3 Steps to Talking Politics Without Tearing Your Hair Out | Kamy Akhavan

Have we lost the ability to have conversations with folks on “the other side”? Kamy Akhavan is debunking how to have polarizing discussions that are actually productive. Making connections with people from opposing views is hard to do but it’s very powerful when we do get through to each other.   With 20 years of experience bridging divides, Kamy’s work has helped people fight polarization, master essential skills for the modern workplace, and start and grow successful nonprofit organizations. 

3 Steps to Bridging the conversation Gap

1. Be curious and listen to the other side

2. Ask pointed clarifying questions to learn more and build trust

3. Bring the heat down and find the larger common ground, what Kamy calls Superordination. 

 About KamyKamy Akhavan, former CEO of ProCon.org, the nation’s leading source of nonpartisan research on controversial issues, now leads the Center for the Political Future (CPF) at the University of Southern California.With more than 20 years of experience in bridging divides at national levels, Kamy’s work has served more than 200 million people, including students at more than 12,000 schools in all 50 states and 100 countries. Kamy writes and speaks on numerous topics including the origins of and solutions to political polarization, improving interpersonal communication, the awesome power of debate, nonprofit leadership, digital marketing, civics education, and how to teach controversial issues.Rough Transcript

[00:00:00] Today on the whole well podcast, I am

[00:00:27] incredibly excited to invite Kami Ahkavan. the former CEO of procon.org, a leading source of nonpartisan research on controversial issues that I’m a boy lot to get into there. And currently he is the executive director, executive director of the center for the political future at university of Southern California.

[00:00:51] Kamy. It’s great to see you at least over zoom.

[00:00:55] Yeah, that’s right. Well, great to see you too, George. It’s been a while. I’m a big fan of your company and a

[00:01:01] view, so it’s a

[00:01:02] Oh, thank you. Well, I mean, I just, I have to start

[00:01:06] with I know that a few years ago, I believe you left as the CEO of pro con maybe we can just sort of start there. Inspired that transition. Cause it wasn’t at all a politically heated moment at all three years ago because I blacked out what happened.

[00:01:23] I started at ProCon in 2004. I was hired as a managing editor and then became president and then became CEO. the

[00:01:31] reason that I fell in love with that organization is because it was the only one in the country that was focused on presenting extensive research on both sides of

[00:01:40] controversial issues and doing it in a

[00:01:42] very accessible way.

[00:01:44] This is not for policy wanks or super motivated politicos. This is for soccer moms and for people like my, my neighbors and my parents and my, my siblings that I wanted everybody in the country to be able to understand both sides of controversial issues so they can make their own informed judgment and make their own informed opinions on these very tough issues.

[00:02:11] Most people didn’t have the time. They didn’t have the wherewithal and they frankly didn’t have the balanced media diet that would give them access to all those perspectives. So when I leaned into that organization and find out that it wasn’t just me, who wanted to have both sides represented really well and understand what all the viewpoints were on issues like, should we legalize marijuana?

[00:02:37] Should the death penalty remain legal? Should abortion be legal? Should you spank your children? Should felons be allowed to vote? Should we put up a border wall? All these controversies, it turned out that tens and tens of millions of people also cared a lot. We ended up reaching an audience of over 300 million people over the course of my 14 years there.

[00:02:58] But to answer your question, 14 years is a long time to be doing anything. And after a while, I just started looking for the eggs. Over the course of my time at con I had worked with over 13,000 schools in all 50 states and nearly a hundred different countries. One of those schools was USC university of Southern California and at one of our events, and this is a true story.

[00:03:23] We were hosting. Remember Anthony Scaramucci, the mooch was going to go on stage with, with a guy named Mike Murphy, who was. The campaign manager for Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush and John McCain and Arnold Schwartzenegger big deal. Republican guys. They went on stage and then the current executive director said, Hey, comedy, you want my job?

[00:03:46] I’m going to be moving. And I said, well, I’m super interested because I’m 14 years in a pro con. What, tell me more. And then she told me more. I ended up applying, ended up getting the position and it’s been three years since. So even though I’m a two time UCLA graduate, I’m a proud Bruin. I am now a Brogan Brogan because I can now put up my two fingers and say fight on because USC pays my bills.

[00:04:14] It’s a fabulous university. I’ve always had great respect for USC as well as for UCLA, my, my Alma mater. So happy to be here at USC and pro-con meanwhile, lives on and has since been acquired by encyclopedia Britannica and they run it. That was part of the exit strategy. Was to make sure that it lived on.

[00:04:34] So they great content is still widely available to millions of millions of people. I couldn’t be more proud of that operation and what it has done. And we can talk a little bit more about the impact that it has made. I know impact is your, is your currency. And, and I’m very proud of that. And an eager to talk about as well.

[00:04:54] What’s going on here at USC and in all the side

[00:04:57] projects that I’m involved in and you’re involved

[00:04:59] in.

[00:05:00] It’s so interesting because you go from this really immersive. You know, 300 million type level impressions and over a decade of work, which is certainly I would, classify as a mile-wide and that’s just the nature of a mile wide reaching many, many at a very top level to now it’s looking like you’re going a mile deep, a mile deep with the ability to craft and look at an educational experience in a very fraught, political time full of, as you mentioned , media, bubbles media, bubbles that are doing the work of getting and keeping attention.

[00:05:40] I want to actually just pull back though to that moment. You said I started, you know, 14 years are

[00:05:46] people listening and I’m also kind of, we had a recently Greg Baldwin on who is announced that he is moving on from volunteer mattress. a lot of I think, changing, changing of the guard,

[00:05:58] like. What is that first initial moment.

[00:06:00] And then from that moment of , it’s time, , what about that

[00:06:05] gives you that like, all right, now I need to put

[00:06:08] this in place. And what is putting this in place? Look like.

[00:06:12] Yeah, it’s, it’s a profound question and a lot of ways, because it has so much to do with the sense of purpose in life in general. So for me, my purpose professionally and personally had been as a bridge builder. I was bringing people together sometimes against their will on issues so that they can discover that the

[00:06:36] people that they thought

[00:06:37] were opposite from them, that they considered enemies, not just opponents, but enemies, but those people were actually quite rational and that those people got to their viewpoints based on.

