I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times
“What America needs are more good questions and fewer simple answers. And whether left or right, blue or red, or abandoned in the middle, what we all need is I Never Thought of It That Way.”
I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times is a celebration of curiosity, our common humanity, and the conversations author Mónica Guzmán, a former journalist and the liberal daughter of two Trump-voting parents, says “everyone craves but rarely encounters: a conversation bent on understanding without judgement.”
I Never Thought of It That Way is a necessary book coming at a critical time. Despite decades of growing political polarization, a careful reading of recent polls shows that Americans of all groups are more in agreement than we know. Guzmán quotes the 2019 Perception Gap study that found that Democrats are off by an average of 19 percentage points when guessing Republican views, while Republicans misjudge Democrats by an even larger 27 percentage points. Even on contentious issues such as immigration and open borders, Americans assume we’re more in disagreement than we are.
To explain how we got here, Guzmán presents a sophisticated yet entertaining discussion of social science research. Muzafer Sherif’s famous Robbers Cave experiment takes its well-earned place alongside Henri Tajfel’s pioneering studies on discrimination, Jordan Litman’s deprivation-based curiosity versus interest-based curiosity, Shalom Schwartz’s Theory of Basic Human Values, Jonathan Haidt’s groundbreaking research on morality, and George Loewenstein’s information-gap theory. These and many more studies are discussed in accessible, contemporary prose that explains why we’ve become not just divided but worse, isolated from our fellow Americans.
Spending more and more time with people who think like you, of course, removes the need to think at all. This personal hole in experience is exacerbated by social media that delivers a customized world on the hour, every hour. The result is a collective polarization where opinions become extreme, and perspectives seem unbridgeable.
And that “misinformation” that so plagues the “other side,” those values and beliefs “they” ought to correct? Guzmán is unequivocable: “False stories soar because good people relate to something in them that’s true: a fear or value or concern that’s going unheard, unexplored, and unacknowledged.”
Even more: “Misinformation isn’t the product of a culture that doesn’t value the truth. It’s the product of a culture in which we’ve grown too afraid to turn to each other and hear it.”
Guzmán’s focus is fixed on that turn away from ideological certainty and toward the illuminating, disorienting, sometimes unwanted but certainly necessary moments when “you collide with a new idea and the boom is big enough to notice.” And the only way to have that expansion is through questions and conversations with people different from us (or, perhaps, not so different after all).
From the easy (“One of the best ways to meet people where they are is to ask them where they’ve been.”) to rather complicated Traction Loops and imaginary communication consoles, Guzmán gives the many ways of initiating and maintaining a conversation one wouldn’t have thought possible. Admittedly, the second half of the book does lag as Guzmán painstaking details strategies from using body language, to paraphrasing, to listening to meaning, to much more.
Yet the path leading through these occasionally convoluted techniques reaches questions. And not just any questions. Guzmán shows the questions that force us to set aside assumptions, challenge certainties, and create the conversations that make it possible to replace what we believe with what’s true.
Guzmán maintains a weathered optimism throughout. Some of the book’s most poignant moments come from Guzmán and her parents’ struggles to prioritize love over polarization. Another real-to-life highlight is the “Melting Mountains: An Urban-Rural Gathering,” where people from King County, Washington (where 74% of voters went for Clinton) met with people from Sherman County, Oregon (where 74% of voters went for Trump) for structured conversations about where America was headed. Were lives changed? No. Were some assumptions chipped, enough so an unexpected understanding started seeping into the cracks? Yes.
What America needs are more good questions and fewer simple answers. And whether left or right, blue or red, or abandoned in the middle, what we all need is I Never Thought of It That Way.