Mónica Guzmán: navigating a pluralistic society with hope by listening

The Community Foundation of South Puget Sound recently hosted its inaugural Community Conversation event. As an organization steadfast in its dedication to fostering collaboration, engagement, and inclusion, they envision a future where everyone in the region can thrive in communities that are sustainable, equitable, and resilient.

“In selecting the first Community Conversation theme, we were struck by the concerning trend of increased polarization across our communities,” said Mary Lam-Witcher, the Community Foundation’s Philanthropy and Communications Officer. “This is why we are thrilled to welcome Mónica Guzmán after hearing her speak at a philanthropy event last year.”

Mónica Guzmán is a journalist and Senior Fellow for Public Practice at Braver Angels. She also authored The New York Times recommended book, I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times.

During a fireside chat with Renee Radcliff Sinclair, CEO of TVW, Mónica discussed her background as the daughter of parents who hold completely different political beliefs from her. Growing up, she learned to navigate the differences between her parents and herself – including how to approach sensitive subjects when it was challenging for them to even agree on their most core values.

Mónica found the most helpful technique in this situation was to listen. Listen closely to what the other person is saying. Because when you listen, you will be able to put yourself in their shoes and understand where their reasoning comes from, which allows you to see and respect them as fellow human beings.

One of the most sensitive topics that would spark a heated argument between her mother and her was reproductive rights. To this day, they do not agree about almost anything related to this issue. However, what they do agree on is that even though their values contradict one another, it doesn’t mean that one matters less than the other.

“Listening is one of the keys to building relationships and trust between one another,” Mónica said.

One of the most important aspects of listening, she believes, is to understand the concerns that underlie someone’s reaction or the arguments one presents on an issue. Topics can often be complex and require deep knowledge – but, as Mónica eloquently put it, “Concerns don’t wait for education.” Even when people lack expertise on certain issues, their concerns still need to be heard; listening helps ease the tension and division among people with different positions.

Mónica believes this is critical because disagreements are inevitable. We live in a pluralistic country, filled with diverse people who hold varied opinions and beliefs. Diversity is essential to our society because the friction between us may help reveal blind spots or weaknesses. Without people challenging our thoughts, we may remain in a bubble of ignorance. And although it can be uncomfortable, “Diversity isn’t just about the differences we like,” she said.

She cautioned the audience not to shame people who hold different opinions, beliefs, or thoughts from their own. Shaming may push people toward others who will listen to them, deepening the divide of our country instead of building coalition to address issues.

Mónica also encouraged people to not only appreciate but to engage with those with different perspectives, though as a young woman of color, she understands the fear in approaching those engagements. They can be detrimental to our safety, both physical and emotional. And it may be difficult to anticipate whether an engagement will be harmful or welcoming. To overcome that, she advised the audience to start with something small – ideally with people with whom they feel comfortable.

“Awareness is deafening now.”

Mónica Guzmán – on what gives her hope

As the evening came to a close, Mónica shared her formula of hope; it’s the combination of goals, roadmap, and willpower. In other words, she believes people should act on practical, achievable goals by envisioning a path and finding reasons to stay committed to it, and it is best done with members of their community.

Through the hard work of the Community Foundation of South Puget Sound, over 300 people were able to come together to engage with Mónica and her discussion of political polarization based on her personal perspective and experience.

“We believe that inclusive civic engagement and productive dialogue are vital for a functioning community and democracy,” said Mindie Rule, President and CEO of the Community Foundation. “Always expecting unity in a community like ours is not practical, but we must strive to avoid turning people we disagree with into our enemies. Many of us share a common interest in the well-being of our community, and that gives me hope.”