[00:06:49] Reasons and education and moral guidance and family values and things that were deeply, deeply reasonable, and they were not caricature. So for liberals they might read or watch Tucker Carlson and think, oh, conservatives, they don’t know anything. Or conservatives might watch Rachel Maddow and think, ah, she’s such an extremist.

[00:07:20] The reality is that most of us are somewhere in the middle and those viewpoints were not being represented because as you know, for example, 90% of tweets come from 20% of its users. The people who’d speak. The loudest are the ones who are hurt. And most of the time, most of us are kind of in the middle.

[00:07:43] are not extremely. So to answer your question about the, that moment. For me, the moment came when I realized that my personal and professional mission of bridging people, I had been doing it digitally, virtually reaching large audiences. But when I would have conversations offline with friends or family or colleagues, sometimes those conversations got heated.

[00:08:08] And sometimes those conversations went sideways and got ugly. And I thought that’s, I’m the master of bringing people together and getting people to recognize their common humanity and recognize the merit in each other’s viewpoints. And yet I’m not able to do it on an interpersonal basis. Why is that?

[00:08:28] And there was a new challenge. I thought this is a different kinds of challenge. It’s very different. When you’re reading information online, where you can be vulnerable, someone is not confronting. You are allowing yourself to be open and allowing yourself to intake new information and be considerate in a heated exchange that is gone.

[00:08:52] And the defensiveness goes up dramatically. The stakes go up and it becomes more of a context. And in those situations, the person wants to win. They don’t want to listen. And I thought this is a great area for me to focus on. If I really care about bridging divides, I need to know how to do this interpersonally.

[00:09:15] And so that became my focus. As I said, I need to challenge myself for the next thing and take what I can do virtually and bring it to a interpersonal level. And that was a real challenge. Learning how to disagree better. Is difficult learning how to navigate fraught conversations is a super challenge.

[00:09:37] And it’s something that we all face. If an employee is doing a bad job, how do you tell them in a way that won’t make them defensive? How do you tell them in a way that will make them think, thank you for telling me I’m so glad that I have this feedback. It’s really difficult. Or if you’re having an argument with someone about the merits of the corporate tax rate, should, is it too high or too low?

[00:10:00] How can you get a conversation like that to not go off the rails where suddenly you’re insulting each other? That’s what I’ve been focused on. And I think I learned a lot in that process over the last few years, so much so to where I can now travel the country and talk about how my experiences in bridging divides online now matches my experiences bridging divides in small group and one-on-one conversations.

[00:10:29] So that we can bring those best tactics and strategies to bear in our workplaces, in our schools

[00:10:36] and in our dinner tables.

[00:10:39] so it sounds like you got wooed by A new problem and challenge that you saw in your

[00:10:45] backyard, and you realize that it is part and parcel with the larger goal that you seem to just have adopted as there needs to be a bridge here. This is ridiculous. Most of us are in the middle. How do, how do we talk to each other about very important issues in a country?

[00:11:00] We all, you know, pay taxes and pledge to.

[00:11:04] A hundred percent or that I haven’t told you this story, but let me just tell you what motivates me. I said it’s personal. So I was born in the backseat of a taxi cab, Ted Harani, Ron. I moved to south Louisiana when I was one year old. I

[00:11:17] was an who grew up among sash reason tippy-toes and Columbias and arsenals

[00:11:23] good Cajun names like that.

[00:11:24] I stood out like a sword bound with a name like

[00:11:27] Acabar and I had to constantly build these bridges so that my agent friends could understand what Iranian culture was about and vice versa. Then I ended up moving to Southern California where my neighbors names were Coya

[00:11:43] a lot of Japanese people in the Torrance community where I lived, but also Gonzalez and Lopez and a lot of Hispanic names. So again, bridging divides, I had a Cajun accent. And I’m an active on, and I have to represent all these cultures. I lived in twenty-five homes. By the time I was 20 years old, constantly building bridges.

[00:12:02] That’s something that I had to become good at as a, as a human being, just to exist and to recognize that all these different cultures were so interesting. And they have so much to offer. And I had so much to learn and I wanted those cultures to feel the same way about the cultures that I had come from and the kinds of foods and music and language and experiences that I had to share.

[00:12:27] So it became a compulsion of curiosity and curiosity to me is the most underrated of all motivations. It is the thing that will drive empathy that will drive respect, and that will drive learning drive. Open-mindedness I remember asking a prominent rabbit. Of all the things in the world, which characteristic do you value the most?

[00:12:49] And he said, Kami, it’s not love. It’s not love. It’s not passion. What do you mean? It’s not passion. And he went on to name all the things that’s not. And then he said curiosity. And I said, exactly, it’s curiosity. So all that’s to say that that’s what motivated me personally, to want to build these bridges is this intense curiosity from my upbringing of bridging divides and seeing the value that it can bring for inner peace and for happiness and for life satisfaction to feel

[00:13:22] like you’re constantly learning from other.

[00:13:24] It makes a lot of sense now, and also why you’ve probably excelled at doing this because you have the outsiders view, you have this outsider point of view, which is a tremendous advantage, especially when you’re talking about the types of themes that ProCon did. And now you are now training people to talk about.

[00:13:43] Maybe we can just dive right into this and let me frame this for people that are listening. There are executives, fundraisers, marketers. There are people that are working at nonprofits that are, needing to deal with diverse stakeholders. They are, let’s say sitting in front of a donor that may not even match their political ticket and they’re talking.

[00:14:05] And inevitably there’s a statement that is made that you’re like, Ooh, wait a minute. You know, maybe it’s like, I can’t believe they’re pushing CRT at my preschool. And you’re like, oh boy, here we go. And.

[00:14:16] Can you help me? What is the Kamy playbook for looking at a one-to-one conversation where we got identity that need to win and all of the baggage that humans bring in that moment?

