Do you remember when you last talked to someone whose beliefs or opinions about important stuff were different from your own? Current research shows that Americans are less and less likely to live with and talk to people who hold different opinions about politics, God, gender, education, guns, democracy, and so on. In this episode we talk with Mónica Guzmán and Ryan Nakade, two people working to get people to connect across these differences with enthusiasm, curiosity, care, and hope.
About Our Guests
Mónica Guzmán is a bridge builder, journalist, and author who lives for great conversations sparked by curious questions. Guzmán is a senior fellow for public practice at Braver Angels, a nonprofit working to depolarize America. Mónica is also host of Crosscut’s interview series Civic Cocktail and author of I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times.
Ryan Nakade is a conflict mediator and facilitator. He works as a consultant for the Cure PDX project, where he leads trainings on dialogue skills to bridge divides and disrupt toxic polarization. He lives in Toledo, Washington with his wife and nine goats.
Adam Davis: Welcome to The Detour, where we connect ideas and personal experiences without looking for easy solutions. Here we find the path to understanding often takes unexpected turns. I'm Adam Davis and I have a question for you. Do you remember when you last talked to someone whose beliefs or opinions about important stuff were different from your own?
And would you say that this kind of thing, this talking to someone with different beliefs, happens rarely or often? Is it a regular part of your life or a notable anomaly? And can you identify the circumstances, the conditions in which it does happen, in which you do find yourself talking to and listening to people with whom you disagree?
I'm asking these questions for three reasons. First, lots of current research shows that Americans are increasingly living with and talking to people whose opinions are like theirs and that we're less and less likely to live with and talk to people who hold different opinions about politics, God, gender, education, guns, democracy, and so on. “The Big Sort,” as Bill Bishop called it in his 2010 book, keeps getting bigger, and this sorting affects our communities in the US and in Oregon in ways that don't seem especially healthy.
The second reason I'm asking these questions here at the start is that this is the kind of thing–conversations that bridge across differences–that we at Oregon Humanities work on all the time. No matter what topics our different programs and publications address, they're all trying to get us hearing and understanding perspectives other than our own.
And the third reason I'm asking is by way of introduction to this episode, which revolves around two people who dedicate their lives to getting people talking and listening to each other. Mónica Guzmán and Ryan Nakade not only do this work, they also speak really clearly about what they're trying to do, how they try to do it, and the biggest challenges and opportunities they encounter. Lots of us seem to lament the divides and differences we feel in our communities right now and to have real concerns about what these divides mean for our hometowns, schools, families, state and country. But we also seem to find it difficult to engage with people on the other sides of these divides.
Mónica and Ryan see these divides and the people on the other sides and move toward them with enthusiasm, curiosity, care, and hope, which is why we want to turn to these two people now, starting with Mónica, who joined Oregon Humanities for a consider this conversation at the Alberta Rose Theater in Portland in May of 2023.
I was gonna start with a question, and instead I want to start with a worry. Even though you are the daughter of Mexican immigrants and I am the son of sort of diasporic Eastern European Jews, I'm concerned that we're too similar
Mónica Guzmán: that you and I are too similar. Yeah. What do you mean by that?
Adam Davis: I'm concerned that we might share too many opinions.
Ah. Yeah. And I guess I want to ask you right off the bat, is that the kind of thing that you think I ought to be concerned about as we get started?
Mónica Guzmán: Huh? Concern that we share too many depending on what goal, what goal comes to mind when this becomes a concern for you? That
Adam Davis: we have a conversation that's both productive for both of us and productive also to listen to.
Mónica Guzmán: Oh, interesting. Yes. I've talked to folks who say similar types of things. You know that here we are disagreeing, but how much do we really disagree and are we gonna be able to, as the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne puts it, rub and polish our brains against each other? Do we have enough difference to create friction, to create illumination and insight, to create the spark. I love that that is a worry for you because it means that it's even something you keep in mind. Um, my worry is that in today's day and age that not only feels like not a concern for many people, but that it might be more trouble than it's worth.
Mm-hmm. It might not be particularly useful to get friction or to try to talk across big divides and big differences, that we live in a time when things are stressful enough. Thank you very much. And, and you know what we need to do is find those places where we can be at least a little bit stable and a little bit comfortable, and, differences that are too big are just not on the, not on the table anymore.
That's, that's my worry. Okay.
Adam Davis: So that friction, you talked about that in this world where friction might be an additional challenge and there are plenty of challenges, how much as you're trying to get conversations going, how much do you think I want there to be friction, and friction is necessary if, how much and why?
Mónica Guzmán: There's a lot of ways to sum up what I see as, you know, the big problem. I, I think a lot of you probably sense some kind of fundamental brokenness in our society, across disagreement, across political divides, across lots of divides. And one of the biggest reasons, you know, that, that I find it to be a problem can be summed up with this: We are so divided, we're blinded. That when we surround ourselves with people who share our instincts, we also end up sharing our blind spots, that there is something about a sort of healthy mixing of perspectives, webs of organic relationship that sort of naturally connect us across difference that keep us checking the assumptions we have about people who are different from us with the reality.
