A Braver Way Episode 9

Episode 9: Can we fix what COVID broke? (Part 2)

In Part two of this two-part story, Dr. Francis Collins, former head of the National Institutes of Health during COVID, and Travis Tripodi, a strong conservative critic of the US COVID response Dr. Collins helped shape, attempt the impossible —  sparring on everything from vaccine mandates to natural immunity freely, fully, and without losing it.  What does their collision achieve? And what does it leave hanging? April Lawson joins Mónica to break down this extraordinary conversation and figure out what it takes for the rest of us to tackle the hardest political disagreements we face… without getting burned. 
Credits
Host: Mónica Guzmán
Senior Producer & Editor: David Albright
Producer: Jessica Jones
Contributor: April Lawson
Artist in Residence: Gangstagrass
Cover Art & Graphics: Katelin Annes
Publishing Support: Mike Casentini
Show Notes: Ben Caron and Don Goldberg
Featured Song: You Can Talk To Me” by New Middle Class
A production of Braver Angels.
Financial Supporters: M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust and Reclaim Curiosity.
Sponsors: USAFacts
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Friends Committee on National Legislation is a national, nonpartisan Quaker organization that’s lobbied Congress and the administration to advance peace, justice, opportunity, and environmental stewardship for 80 years.

Introduction [00:00]

 

Monica re-introduces the two guests, Dr. Francis Collins and Travis Tripodi and reviews some of their comments from the last episode [3:14]

  • Collins: “Certainly, there were blunders. The government did things that ticked people off. And then there was a huge impact there of social media and cable news who fairly quickly adopted, at least in some instances, a contrarian point of view. And to be honest, we had a president during 2020 who was giving very mixed messages. And pretty soon it became much more of a political question whether you were interested in being vaccinated than a scientific question. And frankly, some of what was going on in social media was evil. It was not just people confused. It was people intentionally spreading around false information and sometimes making money off of it as well.”
  • Tripodi: “On top of thinking that, you know, we didn’t do a great enough job accounting for the vulnerable in our society, I do think that we were responding to a lot of things in fear. And I think to me, at least, there was a discrepancy between when we claimed that things were backed in science and things that were more backed in people that did science, that would then offer advice based off of their expertise. And it was not necessarily using the scientific process to come to conclusions and specifically with regards to public policy.”

 

Monica contextualizes the history between Collins and Tripodi, including at the Braver Angels National Convention in 2023 [05:18]

 

Collins and Tripodii respond to each other’s experiences and perspectives shared in Episode 1 and discuss why the public might distrust the government response to the pandemic [6:50]

  • Tripodi: “There was a certain amount of paternalism in the decisions that were made by the government saying, ‘you don’t need to understand this, this is what it is.’ And when things were said to be followed by the scientific process, I think that that was not always true for the COVID vaccine. ‘This is our best bet given the information we have and the environment that we’re in right now.’ And I think that that wasn’t communicated super well, that the amount of uncertainty that existed in those decisions.”
  • Collins: “I wouldn’t disagree about the fact that the trust was damaged by the people conveying information and I was one of them, but I do think there was a significant role of really misinformation and disinformation coming from a lot of sources of people who really didn’t care so much, it didn’t seem about looking at the evidence, just had an opinion that they wanted to dump on the world through some post on Twitter that was going to get a whole lot of retweets, and that was hard to watch, to see that.” 
  • Collins: “The data Commonwealth Fund says there are 234 ,000 people in graveyards that didn’t need to be. That’s just horrible. That makes me want to cry. That was the biggest failure of all the failures because somehow science gave an answer that a lot of people turned away from and a lot of people lost their lives. How could that have happened? If there’s one question, I want to ask, how did we get that far down into a denial of the facts that could have saved lives?”
  • Collins: “The default is to assume that somebody is actually carrying out some nefarious action because something hasn’t been explained. I can see that happened a lot. But how did that become the dominant reaction when something was not entirely clear? ‘Oh, it must be because they’re actually evil people and they’re trying to hide something from us.’ I know most of the people in the public health community, they are good honorable people who are doing their best under terrible circumstances. And to have them immediately assumed to have these kinds of really evil intentions, it’s just hard to imagine. How do we get to that point where as a society, we made those assumptions about people’s motives that were really unjustified?”
  • Tripodi: “I keep going back to this in my mind, where Rachel Maddow on MSNBC coming on and saying that the vaccine protects you against transmission. If you get it, it stops there and then it stops there, then it doesn’t go anywhere else, which we know is not true…Well, Rachel Maddow didn’t know and she was saying it with certainty and then cut to commercial, it’s a Pfizer commercial. And I think that that environment allows people to cultivate…a lot of mistrust.”