[00:14:28] how do you sort of step back and frame a conversation? You know, like somebody’s listening right now. You know, there’s going to be a couple of hundred people listening to someone’s about to walk into that conversation. What are the three things or items that you, you pulled together for them?

[00:14:42] Okay, so number one is

[00:14:43] listen, and let me explain what I mean by

[00:14:46] that. When we surveyed our audience at pro con and asked how many of you changed your mind on an issue based on

[00:14:52] what you read? I thought if we got

[00:14:55] 5% of people to change their mind,

[00:14:57] Home run. We got to 36%. The first time we

[00:15:01] did the survey and then I couldn’t believe the numbers.

[00:15:04] So we did it again a year later, it got to 40%.

[00:15:07] So how do you do that? How do you change? 40% of people’s minds on very controversial issues with information. And I learned about listening, the reason why we changed minds, and that was not our goal. By the way, our goal was to inform the reason we changed minds is because if someone came to the website with a very strong view on let’s say the death penalty, they would see their view represented so well better than they could ever express it, that are articulated better sources, better formatted, better explained all of it.

[00:15:42] They felt hurt. That’s exactly what I think. Absolutely what I think then the defense went. As soon as the defense goes down, the receptivity to new ideas is open and staring them right on that page. On the other side of the page was the other side of the argument. Here’s all the reasons against the death penalty.

[00:16:02] And perhaps for the first time, they were able to see real compelling arguments that were very well sourced, very well articulated, not caricature lovers. And they thought, wow, I never thought of it that way. And the while I never thought of it that way moments when those happen, those are opportunities for change.

[00:16:23] And those opportunities for change cannot happen without first listening. This is a tool that we know from the playbook of peace negotiators, from marriage counselors, from a conflict resolution experts at all level. Step number one in those fraught moments is listen. And what I mean by listening is you have to ask clarifying questions.

[00:16:50] If you are listening for words versus meaning. So if someone says a word and then that word somehow triggers, you think, oh my gosh, they just use that word that makes me upset. What is their meaning? So ask clarifying questions. What did you mean when you said X? How did you get to that belief? You seem to have very strong views on this issue.

[00:17:15] Where did those views come from? How long have you had those views? You ask clarifying questions. The reason you ask clarifying questions is sometimes in the heat of a moment, the heat is coming from the amygdala part of our brains. That is the reptile part of our brains that says fight, flee or freeze.

[00:17:33] But the prefrontal cortex, that’s where our reason comes from. That’s where we’re able to say what’s where our empathy comes from. That’s where we’re able to say, oh, that’s a good point. I hadn’t considered that. I never thought of it. That way. What we need to do is ask is listen. So we listen for, listen with curiosity, listen for meaning, not just listen for words, but meaning if we don’t understand the meaning, ask clarifying questions so that we can understand meeting and to so that we can.

[00:18:02] Get our brain out of the hypothalamus and into that prefrontal cortex. So we can go towards our second thoughts. We want to go from fast thinking instinct knee-jerk to slow thinking, slow things down and get to that second or third or fourth thought. So that’s how you can reduce the heat in the conversation.

[00:18:23] So I’d say if you go into a conversation with the intent to listen with curiosity, with the intent to ask clarifying questions, when you get triggered or where you hear, oh my gosh, they just said CRT and the preschool. This is ridiculous. If we hear that ask clarifying questions. Oh, well, why do you think that they’re teaching CRT in the classroom?

[00:18:44] You feel very strongly about CRT. Where did that view come from? What is it about CRT that you feel like you want to understand better and, and that gets you and the person you’re talking to. On a much different level of a conversation where it’s not emotion versus emotion. It is listening to understand it’s not a battle.

[00:19:04] It is a tool for comprehension. So I’d say those two things listening and asking clarifying questions are number one and number two. And I’ll see a third thing which I call super ordination. And that means when there is conflict, you hear people say, oh, try to find common grounds. So finding common ground is sometimes like trying to find a unicorn, you know, good luck.

[00:19:28] It’s not going to be there, but there is something called super ordination, which is recognizing that you already have common ground. So for instance, I’m in LA and you’ve got offices in New York. I might like the Dodgers.

[00:19:42] You might like the Yankees, but Hey, we both like baseball. That’s super

[00:19:45] ordination

[00:19:47] or.

[00:19:47] quick edit here. Let’s go Mets just to that all up. Right, right then and there.

[00:19:53] Let’s go, man. It’s fair enough. We’ll then if you, like, let’s say we both like baseball, you’re med sundowners, but we both like baseball and then we meet someone else who likes football and they don’t care about baseball. And we say, oh, well we all like sports. That’s super ordinating. We have expanded our in-group.

[00:20:10] So now there’s no one on the outside of our circle, everyone’s on the inside of our

[00:20:14] circle. And then let’s say we find someone who does not give a care about sports. They don’t care, but they love politics and say, oh, we’ve now expanded our in group to say you love competition. We all love competition.

[00:20:26] That’s what super ordination is. So if we come into a conversation ready to listen and ask clarifying questions and think about the fact that we’re not looking to find common ground, that we already have common ground. It’s just a matter of thinking about what common ground we share. Then suddenly the stakes get a lot lower.

[00:20:45] We are not, the other person is not the enemy. The other person may be our opponents. Right. And in a debate or discussion, but that doesn’t make them an enemy. It’s not I’m right. You’re evil. It’s I’m right. And you’re wrong. And that’s okay. It’s okay to disagree. The trick is to disagree

[00:21:01] better.

[00:21:02] It’s really cool to hear the data that you just talked about in terms of the percent of your audience when you survey them, that actually sort of had their minds changed. And I think that’s a loaded term. And I think just to dig into it, it would be your mind opened or

[00:21:17] shifted. I think of it. I never think of any issue as a binary.

[00:21:23] It is always on a scale. And so what I imagined and what I hear, and maybe you can clarify is that change their mind actually means you moved one tick away from where you were before and a less extreme center center, maybe mindset of like, ah, I still firmly believe this, but maybe minus one on this scale between extreme.

[00:21:44] Your understanding is exactly right. It doesn’t mean we shifted our opinion fully from from one extreme to the other extreme.