That ensures that because someone in our lives thinks differently and we know that, you know, and we still, our kids go to the same baseball practice or, you know, go to the same schools or we share something in common that, that we can keep a sense of all of our overall humanity. Right? But what's happened, and there's been so much social science to unpack this, it's often called political polarization.
I think of it as toxic polarization where it's a dynamic that I break down into three parts: we're sorting, we're othering, and we're siloing. So sorting means it's the natural human tendency to want to be around people who are like us. And we are seeing in the data that blue zip codes are becoming bluer politically, red zip codes are becoming redder. It makes sense because again, it's an anxious time and the last thing you want when things are really anxious is to make yourself more anxious by, you know, diving into relationships that are gonna challenge what you think all the time.
The second thing is othering, and that's the natural human tendency to push away from people who are different from us. And there's some really chilling social science on this that shows that the differences don't even have to be that meaningful for us to engage in minor or major discrimination. And then lastly is siloing. So siloing is about the information that you hear mostly coming from people who think like you. It doesn't mean that you're not exposed to different ideas, but it means that when you are exposed to different ideas, it's probably through the filter of the kinds of judgements that people of you like: you might stamp on them before they arrive at your door. And so I call that the S.O.S. you know, the sort of call for help of the moment, because as we sink deeper into our silos, we begin to live in our minds in something that is not quite reality.
And the data shows us that when people on one side of the political divide, guess at the views on the other side–and this goes for both sides–we wildly exaggerate. We believe that more people hold extreme views than actually do. And, and you can look around and I think we all recognize why, right?
We're getting signals from certain places. We're doubling down on the relationships that keep us comfortable because why wouldn't we? And so that's what's happening is we're getting a little bit away from the debates as they really are, people and why they actually believe what they believe, and away from being able to find the common ground that most deliberation in a healthy democracy needs to find in order to solve the problems we're desperate to solve.
Adam Davis: And you, you described that with the acronym of S.O.S., which is the call for help. But it also sounds like you're saying part of your concern is that in a way, the more we sink into it, the less we call for help, the more we go “I'm pretty good here.” So I guess I want to ask about the relationship between those.
How much do you feel like you need to let people know they should be calling for help? This is a problem? Or how much is the call coming from within the house?
Mónica Guzmán: I guess among the ways I can point to, you know, what ends up missing? So one of the reasons I wrote the book, I never thought of it that way, was because I was, my email inbox was becoming this, this sort of confession booth from people who were losing relationships left and right with relatives, with people they love, with friends, sometimes it came with sort of a confounded-ness. I don't know why this friend, after 30 years, decided she doesn't wanna talk to me anymore. You know, she said it was about politics and I, I tried this and I tried that. So, one thing is that for a lot of people, there's real pain. There’s real pain happening in their lives and so something's gotta be done about that. Another thing is that when we spend a lot of time being comfortable, what ends up happening is that we end up becoming more certain. We end up having our views sort of affirmed. And certainty is great when you know you're right, you know.
But how? How can you be sure? How can you be totally sure? And then if you don't get challenged, if people in your life or if there's not some friction in your life where you get that chance to be asked what you believe, how do you know what you believe? I was on Glenn Beck's podcast, uh, which as a liberal was quite the invitation, and he and I ended up talking about that on that episode.
And, he talked about how as a commentator, he wants more of the people who listen to him to do their own work and their own research and their own thinking, and make sure that they know that they can really, truly own and claim the arguments that lead them to make their conclusions and that they're not.
It was really interesting to hear him say this, that he doesn't want people to just blindly follow what he says. Mm-hmm. And so I think in a lot of ways when we, when we get very comfortable in our silos, we all begin to resemble a little bit of a blind follower. We don't mean to, but it's because no one's challenging us.
No one's confronting us with our own views. I think of one story that has made the rounds up in Washington state that I heard about, a war protest happening during the Iraq War and there were folks in two camps, right? The people protesting the war and then counter protesters.
And one man on one side noticed the sign of a woman on the other and just decided to get up, walk over and sit with her, and started asking her questions, just kind, curious questions, not trying to change her, not trying to judge her. And after a while, the woman just kind of got up, put down her sign and said, I just realized I don't need to be here, I don't know why I'm here. And she went home.
How often do we get confronted with our own views? How do we know what we believe if we're not constantly asking? Right. And how do we know that our views haven't evolved or changed with some recent challenge if we're not opening ourselves up to that uncertainty and approaching the world with some humility?
Adam Davis: And you said the person walked over and asked kind, curious questions, which is an interesting pairing of adjectives, kind and curious. Sometimes it feels to me like those go really well together. Other times curious can feel like what I do when I go to the zoo. Yeah. So I guess I want to ask you sort of what's the difference between a kind curious question and a curious question that puts that person behind bars in a way?
Mónica Guzmán: Yeah, and maybe even concretely, like are there specific examples of those two. Well, I talk a lot about the difference between asking why and asking how so. You know, being a journalist, the five Ws, who, what, when, where, why, why is such a curious question. It's a profound question. It gets to what's called epistemic curiosity, what is behind something. I don't just wanna know the description of it, I don’t just wanna look it up. I wanna understand what's behind it. It's a profound cognitive thing that we can go and be hungry for and try to learn when there's lots of distrust. Asking somebody, why do you believe what you believe, can come off pretty loaded.