 

Tripodi and Collins discuss the communication issues around natural immunity [14:51]

  • Collins: “There  was  not  enough  discussion  about  that  from  government  sources. The problem was twofold. One was it was not that easy to tell if somebody had actually had COVID or if they thought they had. And so there was no ready way to define that. I guess the other, I mean, there were, you quoted the Israeli study, I’ll quote you the Kentucky study, which said that if you did have natural immunity, you were somewhat protected against another infection, but if you had natural immunity plus a vaccine, you were better protected. So even people with natural immunity, looking at benefits and risks, would be better off getting the vaccine anyway.”
  • Tripodi: “At that point in time, it really needed to be a conversation between each individual and their healthcare provider. And I don’t think that that was really what was happening. There was massive media influence on how people were making health care decisions. And that media influence, as I’ve stated, I think was suspiciously funded by the company that was selling the actual drug.” 

 

Tripodi asks Collins how much of the public policy decisions made during the pandemic were truly scientifically based and how many were fear-based [18:57]

  • Collins: “If you have a circumstance that’s not a big deal, well, you can afford to be very thoughtful and get more data before you say anything. When people are dying around you, yeah, that’s a danger. Yeah, there’s a fear. Yeah, you are forced, therefore, to make decisions within perfect data. And that was happening all the time. Sometimes the data was good enough. You were fairly sure you understood what was going on. Sometimes it was more of a guess. But when you say fear, I think for the public health folks, the fear was really more, what should we do in a circumstance where there is danger to people’s lives? And if we are making the wrong decision or being too slow about the decision, we’re going to make things worse. So let’s look at the data we got. Let’s admit that it’s really not what… you would like to have in the ideal world, and then decide, okay, this is what’s gonna happen.” 
  • Collins: “I, that is my number one lesson for what went wrong during COVID from the perspective of public health communication, that the uncertainty was not conveyed. Every time a recommendation was made, there should have been this, ‘And this is the best we can do right now with the information we’ve got, which is imperfect. So y’all try to not be surprised if we have to change this next week.’”

 

Monica asks, “How do you build a bridge when the two sides are so far apart?” [23:29]

  • Collins: “I think when you encounter a circumstance where there’s a range of people’s views and you can tell that you’re really far apart from some segment, that’s the segment you ought to go straight to and try to have a better chance to understand. Not in an aggressive way. ‘I’m going to prove you wrong,’ but like, ‘Okay, I can tell you feel really strongly about this. Tell me why.’ And that’s the start of building the bridge.” 
  • Tripodi: “I think that being vulnerable about how you feel about things is always scary and reaching out and communicating, you know, because you have so much uncertainty about your actual, your own like knowledge on the topic. And I think that like, that’s the way I really do think that having conversations, having difficult conversations, having healthy conflict is the way that you bridge these divides. I think that it’s really important that we are able to, you know, between individuals reach the humanity and the other person by saying like, oh, ‘this is what I think’ and ‘this is why I think this.’ And then, you know, people can really see, okay, well, they’re not evil. They just think that because they have a different fact in their mind that they’re focusing on. Their priority is a little bit different. And I really think that that’s the way that we bridge the divide between individuals.”
  • Tripodi: “In terms of moving forward and rebuilding trust, I really think it’s important that these conversations are had not between myself and yourself, but publicly at the highest level between authority figures on both sides to really get to the bottom and to say ‘What was right? What was wrong?’ Do a root cause analysis to understand, without trying to put anyone in jail, you know or anything like that. Understand why we were wrong and how we can improve. Good-faith conflict from people that really, really know what happened and and what needs to happen differently.”