[00:21:52] It’s just that it, it changed somehow our

[00:21:55] viewpoint changed. We learned something

[00:21:57] and that

[00:21:58] has so much value in a person’s life. Because if we thought the same thing we thought when we were

[00:22:04] five years old, we’d be idiots, right?

[00:22:07] So our life is a constant process of learning and adapting and changing. And we need to recognize that this is a normal human behavior, and we should not be scared to. This is something we should strive for. Of course you should change when you have new information to adjust to, then you pivot your thinking.

[00:22:27] And right now it seems like a lot of people are very bent on maintaining their exact viewpoint that they’ve had for years. Well, I’ve always thought this way. Well, why have you always thought this way? Have you considered other views? Have you really read other views? Have you discussed these other views?

[00:22:43] And if you have, then it’s very likely that you will shift your thinking, which is of

[00:22:49] course fair and reasonable. Why not?

[00:22:51] I want to come back to

[00:22:52] this, this approach because it’s, you know, if you take one thing away from hopefully listening to this episode and it really hopefully is that, that approach, because it impacts the way you’re going to have to do the actual work necessary to achieve what your larger vision is at the individual level.

[00:23:09] You mentioned peace and peace talks in that strategy. And you obviously are calling that up because it is a, a fundamental in hostage negotiations and intense conversations and the following where you just said it, you listen. And then also in order to sort of move from that a type one to type two, thinking that like fast versus slow thinking to get out of that fear state, it is about restating their.

[00:23:38] So, what I’m hearing is you’re frustrated about CRT in the classroom because you’re afraid that it will make them hate America is, do I have that? Right? And what you’re looking for is that’s right. Not you’re right, but that’s right. You hear me? You want to have that,

[00:23:53] that echo, cause you’re out of sync, right?

[00:23:55] Like you’re talking about a high state, low

[00:23:57] state, you’re talking about two high states talking to each other. You’re out of rhythm. And so by getting into that rhythm of conversation, it seems like that’s what you’re getting people to do between the listen, ask clarifying questions and then identify The super ordination.

[00:24:14] Meaning the ground that is around the ground. We currently are fighting on we’re living in.

[00:24:19] You said it so well, George, I think that’s exactly right. The fact that we shift our focus from the person to the issue,

[00:24:29] then the issue becomes something that we can beat up.

[00:24:33] You know, we can have different views of the

[00:24:35] issue without any animosity towards the

[00:24:38] person. I’d say you, when listening has such a profound impact on the person who feels hurt the chemical that’s released in the brain, when a person feels hurt is the same chemical that’s released in the brain.

[00:24:51] When a person feels loved, it is profound to feel hurt. And that’s something that we don’t do often enough, but as a superpower, because when a person feels heard, that’s when their trust in you goes up. And when you have a person’s trust, you have a certain power. And with that power, you can use it to then influence their thinking on on an issue in the way that you want.

[00:25:17] But you can’t gain that power. You can’t gain that trust without first listening. So people who try to just shout their opinions over other people, that’s never going to work. Right? So in some cases where activists feel like the best thing they can do is tell the other person you are so wrong and here’s the facts.

[00:25:37] Let me just correct. You immediately they’ll find that that strategy doesn’t work and they can sometimes be frustrated with that and think, gosh, that other side, they’re a bunch of idiots. They just don’t get it. Well, help them get it, listen to their views, gain their trust, gain that power. Then use that power to help influence their thinking in the way

[00:25:57] that you would like. But it has to start with

[00:26:00] listening.

[00:26:00] Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And you know, that’s just, it’s helpful. And it’s it’s simplicity is misleading because when you’re actually in that moment to pay attention to where you need a conversation to go while also ignoring the fact that you might be pissed off because you have as well firmly held beliefs that align with your identity and they are being. So you have to do two things at once. Turn down that response and play toward this end goal, which is really about, you know, not, you use the word influence, which is exactly

[00:26:32] right, but the connotation is toward this larger view of us getting along. So we can actually solve

[00:26:38] these things instead of throwing up walls. I want to ask a little bit more and challenge you on that statement of most of us are somewhere in the middle. I believe that you believe that. Can you help me believe that?

[00:26:55] there was a study that was done about polarization and it was called more in

[00:27:01] common. And what this study found is that approximately 65% of the survey respondents considered themselves

[00:27:08] part of the exhausted majority. And that is the group of people who felt that we can ensure would

[00:27:16] try to get along.

[00:27:18] And many of us believe that our country is hopelessly divided, that we’re never going to get along. And that we’re, we’re breaking apart at the seams. Democracy is in peril. And that we’re, we are in a state of civil war. Only our war is being fought with keyboards and pens versus guns and knives.

[00:27:41] Right. So for. That is the perception of the state of our division by many, and yet survey after survey, after survey, including the one I referenced says, most people don’t feel that way in their hearts. They don’t, they don’t actually have animosity towards their neighbors or their coworkers. There’s this backdrop in our country of hyper-partisanship.

[00:28:06] And we certainly see that in our elected offices, and that comes from a lot of systemic reasons that we can get into. But the reality is that most of us don’t Harbor those same extremist views. Most of us are not in the 10% margin on either side of these partisan issues. And the reality is most of us have not really changed our views over the decades on these controversial issues.

[00:28:30] It’s not that we’re drawing more to the polls. What’s happening is that our identities are drawing more to our political affiliations. So that means that our political identity is becoming more of a meta identity. And so that means if I hold a certain view on abortion, then that means that you can guess which political party I belong to.

[00:28:53] If you have a certain view on immigration, you can guess what political party that person identifies with. So somehow that party identification becomes a very strong predictor of where a person’s ideologies are across a wide spectrum of issues, identity equals politics. That means if I challenge your view on abortion, I am challenging you as a person.

[00:29:18] And if I challenge your view on immigration, I’m challenging you as a, as a person. And those kinds of that’s why those attacks feel very personal. It didn’t use to be that way. It used to be, there was such a thing as a liberal Republican, or a conservative Democrat, where there was this, the south was all democratic.