What it will feel like is “Oh my gosh. I have to justify myself. I don't just have to justify why I believe this position on guns or on abortion, I have to justify myself.” Why? Because with politics, things have gotten so high stakes and so personal, and we're so afraid.
We're afraid to be wrong. We're afraid to be judged. We're afraid to be kicked out of the groups and labels we think we belong to. We're afraid of so many things: being misunderstood, shamed, canceled, you name it. So what do we do when we're asked why by someone on the other side?
Well, we'll think about what are the talking points that others have taken shelter under? That's what I'll tell this person. Let me think of the reasons others have given. Let me think of the safe reasons, right? The meme that I saw the other day. Let me throw that out. Let's go, let's go, let's go. And then what will the other person do? What will you do after you've heard that?
Well, you'll probably respond with your own reasons, your own talking points, right? And then what do you do? Well, you'll just repeat them, but louder you'll insist on them. Well, did you hear me say this? This thing? Did you hear me? Right? Because a lot of times what happens is, whatever the issue is, there's some, there's some glittering reason, right? This reason for me on abortion is everything. And like this is it. And so if I hand it over to this other person, it will have the same impact on them it had on me. That's what we come to expect. And then when it doesn't, we're confounded, you know? And then our curiosity becomes trained on what is wrong with you?
That's the question we wanna answer. It must be that you're crazy, that you're stupid, that you're evil. It must be one of those. And now I'm gonna turn to try to prove that to you until you change your mind and come to my camp, which of course will never happen. So instead of asking why do you believe what you believe, try asking, how did you come to believe what you believe?
So why is that so powerful? The number one reason is story. In a world of reasons and arguments, the one thing that's sort of unassailable about my experience is my experience. I am the world's preeminent expert in my story and in my journey through life and the values that I see out there and how I stack them for different issues.
And if you ask me how I came to believe, what I believe on abortion, I can tell you. I can tell you some stories. I can tell you how certain things landed with me, and instead of feeling like I'm being put on trial, instead I'm taking you on a tour. Right? So what makes it curious for you as you listen is that you're learning. You're trying to fill the gap between what you know and what you don't know. That's what a question does, ideally.
Adam Davis: That's what a question does. Who does the question do it for?
Mónica Guzmán: The asker, yes. So, a curious question. When, when you look at curiosity as a neurological cognitive function, our curiosity is activated when we put our attention on a gap between what we know and what we want to know. Unlike other cravings that we might have, like let's say you're hungry, you're gonna be hungry until you eat. You know, it doesn't matter what else you think about, you're hungry until you eat. With curiosity, you're only curious so long as your attention is on the gap between what you know and what you wanna know.
As soon as you assume, right–assumptions are certainty’s little minions–as soon as you assume, you know, why ask? You're no longer curious. If you're distracted by something else, you're no longer curious. If you're afraid, you can't really wonder about something you think is out to get you. Then your brain goes from, let me explore to let me survive, and then you're gonna fight or you're gonna flee.
Adam Davis: You're listening to The Detour with Mónica Guzmán.
Earlier you talked about big problems. The kind of big problems that feel like they have capital letters at the beginning of them, like polarization and division and that, which feels like it's huge social, cultural stuff. And then we've quickly gone to what's happening when one person is talking to one other person.
Yeah. So can we spend a little time there before getting back into the tactics and technical stuff? And I think the way I want to ask this question is like, why have any hope that what happens between one person and one other person has any relation to this larger situation of polarization and division?
Mónica Guzmán: Yeah. You know the answer that comes to my mind and heart right now, it comes from journalism a bit. You know, journalism is the fourth estate, right? It's the service to a democracy that keeps us informed as citizens, it's our truth telling institution. So I've been reflecting on what our trust building institution is.
If journalism is our truth building institution, what's our trust building institution? Because there's a lot of evidence that without trust, we can't engage in the collective search for truth. And if our search for truth is fractured, what good is it?
So, the best answer I can come up with for what is our trust building institution is that it's all of us. It is the organic relationships across difference, it's the conversations where you're surprised to find out that someone disagrees with you on something. It's the times when you think or say, I never thought of it that way. When you're talking about something challenging. That's what builds trust. It's what tells us, oh, there are neighbors, there are people around me who have walked different paths to their perspectives, and I don't agree with them.
I may not even like them, but I can see that we're kind of wound up in the same tough questions that challenge us all. So, there is no other way. Mm-hmm. To get to the collective search for truth that we rely on. And when I look at what is breaking down in our politics, in our media, in our communities, The unit is the one-to-one conversation.
The unit is the bridges we have with each other across difference and the crisis is the bridges we burn because we feel we have no other choice. So the hope for me is that we do have another choice, and that it is psychologically at times very difficult for some people. In some situations, it is impossible, but for others it is far, far easier than you might think.
And I think our society actually depends on this from us, and that if we wait for media or politics to figure it out, we are abdicating, we are betraying ourselves.