 

Monica asks what both guests got from a private conversation at the Braver Angels Convention that they didn’t get from more public settings [27:32]

  • Tripodi: “So it is the iteration of a conversation. So, Francis might put forward his perspective on a situation, say, natural immunity with regard, including natural immunity in a vaccine study. And then I, if I’m not allowed to respond to that, it’s like, well, I don’t agree with it, right? And it dies there…in a conversation, I’m able to say, okay, well, I think, you know, what really happened here? Why did you decide that you can’t consider  natural immunity, or you didn’t want to consider natural immunity, or was it too difficult to consider natural immunity? And then Francis comes back with his explanation. And, you  know, I’ll be honest with you, I don’t, I didn’t love the answer, you know.  But the process  of iteration and not feeling bottled up at that first bit does allow a level of therapeutic  experience where it’s like, ‘Okay, well, yeah, I don’t love the answer and I maybe would  do it a little bit different and I’d like to hear how we can maybe do it better in the future, but I’m not angry’.” 
  • Collins: “It’s taking conflict, which can be very unpleasant and transforming it into what Travis has been calling ‘healthy conflict,’ where you actually have the chance to understand each other as opposed to just feeling like ‘this guy really doesn’t like me and everything I’m saying seems to make him really upset and angry.’ It’s like ‘no wait a minute, let’s figure out what the issues really are and then I’m going to learn something by understanding that perspective that I needed to know. I won’t necessarily agree with it but I’m going to learn why this person feels that way and that’s very real to them and so it should be real to me as well.’ And then just as I think we’ve kind of in this conversation had the chance to talk about some very substantive issues and disagree but understand each other and kind of recognize why we each feel the way that we do, then it feels like a conflict that has a gain to it instead of just a loss. It elevates your understanding instead of just making you want to run away.”

 

Monica asks Collins how he feels about Tripoldi’s request for accountability [31:34]

  • Collins: “I think the accountability settles on one in conversations like this. [It] settles on me that the next time there needs to have been a learning curve here. And I wouldn’t have gotten on that learning curve without having this sort of substantive conversation with Travis and with other people who have things that I needed to hear. I’m going to all of these conferences about science communication and what went wrong and what do we need to do to regain public trust because you can see all the surveys showing that public trust and science has taken a nosedive since COVID and I think I’ve got some answers for people who haven’t really thought about it about some of the things we need to do better the next time.”

 

Monica asks Tripoldi what motivated him to reach out to Collins for a conversation in spite of his anger [33:20]

  • Tripoldi: “Part of the thing that I’ve learned through my work with the Braver Angels is that when you don’t have answers to things, when you don’t understand somebody, you’re able to fill in the gap with like ascribing like an ill intent or like a bad motive. You kind of assume the worst idea. I do think that that’s human nature. And I think that the resolution to that, I don’t think that it’s this, like crazy thing that came about only about COVID. This is just human nature that when people don’t understand things, you know, they really, you know, they’re like, oh, they kind of start to become conspiratorial. You know, so I think that my, what I’ve learned is that like the way to resolve that, the way for myself internally to not feel that way and to not feel that hatred is to really get to the bottom and explore it, even if it means that you might be wrong, even if it means that you maybe have to come to terms with the fact that you’re really not, you have not been the most generous person throughout the experience.”

 

Monica invites closing thoughts from each guest [36:56]

  • Tripoldi: “…it’s not one person at a time, it’s one conversation at a time. If anybody is listening to this that shares or that comes at this issue from my perspective of being skeptical of the COVID public health response, I would say that there is a lot of good that can come from one conversation and allowing yourself, putting aside all of the evil that you think that the other person embodies and allowing your yourself to see the humanity and the other person.”
  • Tripoldi: “We’re not going to resolve everything with one conversation. It’s one conversation at a time and you should take the most difficult person in your life, whether it’s your mother or your brother or the former head of the NIH and, and, you know, have those conversations and you know, remind yourself of the humanity of the other person and kind of like allow yourself, even if, you know, somewhere deep inside you still think maybe there’s some bad motives, you know, put that aside and engage in the conversation and you don’t have to get rid of it, you know, but just there’s a lot of good that can come from going through that process.”