[00:29:36] There were Dixiecrats, right? So there were conservatives in the south, but now conserves in the south are dumb, predominantly Republican. There’s very few liberal Republicans, very few conservative Democrats. It’s just degrees of, are you moderate or progressive Democrat? Are you a tea party far right.

[00:29:57] Republican, or you’re more of a moderate Republican. That’s the big change that’s happening in our society is identity. Politics have become the way that we have self-organized and that is what makes it to where our. Conversations on issues can take that quick turn because we feel that our identities are being challenged and no one wants to have their individual identity challenged or threatened.

[00:30:23] And that’s where, that’s where we are. So our, have we become more extreme now? No, but it’s, our identities have become more connected to our political identities and that’s why it feels like we’re more

[00:30:35] extreme.

[00:30:36] It’s so interesting because the identity is really what we’re talking about and someone’s ego and the way they see themselves. And they define themselves by the beliefs they currently have at this minute in the moment. And they hold them fervently because they’re terrified of what it means, if not, but however, in terms of defining themselves, I’d be hard pressed to say, if you look through bio, after bio, after bio, on LinkedIn, on Twitter, on you name the social media platform, you know, for me, , I’m a dad.

[00:31:10] I care about social impact tech. I make beer. I don’t put, I vote for this party or that part. I don’t put my party affiliation at the top of it. So it’s this weird. Kind of like dormant monster that is like unspoken, but everyone

[00:31:28] kind of knows it based on trigger words that are fired off

[00:31:31] in a conversation.

[00:31:32] So I’m not publicly identifying others don’t seem to

[00:31:36] be, but yet we have this

[00:31:38] feeling that we’re, and here’s a sort of

[00:31:41] overused quote, more divided than

[00:31:43] ever. And so how do you know, how do you really

[00:31:46] respond to the, the feeling that we’re more divided than ever? Is that what percent of that

[00:31:51] is real?

[00:31:52] if you measure, well, first, those are great points and I love the way that you think about this. You have such a clear way of expressing your views. I’m envious of it. The. If you measure how divided we are based on party polarization. So that means the number of times that one, a member of a political party will co-sponsor the legislation from another, from the opposing party that is becoming increasingly rare.

[00:32:21] In fact, it is surpassed the level of partisanship in the, from the period immediately following the civil war. We’re past that. So if you measure how divided we are based on party polarization, we are more divided than we’ve been. However, if you measure it based on our actual ideologies and viewpoints, those viewpoints have not really changed across across our society.

[00:32:48] They’re pretty widely and uniformly distributed. So it’s not that we have become more extreme it’s that we perceive each other as more extreme. I gave you another example. In the 1950s, there was a survey done asking parents, if you’d be upset, if your son or daughter married someone of the opposing political party.

[00:33:05] And in 1950, nobody cared. It was around three to 4% would be upset if their son or daughter married someone of the opposite party flash forward to 2010, just 10 years ago. Or so that number was close to 46. Parents would be upset if their son or daughter married some of the opposing political parties.

[00:33:20] So it’s really about that. The perception what’s, the politics is introduced into the equation. Then suddenly the defensiveness goes up the identification around a party affiliation increases, and the perception of the other as an enemy versus an opponent, all of that stuff kicks in. You called it a hidden monster.

[00:33:40] I think that’s right. That quickly comes to the forefront because we feel. We know that we’ve seen a few studies that said, what percentage of, of Americans consider the opposing party as a threat to the nation’s well-being it’s over a third of Democrats and Republicans who perceive the other side as a threat to the nation’s well being, and you don’t invite a threat over for barbecue, you know, to come and have a play date with your kids, right?

[00:34:08] It’s a threat is not someone you want to hire in your company. We have all of these mechanisms to, to defend ourselves against the threats, not to to make nice with them. So that’s, to me, the, the overarching phenomenon that’s happening and social media is fueling a lot of it. So when you are posting on your LinkedIn or Twitter about a tech events or about an upcoming podcast, or about things that are nonpolitical.

[00:34:37] That’s all great. It, as soon as certain words come into the equation or certain issues coming to the fore, then the potential for things to go off, the rail increases exponentially. And we have to be really, really careful and mindful about how we’re communicating to one, make sure we’re not triggering other people unintentionally.

[00:34:56] Right. So that our meaning does not get distorted. But also, so we don’t get in trouble. No one wants the, the firefight, the food fight. That’s going to follow from some, someone being upset about what we said politically. So the additive. Parents taught us and our parents, parents thought is always avoid discussions around a politics and religion.

[00:35:18] It’s it seems like very good advice because those discussions can get too heated and ugly too quickly. But at the same time, we have the luxury of living in a democracy, in a Republic form of democracy. And that means our system is designed for it to be participatory. We have to discuss issues. That’s part of the deal here.

[00:35:41] And if we don’t like that as part of the deal, then we don’t like a fundamental aspect of being American. It requires per informed citizenry and participation. So on the one hand, we have to discuss politics and issues. And on the other hand, we are punished when we do, because those conversations are so fraught and go off the rails.

[00:36:01] So that’s why we are kind of stuck in these uncomfortable situations. And it’s not just stuck in our, in our work lives. Or professional lives. We’re stuck all the time. We are feel like we have to walk on eggshells so frequently. I can’t tell you how many studies I’ve seen, where people are afraid to say what they actually think on issues, unless they’re with people of their same ideological bent, then they are like, ah, let me tell you what I really think about the outcome of the 2016 election.

[00:36:30] This is what I really think about Trump or Clinton is literally what I think about, about Trump or Biden. And that’s when they can relax and let loose. So our communities are becoming increasingly homogenous because no one wants to live with the discomfort and the feeling like my, my neighbors or my conversations are going to go off the rails.

[00:36:48] It’s why people are going to companies that reflect their values and their ideologies, because they don’t want to be in workplaces. That will make them feel like an other or like they can’t say what’s truly on their mind. So are, we’re becoming more homogenous in our social media circles and in. Our offline communities because of this, this feeling that we have, that we can’t say what we think and the antidote to all of that.

