RoosRead Discussion #4 Assumptions, Reason & Opinion

I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times, by Mónica Guzmán

Welcome to UMKC Libraries’ RoosRead discussions for Academic Year 2023-2024! See the other posts in the series.


This month we begin discussing people. Who are these people that think so differently than us about divisive issues? To get us thinking about this question, Mónica Guzmán tells us a great story about an event that she and co-founder of The Evergrey Annika Anand set up for a small group of Seattle citizens to travel to Sherman County, Oregon to meet residents from a place where 74% of voters selected Donald Trump for President in 2016. Guzmán contacted Sherry Kaseberg, publisher of the Sherman County E-News, who was also interested and had local resident and retired OSU Extension agent Alexander “Sandy” Macnab set up the meeting “Melting Mountains: An Urban-Rural Gathering” between a little more than a dozen residents of both places in the Sherman County seat of Moro, population 353.

This story is required reading – it really draws in so many threads throughout the book! We won’t spoil you from experiencing it here.

Guzmán used Macnab’s event title “Melting Mountains” as a metaphor for uncovering and understanding the assumptions that both we and the people we have a difficult conversation with bring to our discussions of divisive issues. While we can’t possibly stop ourselves from making assumptions about people, Guzmán argues that we can, when we notice our assumptions, turn them into questions. The inquiring, curious mind she developed in her journalistic endeavors points toward a way to not let assumptions derail a conversation. “Fail to notice your assumptions and they might harden into lies. Turn them into questions and they’ll get you closer to the truth” (p.115).

Guzmán introduces an imaginary character for us to visualize, our personal Assumptions Assistant, who whispers to us things about the people we meet as though the Assumptions Assistant already knows them well. While your Assumption Assistant can help you avoid trouble (hey, that dark deserted alley may not be the place for a midnight stroll!), it can also get you into trouble by making you believe that you know something about someone that is not true, or not the whole picture.

Whispering at Walton Hall, CC-BY Ian Carrol, 2010.

Wrapping up her discussion about our assumptions, Guzmán reminds us, “People are mysteries, not puzzles. This means we can never be sure about them. But we can always be curious” (p.118).

Reason & Opinion

The Story of an Insight from Two Elephant Parables

Chances are that you have heard of the parable of the blind men and the elephant that comes from Buddhism.

Blind Men and the Elephant – netsuke, Japan (MET, 10.211.900), image made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Mónica Guzmán reminds us that each of these blind people told the king the truth about what an elephant was like from their experience, but none of the blind people individually could relate to the king the larger truth of what an elephant was really like. Only by adding together the individual perspectives of each of the blind people can we begin to understand what the elephant is, and Guzmán sums this insight up nicely in two short sentences: “We think of perspectives as interpretations of information. But when it comes to the things that divide us, perspectives are information” (p.121). So only by assembling an understanding of the many different perspectives on a divisive issue can we begin to acknowledge why people can arrive at very different conclusions based upon their reasoning.

Guzmán introduces another, more modern parable of an elephant, developed by Jonathan Haidt. This parable involves a large elephant and a tiny human rider.

Little Girl Riding Elephant, Image CC-0 (Public Domain) by sasint.

Haidt says we are of two minds when we make our judgments about things, a reasoning mind and an intuitive mind. Our reason is like the tiny human rider, but our intuition is like the large elephant. Sometimes, no matter where the reasoning mind might want to go, in spite of leaning or pushing on or encouraging the elephant of our intuition, our intuition will lead us in the direction it is most comfortable with going. After all, the large elephant is often a lot older than the tiny human, and life experiences have taught it what works!

