasive and pernicious effects of social media in replacing our face-to-face interactions with what she dubs “dopamine lollipops.”

[15] With indefatigable conviction, she devotes the rest of the book to a formula for creating “the best conditions for an exchange worth having…[and] build[ing] enough traction with each other to discover mind-blowing insights together.”

[16] In Parts 2 through 5, Guzmán systematically identifies the attitudes and behaviors she deems essential for anyone wishing to bridge the divide: Creating a safe conversational space; dropping the desire to convert people to your side; checking your assumptions; learning about the experiences and values that inform the viewpoints of your opponents; using candor and clarity to ascertain the deep stories that inform those viewpoints; and ultimately, asking nonjudgmental questions that humanize those stories.

[17] Yes, each is an essential element in setting the stage for connecting conversations. In aggregate, they’ve served Guzmán well, not only in her journalistic career but also in her impressive extra-professional bridge building efforts. Ever the optimist, she emphatically believes her paradigm will be sufficient for the rest of us.

[18] Yet as I progressed through the book, I found her deluge of guidance increasingly difficult to digest. Something didn’t quite fit with the way I’ve viewed and lived in the world throughout my 73 years.

[19] The reveal comes In two footnotes to chapter 15, where Guzmán names what had become obvious to me: ”I’m a raging extrovert.” [Aha!]. And “I can be way too curious for my own good, or anyone else’s.”

[20] These revelations clarified my understanding of where the book works for me and where it falls short.  While I admire her enthusiasm and fearlessness in engaging people whose lives are so different from hers, curiosity alone is not sufficient for me, nor perhaps for the 60% of us who are not “raging extroverts” (40% of US citizens are introverts and 20% are ambiverts, according to Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts In A World That Won’t Stop Talking).

[21] For many of us, reaching across the ideological divide and recognizing the humanity of our opponents is a challenging and triggering enterprise. Tipping the behavioral balance from tribalism towards altruism requires more than just curiosity, especially when we’re fearful and feeling emotionally unsafe (and who isn’t these days?) It requires a presence of mind sufficient to recognize and defang our fears, and the equanimity to allow our compassion to emerge.

[22] There are many time-honored pathways to such mindful states, including meditation, yogic practices, religious rituals, and cognitive behavioral techniques. Since 2015, my personal pathway has been Compassionate Listening. In addition to the stage setting that Guzmán identifies, Compassionate Listening addresses the barriers which get in the way of nonjudgmental listening.

[23] Developed by Jean Knudsen Hoffman in the 1980’s, Compassionate Listening draws on Buddhist principles and Quaker practices that help us humanize our opponents. It identifies compassion as the fuel that feeds the engine of understanding. The Latin root of compassion, to suffer with, suggests that to feel a sufficient depth of connection with someone we consider our enemy, we must find the place within us that also suffers. As Compassionate Listening mentor and facilitator Andrea Cohen writes in her short book Practicing the Art of Compassionate Listening, “That requires the courage to look honestly and respectfully at our own internal landscape, filled with inconsistencies, unhealed wounds, and unresolved conflicts – and the ability to hold it all with care.”

[24] Rather than a methodology centered around curiosity (in which the primary focus is on us), Compassionate Listening is offered as a gift to another without any expectation that the gift will be reciprocated.

[25] Such deep listening is very hard work, requiring resources that Guzmán doesn’t address in her book. Among the most important are (a) centering practices – including meditation and journaling – that calm us and help us recognize our implicit biases; (b) a community of fellow listeners who provide practice and support for one another; c) a skilled mentor or coach to help us build the skills of listening; (d) and sufficient hours of practice to create a kind of muscle memory that allows us to recognize when we’re in a triggered state and how to defuse it in the moment.

[26] Over the last seven years, I’ve witnessed the power of Compassionate Listening to dissolve decades of fear and enmity in one of the world’s most contentious hot spots, Israel-Palestine, as well as in the United States’ own Deep South. These experiences have strengthened my conviction that healing wounds and repairing relationships between entrenched foes is indeed possible, but for most of us, it requires going beyond “fearlessly curious conversations”.

Resources for the rest of us:

Living Room Conversations

Civil Conversations Project


Other books that humanize one’s foes:

Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild

Republican Like Me by Ken Stern

Deep Diversity: Overcoming Us Vs. Them by Shakil Choudhury

The Forgiveness Project: Stories for a Vengeful Age by Marina Cantacuzino

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Joel Berman

Joel Berman, MD, is a retired physician actively engaged in The Compassionate Listening Project, working in Israel-Palestine and in the deep south of the United States.