Talking Sense

‘Always truth in their story’: How one author talks across political divides

A woman speaks in a large lecture hall
Mónica Guzmán, author and senior fellow for public practice at Braver Angels, speaks at a public event hosted by the Institute for Freedom and Community at St. Olaf College in Northfield on March 12.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

In the introduction of her book, “I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times,” Mónica Guzmán describes arriving at her parents house to watch the 2020 election results.

But there’s a twist: Guzmán is liberal. Her parents, she writes, are enthusiastic Trump supporters.

What could go wrong?

At a time of deep polarization, some of our closest relationships have been strained by politics, and Guzmán’s experience is no different. 

But despite the deep political divide between her and her parents, Guzmán said that she’s been able to preserve her relationship with them — and learn from them, too.

Guzmán, who is also chief storyteller for Braver Angels, said maintaining that relationship has required a lot of trust.

“It’s been a lot of candor … so that we know that no matter what I say about what I think, I get the sense from them that they are not judging me so much that I want to hide who I am and what I think,” she said. “There’s a practice in that. And it started off hard and gets easier the longer we work at it.”

As part of Talking Sense, an MPR News project which aims to help Minnesotans have hard political conversations, reporter Catharine Richert spoke with Guzmán about how she approaches challenging topics.

Her responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Talking Sense is a partnership between MPR News and Braver Angels, a nonprofit that has been working to bridge political divides since 2016.

Have there been moments in your conversations with your parents where you’ve thrown your hands up and said, ‘I can’t do this’?

Guzmán: Moments in the plural, for sure. The key, I think, is that it’s about the heat that has built up in that moment. What I like to say is that heat in a conversation of disagreement is good, it’s really good. The friction it generates can be fantastic for what you can learn and understand and illuminate.

The difference is whether you’re cooking something or burning something. So there are times when I feel the burn, I need a break, I need to step away. And then maybe we can come back to it immediately or next week or maybe in a couple of months.

What brings you back to those conversations even after they’ve gotten difficult?

Guzmán: Curiosity. I’m usually left with questions. And sometimes the question begins with, “But how could you? But how could you believe this?”

It’s about where the emphasis is in my brain and in my heart. If it’s sort of a confounding yell in my brain, that’s not as good. That’s not a sign that I’m ready. If it’s more ‘How could you believe this? Actually explain it to me,’ then I’m ready to receive that.

When I feel I’m ready to receive it, that’s when I can have a genuinely curious conversation where I’m not so fired up.

So many of us find ourselves in the situation that you described with your parents right now. Maybe we’ve experienced a relationship dissolve entirely over politics or maybe we just see someone we’ve been really close to very differently than we did prior to the 2016 election, or prior to the pandemic.

What’s your best advice for people who want to rebuild a relationship or improve a relationship? How do you even start those conversations?

Guzmán: Try to be doing something else. Maybe you’re cooking together, maybe you join your uncle on his fishing trip. Also being next to each other rather than right across from each other.

If there is something you need to repair, work on the repair before you try to get to the actual content of the issue that divides you. Because you’re not going to be able to make much progress on that.

People can only hear when they feel heard. And if we think that this person is just telling us that they want a conversation, but they’re really trying to judge me again, they’re really trying to tell me that I’m no good — people don’t stand for that.

No one wants to be the villain in their own story.

What are some questions that people can ask when they’re in the thick of it that can improve, or elevate, or get a conversation back on track. 

Guzmán: The most important one is to substitute the question, “Why do you believe what you believe” with “How did you come to believe what you believe?”

The key difference between those two questions is that one is soliciting reasons and the other is soliciting stories. The good thing about stories is that you invite people to take you on a tour in order to show you how they came to believe what they believe.

If you ask why you came to believe what you believe … people are going to feel like they’re being put on trial. It’s going to make them guarded, which is going to make them potentially more hostile, unable to listen to you and then you less able to listen to them.

Everyone is the world’s reigning expert on their own story. There’s no fake news here. And even when there’s no truth in someone’s conclusions, there’s always truth in their story.

We can’t have this conversation without talking about the role we play in these relationships. What questions should we be asking ourselves before we launch into challenging conversations about politics? 

Guzmán: [We sometimes] run into one of two really pernicious assumptions that get in our way in these kinds of conversations. The first is that this person must be crazy, stupid or evil. At that point, it becomes really difficult to be curious.

So ask yourself, “What am I missing? It feels they must be crazy, but that’s because there’s something I’m not seeing.”

If you come into a conversation of disagreement and you can feel this urge that you just want this person to change their mind, ask yourself, “Why do I need this person to change their mind? Do I believe that I’m not okay until they change?”

Going into a conversation really wanting to change people pretty much guarantees that it’s not going to work, and you’re probably going to push them away. You’re not going to learn about them, but more importantly, they’re not going to learn about you.