Adam Davis: In the path that you've walked, you talked about how each of us is sort of an expert in our own experience, and you've sort of moved, as I understand it, from journalism to this unidentified world, which is also the world that Oregon Humanities is in. It's this world of trying to get people talking to and listening to each other and hearing other people's stories in order to build trust and strengthen relationships, that sort of thing.
I want to ask you to say a little bit more about how you moved from journalism to this unidentified thing that is hard to explain over dinner. Like, what, what is this thing and why do that?
Mónica Guzmán: Yeah. Well, I haven't talked about my family tonight, so I should talk about that because the reason I wrote the book was not ultimately clinical or, or methodical. It really started with my parents. So you mentioned that, my parents are Mexican immigrants. I'm also a Mexican immigrant. We came over from Mexico when I was six years old, and we became citizens in the year 2000. I was 17, so when my parents were naturalized, I was automatically naturalized.
We went through the very interesting experience of sort of voting at the same time. They had not voted in America that long before I started voting. I'll never forget the moment when I came home, junior year of high school and dropped my backpack in my mom's little home office, and I saw like a Bush Cheney sign above her desk and I was like– I wasn't that politically, you know, involved or anything– but some stupid thing in my head was like, well, I'm Democrat, I think so my parents must be Democrat. Sure. And it was just such a shock.
My parents are, very unfiltered. We have a very unfiltered family. I think if any of you had been like, flies on the wall, I grew up in New Hampshire and we went out to eat, you know, quite a bit. It felt like we could speak more loudly than what would be polite because no one understood what we were saying. There was just, do many conversations about, like– they're big fans of Glen Beck–what Glen Beck said, or Clinton's welfare policy. All kinds of debates, debates about same-sex marriage. My mom has very, very Catholic and traditional views about it. I can say more about how those views have evolved, but all that time it's like man, the clashes would happen sometimes out of nowhere.
We went and saw Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 11 or Bowling for Columbine, and then on the way home I had to open the window just because it was so loud in the car. Everyone was just fighting and fighting and fighting. By the time we got to the 2016 presidential campaign, I had never, never seen that kind of tension in my family over politics.
I mean, raise your hand if this is you. Right? It got really intense and a lot of it was over expectations. You know, how could my own mother think this, or you didn't raise me to do that. And they would say things to me too like, how could you not see it this way? What is going on?
The heat got pretty big and I talk in the book about a moment that my dad, when we're just like, walking in. And my dad says, you know, I've heard that, I've heard that some parents don't let their grandparents see their kids anymore over politics, and I wonder if that will ever happen to us.
That was the first time that I heard my dad express that sort of fear. What I told them in that moment was Hamas, which is Spanish for never, like no dad. That will never happen. And I realized that I was making a promise, I was making a commitment, that it may not be easy.
Adam Davis: So that's really interesting to think about that commitment and then thinking about the Braver Angels’ work, which seems to focus on political identity especially, and differences between reds and blues.
I think you pointed earlier, like every one of us carries a lot of different identities. We also are who we are as individuals: why focus on political identity as the key category to consider when getting people together to talk, whether it's family or in most cases probably not family? Why political identity?
Mónica Guzmán: Yeah, so I should back up a bit and say that I'm with a national nonprofit called Braver Angels. It's the largest cross partisan, grassroots nonprofit working to depolarize America. It's almost a hundred local chapters that we call alliances all across the country, and it is focused on that mission of depolarization. We do start with, all right, you're red, you're blue, maybe you're purple, or you're libertarian or somewhere in the middle, but let's bring you together under those categories and get underneath them and figure out what's going on underneath them. So we start with that because that's where our world seems so stuck because the binary between red and blue has become the battleground right, and it's become the reason that nuance seems to sort of die. The reason that so much othering is happening to the point that our debates are becoming so reactionary that it's reckless and ruthless, and silly. You see, I mean, people ask me what is the relationship between these kinds of conversations and policy making?
I think the line is pretty direct. When you look around this country, how many policies are being passed, more because of a fear of the other side, and what they're doing or what they could do, rather than constructing a society where we can all thrive together? It seems like that's become so remote because the number one concern is that the other side is so awful.
So until we can see some of the reality that obscures, there's so many other problems that we'll not be able to tackle as well. So that's why we begin with red/blue, because that's where we have to start to try to move people to a place where we can see something more complicated.
Adam Davis: It feels like so much of this has to happen before you even get in a room. How does it happen before people even get in a room to start understanding each other, that they are open to not going: “Those monsters?”
Mónica Guzmán: Yeah. Yeah. I think it's really important to keep in mind that when you try, when you go in trying to change somebody, you make it impossible to understand them, that when you go in trying to change somebody, it's gonna come off as condescension and it's going to undermine trust. That I think is the number one error we make. We think that our duty is to go in to persuade and change this person's mind, probably because we think we're right and we might be, but what we don't realize is that people cannot hear unless they're heard, and we can't decide when that point is for another person. We are not that person. We can't control that person. So coming in ready to slice it almost always makes things worse. So that's it. Even if we do it in a docile kind of way, people can see through it, right?
So it's more about can we have the humility to come in with a different mindset? The most radical thing I do whenever I catch myself in that place of, I think I'm coming in with a sense of superiority is I'll tell myself, I look forward to being wrong. I look forward to being wrong.