[00:37:17] And the solution really for our democracy is you have to be courageous. We have to have conversations knowing that sometimes they can be awkward and uncomfortable, but that’s where we learn. And that’s where we can make progress. We have to be bridge builders, or we threaten a few things when we threaten our own knowledge and our own self-exploration and our own capacity to learn and grow as human beings.

[00:37:40] But we also endanger our capacity to function as a country because it is it’s oxygen is participation. So if we don’t participate and engage in these issues, then we are starving our system of what is essential to it. So that’s why I think the best solution. Is this intention that I will be unafraid.

[00:38:01] I’m going to accept that there’s bees, there will be some conversations that don’t go the way I want, but damn it. I’m going to try, I’m going to try to make these work. I’m going to try to listen with curiosity. I’m going to try to learn from people with whom I probably disagree on a handful of issues, but I probably do agree on the vast majority of other topics we can discuss.

[00:38:23] And we shouldn’t let that small fraction of things. We disagree on the finest and instead let the vast majority of things that we do agree on. Let that define

[00:38:33] us.

[00:38:33] I mean, I love the sentiment of having the bravery to have those courageous conversations. I also firmly agree that you are hurting your understanding of an issue to the detriment of the outcome you want actually, by not allowing that dialogue and not allowing your own mind to move a point toward the center for talking about that spectrum.

[00:38:53] Can you comment though, because there is a cost to. Um, When you look at cancel culture and its rise, there is a real threat. This is no longer an imagined, oh, I’ll be ostracized. There is a real threat that a

[00:39:09] very vocal minority to your point, only about 20% of Twitter is actually making the comments and grabbing the pitchforks. But there’s a real threat to, to voicing an opinion that strays from the extreme party line so much so that you would lose your job. Where’s the upside there. We’re having that conversation.

[00:39:32] It is a very difficult

[00:39:34] question to answer. And I think most people will say, forget it. It’s not worth it. There’s a

[00:39:38] risk. So I’m just going to keep my mouth shut. I don’t want to bring up politics in this conversation. I can tell things are going to get ugly fast. Most people are, are unwilling to take those risks, but I’ll tell you what is the

[00:39:51] heavy downside of not having those courageous conversations

[00:39:55] is we will continue to divide further and further and further.

[00:40:00] We will continue to deprive ourselves of the ability to grow as individuals, and we can continue to starve our system of the oxygen. It needs to function, and we will lose some of the greatness and the great value of America. What are the stories? I didn’t tell you. George is in 1979, after the Iranian revolution, my parents moved back to Iran with me as a young boy, and we thought we’re going to rebuild this country help rebuild it.

[00:40:25] Now that the dictator has gone. And within a few months, the Ayatollah came back, the religious clerics took over. They started executing the revolutionaries and then the Iraqi under Saddam Hussein started attacking. We went from rebuilding the country to hiding in the basement because there’s bombs dropping planes, dropping bombs on the city and turning off all the lights at night and living in terror that we’re all going to die.

[00:40:54] That was the feeling. So we said, we have to get out of here. What have we done? We were living in the United States. And so we moved to Turkey and thought let’s apply to go back to the United States through Turkey and. The U S embassy said, no, you left. And that’s, that’s on you. We president switched from Carter to Reagan and we weren’t allowed to move back.

[00:41:15] So we’ve moved to Bulgaria and said, let’s try this again. Let’s try to get back in the U S same thing. Couldn’t get in move to France. Same thing. Couldn’t get back in through the U S embassy. We thought, gosh, we can’t move back to Iran. We can’t move back to the U S I guess we’re going to live in Turkey.

[00:41:31] So we ended up going back to Turkey, tried one last time to get in. And then that time it worked, we got back into the U S and the reason why, and this is the point of my story here is because of one man, Mr. Jack Tolson in Lafayette, Louisiana, who was my dad’s boss as an architect, who’s spent bunch of his own money to hire an immigration attorney to help us get back in the country.

[00:41:54] And Mr. Tolson, I knew we were good people. He knew that we belonged in America. And I think about America as people like Jack Tolson, I think about, I do not take that American dream for granted. I know what it represents for the, for much of the world and its freedoms and its aspirations for economic success.

[00:42:17] And anybody can make it in all those ideals that so many people in this country have achieved and lived so many have nots, of course, but so many have in a way that is unique to this country. So when I think about conflict and courage and not will be willing to have these conversations and what’s at stake, I think about.

[00:42:36] The how precious this system of government is and how, if we do not have those conversations, we do this system to failure. So we have to have the courage, not just for ourselves and our growth, not just for our country and for its success, but also for what it represents for the rest of the world. We lead as I believe president Biden once said not by the example of our power, but by the power of our

[00:43:07] example.

[00:43:07] hi. I just really identify with the, you know, talking about, I imagine the H1B process , I look at my own, like I’ve succeeded three times. I’m very grateful in getting securing H1B at, at expense for amazing individuals. And I failed one time and it, it really kills me that there’s a talented individual out there that I just, you know, I, I couldn’t do it.

[00:43:30] And it. Um, Quite a bit um, while I was happy as I am on that side and getting back to putting in context, like the courage, you know, you’re just trying to say , you know, by the way, there are larger things that you make an, a mistake in a tweet. But I, I will say, , I understand that sort of like the context is relevant to each person, right?

[00:43:49] So, you know, what is stressful for me is different than for someone else. And I think, you know, especially for, for leaders listening there, there are a few things in play. One is that sort of risk of a miscommunication and a misunderstanding. And there’s no trial by jury. There’s no fair and equal thought.

