League of Women Voters

Try human approach to bridging differences


In mid-2016, a resident of West Main invited neighbors, friends and family for the first of what she called “front porch politics.” Conditions should have been ideal — comfortable weather, kind people most of whom knew each other — but by the end of the night, the strength of people’s differences foreshadowed the subsequent eight years. Even with the generosity of attention, the conversation failed to bridge divides. Many conversations like it have followed, all around the country.

It would have been nice to have had Monica Guzman’s “I Never Thought of It That Way” for some guidance on how to bring together Americans who’ve moved further apart. Guzman’s 2022 book is the tome to tackle as we ramp up for the election in November, and whatever comes after

Guzman wants Americans to bridge differences because she’s experienced the need and satisfaction of doing so within her own family. Feeling distraught on Nov. 8, 2016, she called her mother.  “What happened?”

“Democracy worked,” her mother replied. Guzman’s parents had weathered the mockery of voting in Mexico for most of their lives, and as naturalized U.S. citizens, they were thrilled that the candidate they voted for had won.

While many biological families, like “Testimony” author Jon Ward’s, fractured, and churches like Bible study author Beth Moore’s splintered, and people of all ages like Sarah Billups and Brian McClaren  deconstructed and reconstructed their faith, Guzman found a way through, as if she found light in the adage, “The only way is through.” Guzman’s love for her parents drove her to ask how we can bridge our differences by being more curious and open.

“I Never Thought of It That Way” opens with how and why we’re crying out — SOSing — by sorting, othering and siloing.

Humans naturally sort. Even when we walk into a social event, open and ready to meet people, we find people who share our interests, seeking out someone with shared core values. We shake out in clumps of those like us. While there’s something delightful about vibing with another human, we can step into a pothole, where we “otherize” people. We know this as us and them, those who share affinities with us, and those who are too different. If we stay within our affinity group(s), we end up siloing — relating mostly to those with whom agree.

Guzman doesn’t blame (or exonerate) algorithms on the interwebs, which are optimized to keep our eyeballs on their site. To keep users engaged, they either keep us in our silo or trip our triggers. In both scenarios, we stay for affirmation that we’re on right side. Our brains love the dopamine hit. We listen to win, not to understand; we think conversation, debate, or communication is only about ideas, not about relationships.  When we focus on winning the ideas, we surrender the arena.

“‘I am because we are,’ goes the Ubuntu proverb. We crave community and connection,” Guzman wrote . Later, she adds, “We shouldn’t focus on understanding, rather than winning, just because it’s smarter. It’s also the only approach that values other people as people by giving them the space to be who they are.”

If we are willing to learn — at least to understand why others think the way they do, even if not to affect their votes or values — it could keep our communities from cracking at the core. In the meantime, democracy gains strength.

“You can’t get traction with a mind you’re trying to defeat. Uncertainty that searches for truth gets there faster than certainty that asserts it,” Guzman writes.

From there, Guzman suggests we get curious about why think and believe as they do. “The problem isn’t the partial answers we’re always collecting from a variety of sources in our busy lives. It’s the questions we stop asking because we think we’ve learned enough.”

We start with “bridging conversations” but we must turn on the five dials and walk through it a bit.

Let’s unpack Guzman’s five dials, which one of her readers turned into the mnemonic EPACT — embodiment, parity, attention, containment, and time. They’re dials because we can adjust each one based on our lives. These are the context of the conversation we’re about to have.

First, embodiment. That’s the non-verbal gestures and tone of language. Together these make up more than 90% of how humans communicate. Take those out and all we have are words. If we shoot off a text, post or email stripped of our usual polite tones, enthusiastic gestures, frowns or smiles, we have to choose our words more thoughtfully. We need to construct sentences with greater care.

Parity weighs whether the participants are on an equal playing field in the medium of the conversation. On social media or via texting, we can block or erase comments. In-person, is one person in a position of authority? If it’s unequal, that changes the dynamics.

Attention is “the highest and purest form of generosity,” as philosopher Simone Weil wrote. Let’s admit that when someone looks away or at their mobile device while we’re talking, it signals a loss of attention.  It’s easier to switch our attention in an asynchronous formats like texts, emails, posts or messages, compared a real-time phone or face-to-face encounter. If you’re going to be distracted, consider the outcomes.

Then there’s containment, “the extent to which your conversation is actually contained to the people engaging in it,” which Guzman suggests is the most important. “There’s so many spaces on social media where we have an invisible mass audience, it’s like a panopticon, we end up performing our perspectives, instead of exploring them together. Because we don’t know who’s listening. But we imagine all our insecurities project, you know, bad things. We better behave, we better conform to whatever our group would expect of us.”

Finally, there’s time. “A lot of times we bring up tough topics when someone’s out the door, or feeling stressed or under pressure. This is not a time when you’re going to be reflective, you’re going to be reactive, you’re going to want to try to close the door and move on,” Guzman says.

Why care about approaching conversations with such care and awareness? There’s a word in Spanish, Guzman writes, with no good English equivalent: convivir, which means to live together. At some point, when we began to cancel each other without asking, “why does that person hold views like that?” we have stopped living together. And the ability to live together, respecting each other’s personhood while holding different values, is the soft tissue of democracy, as critical to its health as the bones and muscles of representation, peaceful transfers of power, and the right to vote.


The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, multi-issue organization encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of major policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the LWV where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For information, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org or the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, IN Facebook page.