And it's a reminder that if I'm wrong, it's not the end of the world. In fact, it's great. I hope that if they give me an argument that is really good, I can recognize it because that's what I'd expect from them. I need to come in with the exact same posture. Now that's really hard and, but again, it gets harder.
If we think what we're doing is attacking each other via some political issue, we're really here to attack each other. No, you know, politics is the art and science of thriving together. That's what it should be. It shouldn't be war, right? So if we're gonna be as creative as we ought to be, and we're so dang intelligent, we have so much cultural capital, like we should be building an incredible utopia, you know?
But we don't because you pass it through all this filter this incredible potential we have eeks out to that, you know, so that's what I'm interested in is: increase this filter and it starts with understanding that no, you're not perfect and no, you don't have all the answers. And yes, you might be right, but you're not gonna persuade anybody by telling them that outright and not listening to them and, and imagining that you might be wrong.
Adam Davis: It's, it's interesting the way you just characterized politics because it threw me back to a previous part of my life when I studied political science, political philosophy for a while. And I think people would see your definition of politics– as sort of how we thrive together–it's one approach to what politics is, and I think a lot of people also say politics is power.
Adam Davis: And then I think about what that raises for me in all of this, and I think about it in our work sometimes too, is the challenge of bad faith actors. How do bad faith actors affect what feels like a very good faith attempt to understand each other?
So can I just ask you about that then maybe one more short question before moving to questions.
Mónica Guzmán: This is where I get angry. I think bad faith actors thrive in incurious spaces. I think that there are so many times when we say to ourselves, you know, these people who believe these things, I don't wanna listen to them, I don't wanna make space for them. And so then we think what's gonna happen? They're gonna stop believing those things. Is that what we think is gonna happen? Because it's not what happens. They're gonna go to spaces where they are received. And the more that spaces of difference reject the conversation, the more that folks with ideas that get rebuffed are gonna find each other, and then we know what happens.
There's been great research about this. Whenever we're surrounded by people who share our views, our views will intensify, the steps we want to take to make our ideal world reality will intensify. That's what happens. So, when we think, you know, there's harm in having the conversations, there's harm in not having the conversations.
So that's it. It's bad faith actors who thrive when we can't turn to each other to hear our own truths. They may come in a different language, they may come with experiences that make us uncomfortable, but I really believe that when you lean on people's stories, not let's say that they believe something truly deviant, a conspiracy theory, get behind that. How did you come to believe what you believe? Tell me what concerns you. You'll find truth in people's stories, even if there's no truth in their conclusions, and you will build trust. And as you build that trust, again, assuming that this person is the one who's wrong, but it might be you, you never know.
You'll keep that person from feeling that in order to belong, they need to go to darker and darker spaces.
Adam Davis: Mónica Guzmán is a senior fellow for public practice at Braver Angels and the author of, I Never Thought of it that way. She lives in Seattle.
Ryan Nakade is a mediator and facilitator most recently with Cure PDX and like Mónica does some work with Braver Angels. Ryan came into facilitation and mediation work through his own curiosity about people holding different perspectives. He even started a project called Perspective Pedia, in which he reached out and tried to understand people who held beliefs were out on the fringe.
He calls this an idiosyncratic pastime. I spoke with Ryan at the X-Ray FM studios in Portland in June of 2023. Can I ask just to anchor a little bit, what are some of the organizations or networks or existing structures through which, or alongside which you're getting people talking and listening?
Ryan Nakade: Great question.
So one is I do some work with Braver Angels. I am a trained moderator and volunteer with the Washington branch of Braver Angels, formerly with Oregon before I moved to Washington. I'm connected to several mediation centers in Oregon and Washington, specifically East County Resolutions in Gresham, which has supported this kind of work, the Beaverton Center for Mediation and Dialogue. I'm also on the board of the Oregon Mediation Association. I have my own personal business where I've experimented with some of this work in organizations and communities. I also work on a project called Cure PDX, which is most of my day job right now, and Cure PDX’s mission is to try to counter this toxic atmosphere of political polarization that spills into political or ideologically motivated violence via quote unquote extremism or ideological aggression towards other groups. And so we mitigate that by using what we call a credible messenger approach, where we reach out and partner with prominent members of communities who leverage the relationships they have these trusted relationships they've established with their respective community to change the norms and narratives away from violence, for potential escalation to violence, to something less polarizing and more calm basically.
Changing the norms and narratives and acute and de escalating acute risks of escalation. So that's kind of most of my work. There's a lot of, as you can imagine, dialogue bridging, working across differences and tailoring messages to very particular audiences that comes with that. So that's kind of a overall ecosystem of groups I've been involved with.
Adam Davis: Cool. So, Braver Angels in Beaverton, in Gresham doing it sounds like more mediation work in those two places?
Ryan Nakade: Yeah. Some dialogue work. Some dialogue mediation stuff. Facilitation.
Adam Davis: And maybe we can even as we talk, get into the differences and goals and methods, but I wanted to go to Cure PDX because what I heard you saying was that there the work is with, what sounds to me, like really challenging circumstances. Maybe with people that have less familiarity and less experience with things that we would call dialogue or bridging?