 

Introducing our supporting partner, Friends Committee on National Legislation [42:10]

 

Monica talks about her perspective on the conversation between and Francis and Travis  [43:21]

 

April discuss the conversation between Collins and Tripodi and unpack the tools they used that worked [44:38]

  • Monica: “I did not hear in this conversation any sign of fear of the other person. So the way I think about that is in a prior episode we did about trauma and trauma response, fight, flight, freeze or fawn. So fight, if you hear people fight as a defense and a disagreement, there might be accusing each other or there might be personal attacks. I heard none of those. those. With flight, you’ll want to get away from the conversation. But they actually wanted to keep going. With freezing, that’s happened to a lot of us, I bet, certainly happened to me where you have this sort of deer and headlights moment where your thought stream seems to escape you. And it didn’t seem like either of them lost track of their thoughts with each other.”
  • April: “If you’re going to go and talk to that person, that really difficult person, you can sit yourself down and say, ‘Okay, I want to go into this and I want to show up as my best self.’ And like making a plan for that, I think is really important, like doing active prep for that conversation and knowing, for example, what your goal is.”

Monica shares that the guests exhibited humility in three ways: acknowledging each other’s good points, conceding points, and they invited disagreement. [52:44]

April shares about how to build trust by presuming good faith, taking ownership and listening openly [55:20]

Monica and April discuss how power informed the conversation between Tripodi and Collins, and how difficult it is for those in authority to listen to regular folks [57:46] 

April points out that Tripodi and Collins were supported by the context of the Braver Angels convention and encourages people to seek out similarly supportive contexts and people for difficult conversations [1:04:36]

  • April: “in regular life it’s. I would say two things. One is, seek that out. Seek out the coaching, seek out the support for if you’re gonna go talk to your, I don’t know, your friend who just totally disagrees about Israel Palestine. Before you do it, talk to a friend who will affirm your desire to have that conversation at all. Don’t talk to somebody who’s like, why are you talking to them? Talk to somebody who’s yeah I don’t know what’s gonna happen, but good on you for trying and then the other thing is be that person. Be that person in your community.”

 

Closing remarks [1:07:14]

Introducing Braver Angels National Debates [1:08:47]

Song: “Braver to Do” by Mia Rose Lynne  [1:09:57]

End Credits [1:11:07]

Mónica Guzmán:

Today, in the finale of our two -part COVID story, Travis and Francis come together. 

Dr. Francis Collins:

I think that that was, again, another bungled communication moment. You might disagree, but please feel free to. 

Travis Tripodi:

Yeah, I actually don’t agree. 

And then we take a step back to think about what this extraordinary conversation means for the rest of us. 

April Lawson:

It really is exemplified to some degree by Francis Collins, the highly educated expert and then you have the regular smart person in the form of Travis who is like, you know, democracy is great because of people like Travis. 

Mónica:

All that and more is just ahead on this week’s episode.

Welcome to A Braver Way, a show about how you, yes, you, you, can disagree about politics without losing heart. I’m Mónica Guzmán, your guide across the divide to help you hear and be heard by people who confound you.

We don’t want to be at war in our country. We want to be at home. So strap in, because it’s time we learn how to turn up the heat, turn down the fear, and get real about things that matter with more of our fellow Americans than we thought possible. 

Hey everyone, welcome to part two of our two -part story, taking a plunge into the cold, sharp, and often hostile waters of America’s divide over COVID. If you’ve just listened to part one, you know what’s coming. We heard someone who shaped US policy around COVID and someone who opposed those policies tell us what the pandemic was like for them and what led them to have jarringly different perspectives and frankly emotions around how our government responded to the biggest public health crisis any of us have ever seen.

 Now we’re going to hear the two of them come together one on on one, to hash it out. So if you’re here and you didn’t already listen to part one of this series, I’m going to put on my mom hat for a minute, bear with me, and tell you to walk out of this episode right now, young whoever you are, march over to episode eight of A Braver Way, and come back when you’ve got the context you need to be the best listener you can of the fearless honesty these two people have bravely chosen to share with us. 

There will be some heat in what’s coming, but if you’ve been with us for the journey of this podcast, you know we’re not interested in heat without light. And my hope is that as you listen, not only to this exchange, but to your own reactions to it, you’ll find that. Whether it illuminates for you some complexity in our disagreements around COVID, the frustrations and concerns people have about everything that’s happened or your take on the driving question of this whole exercise.

