Mónica Guzmán’s guide to thriving across differences

When Mónica Guzmán was in second grade, she walked up to the front of the classroom to hand in her spelling test. There were some blank pieces of paper available, so she took one and returned to her seat.

Guzmán began scribbling down her observations — one student got a tissue, her teacher threw something away in the trash.

This habit of observing her classmates turned into a career. Guzmán began as a journalist and was a 2016 fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. Later, she was a 2019 fellow at the Henry M. Jackson Foundation. It was there she studied the dynamics of political and social division.

Now Guzmán is the senior fellow for public practice at Braver Angels, an organization dedicated to depolarization, and she’s the host of the podcast “A Braver Way.” On Tuesday night, Guzmán spoke to an audience of parents, teachers and community members at the Waterford School in Sandy, Utah.

It’s not lost on Guzmán that this year is an election year and tensions seem high, not just on the national stage, but closer to home.

Politics gets a bad reputation, Guzmán said. “But it’s really the practice of trying to thrive together across difference.”

As Guzmán puts it on her website, she’s “the proud liberal daughter of conservative parents” and knows a thing or two about disagreeing without being disagreeable. The heart of her message is that we all need to get more curious.

Guzmán said it’s important to model curiosity and uncertainty to younger generations to help them develop these skills. Say you’re a teacher and you get something wrong in class. She suggests that the next day you come in and tell the kids you realized you were wrong. It’s something she tries to do with her own children.

In addition to admitting when you’re wrong, Guzmán encouraged the audience to look at how strongly they hold their beliefs. Instead of being obstinate in your views, she advised keeping some wiggle room available. “It doesn’t mean you’re not convicted. It doesn’t mean an abdication of your values,” Guzmán said, explaining that it can be a sign of confidence in your beliefs.

Having wiggle room around what you believe allows you to better listen to other people. “If your fear of being wrong is too strong, listening is just a performance,” Guzmán said. Without listening and the ability to persuade and be persuaded, democracy fails, she said.

One practical way to employ these kinds of skills goes back to the core of how we communicate — the language we use.

Hedging language or framing your opinions in terms of your own personal beliefs can help with flexibility, Guzmán said. “What researchers have found is that when one person uses more flexible, hedging language, that is contagious. Other people in the conversation would use that, too.”

Shifting language is one way to connect with others better, but so is asking the right questions.

Guzmán observed that in conversations about politics, so much of the discussion centers around what a person thinks. They use logic and reason to spell out their arguments. “And we forgot that our politics has no meaning without the meaning we put into it,” she said, adding that this meaning comes from our hearts.

Being curious about someone’s heart behind a particular policy issue or political discussion can get you further than just debating the issue. Guzmán said you can come to understand the meaning behind people’s opinions when you ask the right questions about it.

Avoiding assumptions is a key part of asking questions that will elicit better understanding, Guzmán said.

While teaching these skills to your children can be difficult, Guzmán advised that you introduce friction in a low-risk way. This can also benefit adults. When thinking about the work of depolarization, it’s common to see it as always trying to span the divide between Republicans and Democrats, but she said it also should apply to small divides that may exist within each individual party.

Instead of finding a person who you disagree with on most issues, Guzmán said to start small and invite over for dinner someone with whom you only have one disagreement.

“It’s always preferable to find the organic way to cross across difference,” Guzmán said. Doing activities with people and having conversation flow naturally is a more effective way of crossing little bridges. Body language plays into this, too. She said that sitting next to a person rather than across from a person can make the conversation more productive.

In the case of crossing bigger bridges, Guzmán said there’s lots of opportunity for finding common ground. And that oftentimes, you’ll end up reducing any fear that you have had before interacting with them.