Ryan Nakade: Absolutely.
Adam Davis: So can you, is it possible to give like one or two specific examples of people you're doing this work with and what it looks like concretely?
Ryan Nakade: Absolutely. Absolutely. So, one of the credible messengers that we work with, he's a very unique individual. He's an African American guy. His background is actually as a gunsmith and defensive tactics trainer and also as a physicist and has a background in mediation and conflict resolution.
I call him a unicorn. And so he's uniquely positioned ideologically as identifying more as a conservative and being in more kind of rural, conservative, gun culture kind of circles, with former marines, police, that kind of community. And we're designing dialogues that would resonate with that particular crowd, that around topics that they would find meaningful to talk about that also overlap with our project goals.
So, I'll just give you a funny example. There's something that I've recently learned of called the Sheep Dog Mentality, which was popularized, I think by an MMA fighter. And it's kind of like the sheep dog's mission is to protect the herd or the flock. And is not based on taking offensive action towards other groups, but making sure you're protecting your own group in a safe way that doesn't further escalate conflict. And so we might have a talk on the sheep dog mentality at the gun range with a bunch of his buddies, right? So it's not so much bringing his crowd or polarized groups together at the table.
Adam Davis: Got it.
Ryan Nakade: At least not yet, but about finding inroads into having conversations that we think are important on each group's own terms. We use the credible messengers as a kind of a doorway to get there. And then, so we're doing the same thing with activist groups on the left. We're doing the same thing with the kind of evangelical faith community in the greater Portland area and every group in between that we're trying to reach out to, to partner with key individuals and have some of these critical dialogues in the way that's meaningful to them.
Adam Davis: So the unicorn that you described at the shooting range or the gun club that you refer to. What are they talking about?
Ryan Nakade: So it's kind of different forms. So it could be just water cooler conversations with your buddies at like the gun range or the gun shop. Informal, unstructured, informal, unstructured.
Maybe the conversation–this could be anywhere, right–starts to snowball in a kinda a problematic direction where people might start revving each other up to, you know, either they're feeling threatened by another group, or people start making tacit or explicit threats or people just start getting really angry and having the kind of skills in that moment to acknowledge where people are coming from, acknowledged people's grievances, and then simmer down the tensions and deescalate the situation again, using the credibility and influence you've established with them.
So that would be like an informal ad hoc kind of de-escalation and then having formal, more structured community dialogue slash listening sessions where people can weigh in on the subject. It would be kind of facilitated and the person that we're working with would kinda lead that or help facilitate that.
The third one is also we're developing trainings for different community leaders of certain sides to take– but again, very tailored to their unique context and, and universe. That would also equip them with the resources and skills to exert this kind of positive influence on their communities.
Adam Davis: Can you think of examples in your own experience when you where you found yourself in a conversation that you realized that something is happening here which doesn't happen in a lot of conversations and it feels good. It feels like things are deescalating in a useful way or things are being exchanged in a surprising way?
Ryan Nakade: Sure. I kind of cut my teeth on this work in about 2018, 2019. I became very interested in conspiracy theories and was very curious about certain conspiracy movements or belief systems on Facebook and social media, I saw what people, some people were posting, individuals I didn't know at all, or might have known through several friend associations.
And I just reached out to them and said, I'd love to have a conversation. I'd love to hear about your view and I'd love to explore how you came to some of these conclusions. And I'm not gonna like, attack you or, or push back very hard, it's most just an open conversation. I’d like to get to know you.
And so I had several of these dialogues. They're all on Zoom and some of them lasted several hours.
Adam Davis: So you were on social media, whether it's Facebook or Twitter or some other channel. You saw somebody saying some things and you thought those are, those are pretty far out there.
Those look like conspiracy theories. Therefore, I'm gonna reach out to that person and tell 'em, let's talk. I just wanna understand where you're coming from. And then you had some multi-hour Zoom conversations.
Ryan Nakade: Yes. Multiple, multi-hour Zoom conversations with several guys.
Adam Davis: What were one or two of the theories or the kinds of things that they were talking about that you were then trying to understand more of?
Ryan Nakade: Flat earth, Qanon on type of views. All kind of interesting things. Some of them were kind of like spiritual or mystical, talking about a demonic possession, about certain political figures, that kind of thing. So I was just really curious and had several conversations.
I even brought some other friends to have these conversations. I started coming up with a set of questions that I found were universally very powerful in doing several things right? One was as the person who was leading with curiosity and questions, moments that I found to be very illuminating, both in terms of understanding and where the person's coming from, building empathy, but also that were impactful for the person answering the question where it was almost like they had a kind of insight or a moment of self-reflection or a moment of taking another perspective. They've actually, several people explicitly thanked me both afterwards and in the moment saying, Hey, that was a really powerful question you asked me. Thank you. I'm gonna think about that more.
That's my favorite thing to hear out of a dialogue. You know, I'm not trying to change your mind, but there's a moment of, huh, I had some kind of assumption I didn't think about. I'm gonna explore that more deeply. One example, I can just mention a few of my favorite questions that had those kinds of moments.