 How on earth do you bridge a political divide when you’re starting so far apart? 

When we last talked with the two people at the heart of the story, they had just shared their answers to a pretty direct question. What went wrong during COVID in your view? And where do you place the blame? 

Dr. Francis Collins is the former head of the National Institutes of Health. As a member of the White House Task Force charged with setting strategy during the unfolding crisis of the pandemic, he had a hand, a big one, in shaping the U .S. response. Here’s part of his answer.

Dr. Francis Collins:

Certainly, there were blunders. The government did things that ticked people off. And then there was a huge impact there of social media and cable news who fairly quickly adopted, at least in some instances, a contrarian point of view. And to be honest, we had a president during 2020 who was giving very mixed messages. And pretty soon it became much more of a political question whether you were interested in being vaccinated than a scientific question.

And frankly, some of what was going on in social media was evil. It was not just people confused. It was people intentionally spreading around false information and sometimes making money off of it as well.

Mónica:

Then there’s Travis Tripodi. As Travis went through the pandemic in New Hampshire, the way most of us did, making choices around what to say or do in response to COVID policies set by others, he grew increasingly opposed to a lot of them. Here’s some of what Travis had to say. 

Travis Tripodi:

On top of thinking that, you know, we didn’t do a great enough job accounting for the vulnerable in our society, I do think that we were responding to a lot of things in fear. And I think to me, at least, there was a discrepancy between when we claimed that things were backed in science and things that were more backed in people that did science, that would then offer advice based off of their expertise. And it was not necessarily using the scientific process to come to conclusions and specifically with regards to public policy.

Mónica:

In part one, you heard Francis and Travis share their COVID stories individually. Now I’m gonna drop you back into the conversation right at the moment I finally invited them to turn to each other.

Mónica:

Now keep in mind, this is not the first time they’ve clashed on COVID. Francis and Travis first came together in an amazing way at the Braver Angels Convention in July of 2023. Travis had heard Francis speak at a session about COVID that left him very frustrated. Then Francis saw Travis struggle with that frustration at a session the next day. After that session, Travis approached Francis, the two shook hands, and they began to talk and talk and talk all the way through lunch they never actually got up to go get and eat. They were so engrossed in their conversation. 

Ready for another one? Let’s go. 

I sort of invite you to have the disagreement and let it really come out all the way.I mean, we are braver angels, we look for common ground, but honestly, that’s not the goal of the next several minutes. 

In the next several minutes, I invite you to have the disagreement and let it really come out all the way. We are braver angels. We look for common ground, but honestly, that’s not the goal of the next several minutes. In the next several minutes, I invite you to really say what you disagree with and where you really clash. Yeah, I where to begin, let’s see I guess I’ll ask you to respond to each other’s positions on what went wrong during the COVID response and speak directly to each other disagreeing at will and going back and forth as you would like.  

Travis Tripodi:

So Francis, I, I think the number one thing that would take exception to with the summary is the idea that the trust was lost with the public figures because of, misinformation or something that people were not getting. I think from my perspective, that trust was lost because information was not shared adequately. There was a certain amount of paternalism in the decisions that were made by the government saying you don’t need to understand this. Just this is what it is. And when things were said to be followed by say, like followed the scientific process, I think that was not always true. for the COVID vaccine, it was like, this is our best bet given the information we have and the environment that we’re in right now. And I think that wasn’t communicated super well, that the amount of uncertainty that existed in those decisions, So I think that, yeah, I would just take exception to when we say that the trust was lost that it was lost because of some external force and not the actions taken by the actual people making the decisions.

Dr. Francis Collins:

So I wouldn’t disagree about the fact that the trust was damaged by the people conveying information, and I was one of them. But I do think there was a significant role of really misinformation and disinformation coming from a lot of sources of people who really didn’t care so much. It didn’t seem about looking at the evidence, just had an opinion that they wanted to dump on the world through some post on Twitter that was going to get a whole lot of, re retweets. And that was hard to watch to see that. 