[00:44:09] There is a fire that burns insatiably hot and will take down your organization. And that’s a, that’s a legitimate fear. On top of it, I feel like there’s also this like easy level. Given right when you just sort of like play into the game of extremism, there’s an easy level lever that media companies use that by the way, non-profits raised quite a bit of money on and the lever goes as follows, take a dash of anger, mix it in with enough attention and you get acquisition acquisition of donors, acquisition of leads, acquisition of engagement. And how do I stay away from this like button I can just press over here. Did you see what happened at the border

[00:44:53] wall? Donate here. And by the way, it’s, you know, we’ve switched administrations. I can’t help, but

[00:44:59] notice it doesn’t seem like a lot has changed just

[00:45:02] objectively looking at the fricking numbers. So how, how do you communicate,

[00:45:08] , that that sort of desire to press the money button

[00:45:10] the attention plus angry equals acquisition

[00:45:12] and,

[00:45:12] and, , having these brave bridge

[00:45:14] conversations.

[00:45:15] The money button is a very tempting button to press. I believe author Amanda Ripley called them conflict entrepreneurs. They benefit when there’s conflict and there’s certainly money to be made there. Network television am radio. There’s a big audiences for this, right? There’s certainly plenty of book sales and listen.

[00:45:38] There’s two ways to go. I think two ways to go about this one is we can lament the prophets of doom, the ones who are saying the sky is falling. The enemies are within a, and they’re sounding the alarm and scaring the crap out of us, right? By making us think that bad things are imminent. That’s on them.

[00:46:01] Shame on them. We wish there were fewer conflict entrepreneurs, but they’re there. And the reason why they’re successful is because shame on us, we are consuming. Hook line and sinker we’re buying it. All right. And so part of it is I think we need to develop some type of resiliency, media literacy skills to where, when we are exposed to this kind of content, we don’t just think, oh my gosh, I’m going to hide in the corner.

[00:46:30] I never opened my mouth or else I’ll really be in trouble. And instead think that is an extreme view. That is not a view that is held by a large number of people, or I should try to understand that viewpoint better so that I can have conversations with those people and really understand them and help turn them around.

[00:46:53] Or I can just dismiss it and ignore it because I know that it is, it’s not valid. I can fact check it. I can present a counter-argument to it. I can ask for clarifying questions about it. I think that. There’s the shame on them and there’s the shame on us. And I think

[00:47:10] Them are, are valid. So for the conflict entrepreneurs, I would say that that’s the best thing to do is.

[00:47:18] Is through gird ourselves and defend ourselves with as much media literacy skills as we’re capable of mustering. And then to realizing what’s at stake, if we don’t because that’s a motivator too. And I’ll tell you one more quick story. When I visited the jet propulsion laboratory, one of the scientists there said, come and make a triangle with your fingers and you can try it, just make a little triangle here.

[00:47:41] And he pointed it up to the night sky and found a patch of sky where it looked like there was no stars. It was just blackness. And he thought we’re GPL. We’re gonna point the Hubble telescope. And that particular patch where it looks like there’s nothing. And he then took me into a room. Where the room is about third, a wall of about 30 feet long.

[00:48:03] And all I see on it are little white lights, little blips. They look like stars. And I said, what’s this wall. And he goes calm. When we pointed the Hubble at that dark patch, these are the three plus billion galaxies that we discovered in that empty patch. And I felt so insignificant as a human being. I’m on one person in one little patch of land on one planet in one galaxy.

[00:48:26] And here I’m looking at 3 billion and we’re in a place where we thought there was nothing. And when I think about that feeling of cosmic insignificance, it makes these issues. Just immaterial. They don’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you think the corporate tax rate should be 20%. And I think it should be 25% who cares.

[00:48:45] It doesn’t matter. I think we feel those feelings of cosmic insignificance when sometimes when we travel sometimes when, when we’re in love, sometimes when we’re in nature and for in the ocean or in the forest in the mountains we feel that feeling. And I say, remember that feeling, that feeling of humility.

[00:49:04] Sometimes we feel it in, in our houses of worship, in our churches and temples and synagogues and mosques that feeling, remember that feeling. Cause we need to have that humility in our hearts when we are, are interacting with other, other people and recognizing that our differences are.

[00:49:24] Insignificant and relative to the vast majority of things that we hold in common.

[00:49:30] And I know it’s hard to think that way sometimes when we get and there’s heat in the equation and when we feel like there’s a lot at stake, but I think we just have to be mindful of those

[00:49:40] things in order to live a happy life.

[00:49:43] it sounds like this is going back to our sort of listen, ask clarifying questions and then the super ordination. This is like a, you know super ordination, but framing, right? Put it in the context of you’re on a tiny blue dot whipping around us. And

[00:49:57] an insignificant sort of way. And now you’re very, very angry about the corporate tax rate move of 5%.

[00:50:04] Right. Exactly. Right.

[00:50:06] I want to be respectful of your time because I could just let this go for two hours. It’s not something we do. I could easily do it. I have rapid fire questions, but I

[00:50:16] want, I just like you’re out there bridging original worlds. You’re teaching classes. I don’t want to make sure I’m not interrupting a class.

[00:50:22] So how are we doing on time for you?

[00:50:23] We’re good. I’m ready for the rapid fire. I’m excited about that component. I love it on your podcast in general. So I’m

[00:50:29] I’m excited to be part of it.

[00:50:31] All right, here we go. Please keep your response. Well, you know what you’re doing? what is one tech tool or website that you or your organization has started using the last year?

[00:50:39] The telephone, the telephone, we don’t use it enough. The thing that we

[00:50:45] keep in our pocket is a computer, but it is also a telephone. I can’t tell you how many times when I’m driving or just taking a walk, I’ll call someone out of the blue. How are you doing?

[00:50:57] What’s new with you. Like come, I haven’t heard from you for six

[00:51:01] months.

[00:51:02] That’s right. And sometimes I’ll call someone I haven’t talked to for five years and just say, I know we don’t keep in touch. I’m not looking to rekindle our friendship. I just want you to know that those times that we had together were very special to me and that I always think finally of that and that’s it.

[00:51:19] And then I feel great. They feel great. And you’re able to connect using human voice where you can hear tone and inflection in a way that is really hard to communicate via apps and texts and slacks and emails and tools that we

[00:51:34] typically use. So the phone that’s my tool.

[00:51:37] Tech issues. Are you currently.