One is, what is something about your side or your beliefs that the other side doesn't understand? And how do you, why do you think that misunderstanding happens? And given that we now understand that there is a misunderstanding, what is something you can do to help clarify that misunderstanding to people who don't understand?
How could you say that differently? How could you frame that differently such that people outside of your worldview might better understand and empathize with where you're coming from? And it almost spontaneously turns into a kind of communication or conflict coaching session, right, of thinking like, how do we translate our message to different audiences who have completely different beliefs, completely different ways of seeing things and translate across these silos and, and sometimes that type of conversation would go on for an hour?
Adam Davis: When you think about bridging work, what is the stuff you most hope comes out of that?
Ryan Nakade: So I think this is also a helpful time to contrast bridging versus dialogue versus mediation. So I think of dialogue as the goal really is better understanding, less feelings of antagonism towards the other side and re humanization.
Adam Davis: So when you say the other side, uh, it made me pause for a second.
Is it towards the other side or toward the other person or some combination? What's the difference between thinking about sides and thinking about people when you're doing bridging work?
Ryan Nakade: Great question. So I think one of the big hurdles that, you know, it's a natural product of human brains, is this tendency to stereotype people based on the quote unquote side or group they represent and to reduce them to nothing more than that, instead of seeing the unique complexity of them as an individual and their life story of what led them to believe whatever they believe. And so part of the work to me is, and Braver Angels in a lot of their workshops, they focus a lot on encountering political stereotypes we have of the quote unquote other side.
That usually means bringing–yeah, it's a more nuanced picture of the people, and that's what triggers feelings of more empathy or understanding. So you're separating individuals out from the group as a kind of homogeneous blob that you had of them in your mind.
So that I think is an important distinction. And so with dialogue, you're trying to facilitate some sense of humanization, understanding, and empathy. You know, again, you still might have very vigorous disagreement about something. But maybe you won't hate each other as much or yell at each other in the process of discussing the disagreement.
Mediation is more about a specific conflict in which the goal is better dialogue, understanding, empathy. But there is an action item that comes out of the meeting. So there's some kind of concrete agreement both parties or all parties in conflict are crystallizing, right?
You're trying to work towards an agreement and then parties will then enact the agreement. So it's the reason why mediation is hard to scale at the political level is oftentimes where I don't have any control over most political things, right? We can't agree about what to do with Ukraine and make it an action item, but I can better understand where you're coming from with that war and you know where I'm coming from.
So that's where dialogue comes in, it's not based around nailing down action items for people to do after the meeting. It's more about just that, seeing each other as complex human beings.
Adam Davis: So again, I think about the time horizon. And also I think the sort of what you can control, what you can't control.
And that the bridging work, the dialogue work, it sounds like is really the underlying stuff that might actually inform when we have to make decisions together or when we're approaching a potentially tense moment that could lead to violence. In both of those cases, it sounds like the bridging work isn't the immediate solution for those, but over the long term it will have, the hope is, some sort of positive effect on both of those other kinds of ways that we show up together with some tension.
Ryan Nakade: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think you really see this in, when you look at political or ideologically inspired violence, right? Everyone and, and to no one's, to no individual's fault, in my view, are siloing into an echo chamber.
Right? Whether that's digitally influenced, right where the algorithms kind of insulate us into an information bubble or even in society there are different self sorting or self-selecting dynamics where people wanna hang out with people who are like us, right? And then our exposure to other perspectives or sources of information are limited and so then we leave with a very partial and kinda rigid one-sided view of the world.
So I think the kind of long-term work of bridging may be rebuilding those bridges between isolated silos and factions. And through that you're able to change how you view the outgroup and change how you, we tend to other people, right?
And think that they're bad or stupid or less than some way. I think in that way that'll contribute to an overall climate of less antagonism, where it's much harder to get inspired to act on violence or justify violence when you have some kind of humanized notion of the people you formerly demonized.
Adam Davis: During our conversation, Ryan mentioned transformative dialogue as being a method that he uses in mediation. I asked more about how he uses it with others and himself.
Ryan Nakade: Transformative dialogue is basically where you do encounter someone with truly problematic beliefs, like advocating for harm against a certain group and simply trying to get to know the person and humanize them. Sometimes it feels like that's not quite enough, I wanna challenge you a little bit, right? But what Cure Violence Global and Cure PDX is, is we don't, you know, it's our doctrine, we don't try to change people's beliefs. You can believe what you believe, just please don't act violently on it or escalate other people to violence.
But that does leave a kind of a dilemma of, well, what do you do with people who do have problematic beliefs that may explicitly argue for violence or something? So transformative dialogue is a series of, it's a way to ask certain questions and also a way to share your own beliefs in a way that doesn't necessarily change what the other person believes, but it changes how they relate to what they believe.
It changes how they hold and understand and reflect on their own views and perspective. It's almost like a, I call it inspiring, kind of critical thinking and self-awareness around their own views, and then thus kind of changing how you relate to your view. So it's, it's, you're not as blindly kind of attached to it or identified with it.
Adam Davis: Do you have a view of your own that you've changed your relation to? Like one for you where you had a view that you held in a certain way and you feel like your relation to that view is different now. So not a changed view, but a changed orientation towards it. In the way you just described. Is there anything you can think of in your own experience?