I guess the other thing I have to talk about vaccines Travis, because that information was pretty darn public. The trial results for those six vaccines, every one of those when the trial was unblinded, and again, these were rigorously double-blinded controlled trials when they were unblinded, the data was discussed in an all-day public meeting by FDA’s experts who were not government employees and had nothing to gain by this.

And then they made an official recommendation that this is something that everybody should want to take. And that got published pretty quickly in the New England Journal. It’s not as if the data from these trials of 30 or 40,000 people was hard to find. And yet 50 million people, for whatever reason, decided it wasn’t trustworthy.

And you know the data. Commonwealth Fund says there are 234,000 people in graveyards that didn’t need to be. That’s just horrible. That makes me want to cry. And that was the biggest failure of all the failures because somehow science gave an answer that a lot of people turned away from and a lot of people lost their lives. How could that have happened? If there’s one question I wanna ask, how did we get that far down into a denial of the facts that could have saved lives?

Travis Tripodi:

Yeah I think there’s a couple things there that I think are really interesting The first thing is with regards to natural immunity, and this is something that we discussed in our conversation, I did not feel as though I. The considerations given to natural immunity were adequately publicized, and I personally do not feel as though they were adequately considered in the clinical trial methodology. I think that, from what I understand, what, during our conversation, what you had said is that you more or less assumed that there was no way to determine between somebody who had COVID and hadn’t had COVID. So you just considered the population all the same. Now, to me I wouldn’t have done the same thing I and I think that’s a big gap and something that wasn’t communicated around very well. So people saw that and latched onto it and said. They’re lying to us or something, they’re like, they’re not even considering natural immunity. What’s going on? Like, they must be hiding something or they must be trying to part, specifically deceive us because they’re not, why aren’t they talking about them? If they were, talk about them.

Dr. Francis Collins:

So there it is. You’re talking about the default is to assume that somebody is actually carrying out some nefarious action because something hasn’t been explained, and I can see that happened a lot, but how did that become the dominant reaction when something was not entirely clear?

Oh, it must be because they’re actually evil people and they’re trying to hide something from us. I know most of the people in the public health community, they are good, honorable people who are doing their best under terrible circumstances. And to have them immediately assume to have these kinds of really evil intentions, it’s just hard to imagine how do we get to that point where as a society, we made those assumptions about people’s motives that were really unjustified.

Travis Tripodi:

I think that’s the co that’s the question or the problem that Braver Angels is trying to solve. Gen generally, however, I would say in this particular situation, you have an environment in a history in this country of a pharmaceutical industry that has heavily like… 

There’s lawsuits that have been, levied against these pharmaceutical industries for not having the best interests of the patients at our, so you have an environment where, I’m just give you an example of the pandemic. You have, I keep going back to this in my mind where Rachel Maddow on MSNBC coming on and saying that the vaccine you against transmission. If you get it, it stops there and then it doesn’t go anywhere else, which we know is not true. And then,

Dr. Francis Collins:

Did we know it wasn’t true then? Because remember, we didn’t really understand about transmission until several months went by and we had a new variant.

Travis Tripodi:

Well, Rachel Maddow didn’t know and she was saying it with certainty and then cut to commercial. It’s a Pfizer commercial. And, I think that environment allows people to, cultivate a lot of mistrust. And I think that in your role as a government official and people in the, in those roles that were communicating what was true and what was not true, there was a missed opportunity there to say listen, What Rachel Maddow said was not true. We don’t know that and or whatever the situation was, that’s one example, but whatever the situation is to stand up and correct the record, when we knew that there, it was more of a guess or a optimistic perspective than it was scientifically backed fact. And I, I think that there was a gap there. 

Dr. Francis Collins:

I accept that. I do think maybe a little bit of sympathy ought to be extended to the Rachel Maddows of the world who are looking around them, seeing the risks of people dying and thinking, if I can say something that will get somebody who’s like not paying attention to go get their vaccine, I might save somebody’s life that doesn’t justify making a statement that’s not fully backed up.

And I’m not trying to excuse it, but I think you can see from the human motivational perspective why that might be a temptation. Especially if you feel like you get I often did 20 seconds to try to convey a message of some sort. And when you start putting caveats, pretty soon , you boost up the whole time.