Intuition serves an important function for every individual, and Guzmán points out that we need to pay attention when we talk about divisive issues to not only be communicating the reasons for our opinion, but to be asking questions that engage your curiosity to find out more about the other person’s intuitions. She has five things that we can try to get past a conversation that is stuck on each other’s reasoning:

  1. “Pry your mind back open” – Focus on the idea that you are resisting, and ask of yourself, “Can I believe it?”
  2. Think about the information you are linking together into a chain of reasoning. Do you really know that the other person has that extreme view you are attaching to their ideas?
  3. Find a way to let the other person know what a sticking point is for you in the discussion, and to ask them what their views are on that point
  4. Find a way to state as best you can a sticking point that the other person keeps returning to in the discussion, and then ask them more (from a curiosity perspective, not a judgmental perspective) to understand if you are understanding them correctly, and if there is more you can understand about that view
  5. “Make talking points starting points” – If a conversation is just talking points from your side and talking points from the other person, know that talking in this way actively stifles understanding of complex issues, and doesn’t help spark our curiosity that can lead to better discussions. Guzmán says, “So if you find yourself about to echo the meme that got a ton of likes in your silo, ask yourself what you really want to say and what you really want to know.” (p.132) That can be a great starting point for a good conversation.

But That’s Just YOUR Opinion!

From philosopher David E. Smith, Guzmán gained an important INTOIT insight – that contrary to our beliefs, we don’t choose our opinions, but rather form them throughout our lives and experiences. I never thought of it that way either! If we practice what we learned previously in the book, we have to ask ourselves, “Can I believe that we don’t choose our opinions, but instead they form based on our experiences?” If we allow for that, then we must allow that our beliefs are not the same as truths about the world – they are our truths. Also, unless we believe ourselves to be omniscient (and therefore un-human!), we must then acknowledge that some of our beliefs are likely not true, or less strongly stated, just wrong about the world. Which ones? We don’t know which ones we are wrong about.

Image by Vectorportal.comCC-BY.

Given this new awareness of uncertainty about the truth of our own beliefs, we need to ask ourselves the same question David E. Smith did in his lecture – “Which do you value more: the truth or your own beliefs? ‘Cause they’re not synonymous. If I’m wrong about some things – my beliefs about everything all put together – my beliefs are not synonymous with the truth. If I value my own beliefs more than the truth, I’m going to defend myself to the death. And why would I listen to you?” (p.134).

So on difficult issues, can we step back and think, “Do I value the truth or my opinion?” In the United States today, perhaps no area illustrates the need for us to ask ourselves this question like our political discourse. Our divided political party perspectives appear to focus only on thwarting whatever the other side wants to accomplish. On ANY issue. People appear to hold their political opinions very tightly, and it would be easy to assume that there is no ground upon which to talk about difficult issues. But what if we approached these conversations with curiosity about what led the other people to have such a different opinion from ours? What if we had the courage and trust to share our opinions in a way that provides an opening to consider new information and ideas?

These aren’t pie-in-the-sky, wishful thinking questions. How we answer them says a lot about respect, and in particular how we accord respect to others. Guzmán says that in our difficult converations, “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. 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” (p.140).

Guzmán has eight more Traction LOOP (remember LOOP from Chapter 7? Listen-Observe-Offer-Pull) tips in this month’s reading. We won’t try to cover them all here – but they are all worth considering and using in your conversations! I know that, for me, the reminder to “Say ‘I don’t know’ when you don’t know” has special importance. A candid acknowledgement that I lack some knowledge or understanding or facts can go a long way to building trust and showing the other person in the conversation that I’m willing to be my honest self. Also, by admitting when I don’t know something, I can open the door to my curiosity, and get some help filling that gap in my knowledge. Win-win!

You can see a full, 2021 version of David E. Smith’s talk “Civil Conversation in an Angry Age” on YouTube.

Let’s discuss!

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Guzmán writes that people don’t choose their opinions, but instead form those opinions through lived experience. How do you think that particular INTOIT insight can help us to focus on understanding people, rather than winning the argument, in a conversation?

Getting a jump start on next month?

Based on my reasoned opinion, we’ve covered ways to better understand people. But we’re just beginning! Next month we’ll begin examining the paths that people take to arrive at their opinions. We’ll discuss Chapter 11. Enjoy your Winter Intercession and see you in January!

By: Scott Curtis, Teaching & Learning Librarian

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