Ryan Nakade: An example that comes to my mind is race issues or racial justice issues. For me, and this is something that I've had quite, it's, I think for everyone, these questions are kind of an ongoing evolutionary journey with how I relate to them. I've oscillated and vacillated in every direction, feeling at times very, very frustrated from the dominant kind of social justice Portland narrative and climate.
Even if I would agree with some of the content, I didn't like how the conversations were being had and feeling more empathy towards people who are more conservative, pushing back from the conservative side. And then other times being like, God, this guy's such a, you know like going full on social justice, wanting to call people racist or whatever.
And like, kind of oscillating with that frustration or tension and my own racial identity, as an Asian American and living in different environments and at times loving everyone and feeling frustrated with everyone of every side in a different way. And again it's a thing that my relationship to issues of race, racial justice, identity, that's constantly shifting.
I'll wake up with one conviction, I'll go to sleep, be like, no, I changed my mind. You know? It's constantly changing. Yeah.
Adam Davis: Which feels to me like a really encouraging thing to hear because I think in a way we're told by everything from major media organizations to a kind of cultural message that each of us is kind of fixed. That we, because we're in one group, all our beliefs also correspond to that and if that's who we were five years ago, it's also who we are now. And like you, that's not how I feel. Like there's like a sense of fluidity that is both puzzling and challenging and also feels kind of more alive.
Are there beliefs that on their face are not just to be understood, but they're to be challenged? To go back to another word you used I thought you laid out a nice spectrum of well, there's, let's try to understand. There's, let's try to understand and challenge a little bit. There, let's try to challenge and de-escalate.
I'm especially, I think, interested in that middle category, not the deescalation and not the understanding, but the challenging. When should we not only try to understand, but also challenge?
Ryan Nakade: Yeah. So, I think that's a very open question, but I think, for me, what I like to challenge is any view that I feel like is somehow oversimplifying what is a very complex situation.
Whether that's oversimplifying an individual or a group or a side oversimplifying a policy issue, oversimplifying an event. Anything where people tend to double down and say, no, it's just about this. That instinct to be like, well, you know, have you considered this? Or, so that kind of an impulse, that kind of challenge lightly does come up.
In terms of specific types of views that I would say are generally problematic, that I think are most important to challenge are some kind of really entrenched notion of individuals or groups that seems very reductionist and kind of essentialist where you have an un-nuanced picture of what that group is like and that becomes a core part of your ideology and you start talking about them like “them” in a certain way and then, there are different techniques I've developed to, to try to poke at that. One very simple one that I like is to immediately bring in all of my friends who are part of that group that I interact with, have conversation with, whether it's the ethnic group or cultural group, or ideological group.
Also making finer grain distinctions that breaks up homogeneous character, even caricaturing of a certain group, right? So if someone is like oh, all conservatives are bad or whatever, it's like there's so many different categorical distinctions in different movements, different schools.
Are we talking different levels of education? Class? Rural, urban? Are we talking libertarian? Neo-conservative, right? Trump supporter? More mainstream, you know, rhino, so to speak, right? It's like there's so many different distinctions and groups and even if an individual aligns with a certain side, they will have beliefs that they don't agree with the side that they more or less identify with too.
So just a, a more nuanced picture starts to emerge of that and that's something I like to try to facilitate.
Adam Davis: Can I ask you, what do you find most challenging about this kind of work? What's the hardest stuff for you?
Ryan Nakade: I mean, on a practical level I think the hardest part is really building trust.
Trust is really a difficult thing to cultivate, especially with people that, or groups that you don't really know very well. So even finding the people to find the groups as the kind of first step even that was kinda challenging. To get people to trust you to the, or your project or who's funding your project, even that's a big deal breaker, right, to the point where they would agree to a dialogue that they would agree to come to the table, that they trust, that the facilitators are gonna be impartial. That they're, they're gonna get a fair and balanced conversation at the table. Right. Trusting that the information we get from them is not gonna be used against them.
Right. Trusting that we have good intentions that are coming from good faith, or that our method is, uh, reliable. Mm-hmm. Uh, there's so many trust issues right now in the community, um, that, that. It's, and it's not, it's not just from one side or the other. You know, we even encountered trust issues from everyone left, right, center, and off the political spectrum.
Mm-hmm. You know, from every racial group, every demographic groups, there's some kind of skepticism or lack of trust. And again, the only way that I know how to build that is either if you can't find the people who are already connected to them, just slowly kinda whittling away at building trust through dialogue and genuine human connection.
Adam Davis: Ryan Nade is a mediator and facilitator at Cure PDX. He lives in southwest Washington with his wife and several goats.
You can find links to our guests' work, as well as the full conversation with Mónica in our show firstname.lastname@example.org. We'd also like to hear your experiences of a time when a potentially challenging conversation turned out better than you expected. Send us a short voice message to the email@example.com, and it could be featured on our next episode.
The Detour is produced by Kieren Bond. Dave Friedlander is our editor. Ben Waterhouse, Karina Briski, and Alexandra Powell Bugden are our assistant producers. I'm Adam Davis. Thanks for listening. See you next time.