[00:51:39] I’d call it a social media of FOMO posting. So that is, there are maybe three or four or five main social media channels. There’s probably another 50. And when we hear about what as an organization, we think, oh, I need to get on Tik TOK right away, or, oh, Pinterest. I hear people are still using Pinterest extensively.

[00:52:03] It’s a different demographic. I know I should I don’t want to give up my Twitter game. I need to stay in Twitter. So the tech issue is, do we really need to be on all these social media platforms and all hundreds of them, or do we need to be on two or three? And do we need to have different strategies to use each one?

[00:52:22] So I need to stop thinking about the fear of missing out to be on all of them and instead think super strategically and surgically

[00:52:30] about which handful that I do want to be.

[00:52:33] What is coming in the next year that has you the most excited.

[00:52:36] Growth growth has me the most excited, the mission of the center for the political future is to bring practical politics without hyper the baggage of hyper-partisanship. And we are trying to train the future political leaders over the three years that I’ve been here. We’ve been doing that for not just more and more USC students, but for more and more students across the country, as we expand our

[00:53:00] partnerships and then for more and more people in our local community.

[00:53:03] And then for more and more people who are just generally interested in the subjects that we’re we’re raising. So for me, that growth is very exciting.

[00:53:11] Can you talk about a mistake you made earlier in your career that shapes the way you do things today?

[00:53:16] I in high school was a debater and college was a debater. I knew how to get things done by talking. I thought talking was my super weapon I have since learned. Talking is to a lumber too. And that listening is tool number one. And that mistake of trying to talk my way out of situations versus listen. My way

[00:53:39] out of situations is something that has dramatically changed how I resolve conflict and ultimately my life satisfaction

[00:53:46] Do you believe NGOs can successfully go out of business?

[00:53:50] in theory. Yes. In practice, not really of view has NGOs declare bankruptcy. They don’t lose their status with the IRS. It just kind of limps on, or just fades into the sunset. I’d say a few do, but in theory, yes, they can successfully

[00:54:11] just stop operating and fade away.

[00:54:14] Tara toss you in a hot tub time machine, back to the beginning of your work with procon.org. What advice would you give?

[00:54:21] I’d say a focus on the mission alignment with staff. And if somebody doesn’t really care about your mission and you think they’ll come around, I can convince them. Maybe they’ll fall in love. Eventually. It’s just like a relationship. Sometimes they’re just not that into you.

[00:54:40] And if they’re not, the best thing to do

[00:54:43] is, is, ended. We need to avoid those 80 20 traps. And then with some of those employees, I found that I was using, you know, 80% of my time on those 20% of the people. And it’s really just, if they don’t align with the mission, then do them and do yourself a favor and cut them

[00:55:00] loose.

[00:55:00] What is something you believe that you should stop doing?

[00:55:04] Stop competing with like-minded organizations. The, a lot of NGOs think about zero sum in their spaces. It’s a finite pool of resources. And if we don’t get the money, somebody else will. I think we should stop thinking that way. And instead think about partnering because when we can expand the pie and I think partnering is going to help our organizations achieve their missions more effectively and it can lead to consolidation.

[00:55:34] So rather than compete and make an enemy out of someone, make them an

[00:55:38] ally. And you’ll both go from.

[00:55:39] Magic wand that you could wave across the industry. What would it do?

[00:55:43] Well in the NGO space, I’d say consolidate to amplify and it does not happen hardly ever, but it should happen more consolidation in the for-profit business, acquisitions and mergers. These happen all the time in the NGO world, extremely rare. And yet boy is it needed. There’s so much redundancy in the, in these spaces and unnecessary competition.

[00:56:08] I’d say partner, liberally, pursue evidence-based intervention strategies

[00:56:13] and just consolidate to.

[00:56:15] How did you get started in the social impact sector?

[00:56:18] My favorite story for this. And I, my point of origin, I think is in 10th grade, I had gone to my second meeting of the junior state of America, which was a debate organization for high school students. And even those all on my second meeting, they said, who wants to be president next year? And I raised my hands.

[00:56:36] I don’t know why I did. I just did it. And then I ended up competing and winning that, that position, getting that

[00:56:42] position. And then I ran again, the following year, grew the chapter from 20 students to about 120 students. It really drove so much of my self-confidence my ability to communicate my ability to get along with other people.

[00:56:57] My. The of my ability to have empathy for other viewpoints and other people. And I really say that my social impact motivations came from my experiences in speech and debate, and it all came from that one day. I still don’t know why I raised my hand to be president.

[00:57:15] What advice did your parents give you that you either followed or did not follow.

[00:57:19] My dad always told me Cami, be consistent, be consistent. I think he said it cause he was not well, I was not either. And did not take that advice. I was not consistent. I have a gazillion different kinds of interests. I, my attitude is Intensely curious about other people. And I am a sponge. When I get an opportunity to talk with someone who’s

[00:57:42] not like me. I want to learn about where they’re from, what was their life experience? What kind of things are they into? What are they like? What are some of their lessons for me? And from that I can build momentum for more, for more curiosity and learn about the world and satisfy my curiosity is and

[00:57:59] passions that way, but it was not through consistency.

[00:58:01] what advice would you give college grads currently looking to enter the social impact sector?

[00:58:07] Persistence trumps talents. It really does. Nonlinear career paths are okay. And the norm get your personal and professional mission to overlap. Know your, why ask advice from people that you

[00:58:22] trust?

[00:58:23] Final question. How do people find you? How do people help you?

[00:58:26] Google center for the political future. And you’ll find my organization. If you can spell my name, Kamy Ahkavan you could try to Google me and watch some of my talks and presentations about a polarization and partisanship. How bad is it? How did we get this way? And what can we do about it? You can write to me as well.

[00:58:48] You can reach me on LinkedIn. I’m very accessible,

[00:58:51] very eager to engage with people, very eager to grow my social networks and to expand the mission of the center for the political future as best I can.

[00:59:00] Well, thank you for your time. We’ll have all of those resources in these show notes. Thank you for the work you do. And I really, really hope you succeed.

[00:59:10] Well, thank you, George. I appreciate your support and the opportunity to speak to this whole whale audience that appreciates you and your work very much.