Can we talk though again about this whole natural immunity that I think we did boggle that a bit, that there was not enough discussion about that from government sources. The problem was twofold. One was, it was not that easy to tell if somebody had actually had COVID or if they thought they had. And so there was no ready way to define that. I guess the other, I mean there were, you quoted the Israeli study, I’ll quote you, the Kentucky study, which said that if you did have natural immunity, you were somewhat protected against another infection. But if you had natural immunity plus a vaccine, you were better protected.

So even people with natural immunity looking at benefits and risks would be better off getting the vaccine anyway. I believe that, I’ve had COVID, but I still got my vaccine boosters six months later ’cause I believe that’s gonna increase my chances of not having a terrible outcome. And I think the data’s pretty good there.

So what I did object to was people, and some of them were politicians saying natural immunity is probably better. And if you’ve had COVID, you should blow off these people telling you that vaccines are important ’cause they’re wrong. And they did not have that data to say that. 

Travis Tripodi:

I think that. Would, I think that’s a fair point in, in, in the cases where that was true, that people were making an equivalently bold statement on the other side saying that they knew something that they didn’t know. in My experience though, from somebody at my level, of involvement with the pandemic, just you know being like watching the news and getting all of my information from the news. 

It was more important that when I had a question on natural immunity, I didn’t feel like I could get an answer and that the answer was dismissive, when it was answered, it was like, just get the vaccine. It doesn’t matter. It’s that’s not fair because. There are risks to the vaccine, and each individual person has to take into account those risks.

And that brings up like another like aspect that I think is like not very well communicated or very well evaluated, which is the idea of the different impact based off of age. So age stratified approaches. And so I think that it was very reasonable to say that given the results of the vaccine, given the fact that you didn’t have a great idea of how natural immunity impacted it, that people at highest risk, the elderly people, et cetera, should get it. Probably still a good idea, but people that were young, people that were healthy, people that were, and really, didn’t have as much natural risk to the vac to the virus, maybe didn’t need to get it. And I think that was, again, another bungled communication moment. You might disagree, but I please feel free to. 

Dr. Francis Collins:

I would disagree, because I think it’sall a benefit versus risk calculation and I think the risk of the vaccine was extremely low. You could argue that for young males who are adolescents, where maybe there’s a one in 10 or 20,000 chance of myocarditis, which is self-limited, and from which you get better.

Lots of young people died of COVID. 40% of the people who died were under 65. The idea that it’s only the really elderly people that are gonna end up dying without a vaccine is not true. And a lot of people with other comorbidities are younger and were also in trouble. Yeah. I actually don’t agree that there’s some sort of point where you could say now you’re young enough and healthy enough that you don’t need this, where’s the data to say that’s the right answer to the benefit risk calculation? 

Travis Tripodi:

Fair point. Francis I do think, however, that at that point in time it really needed to be a conversation between each individual and their healthcare provider. And I don’t think that was really what was happening. There was massive media influence on how people were making healthcare decisions. And that media influence, as I’ve stated, I think was Suspiciously funded by the company that was selling the actual drug. 

So, one thing I wanted to ask you that I think is the, it’s kinda like the question that I’d like to ask, the other side generally, but maybe you in particular is that when it comes to the decision making processes, I think it was often communicated that every decision that was made was scientifically backed. And in my experience, it doesn’t seem as  though that was the case. And in that there was oftentimes where fear was influencing some of the decision making around public policy. And there was often the case where people would, do some like scientific work. Get a good, like a directional, like in like decision based off of that work, a study that was done and then a policy was prescribed based off of the limited information, in the limited study that was done. And so I guess I’m curious, like in your perspective, like how much was each of those decisions like how much was a hundred percent explicitly scientifically backed, how much was very expert backed? Like more, more we have, this is our best guess based off of, all of the information we have at the moment. And then how much was really fear based and where it was, there were decisions that were made that was just like, we don’t know what’s going on, so let’s do the most conservative thing. And that’s really been, that’s a question that I’ve had.

Dr.Francis Collins:

That’s a good question, but I would challenge whether you can actually separate public health decision making between the science and the danger that you’re facing, which you could say is causing the fear. If you have a circumstance that’s not a big deal., you can afford to be very thoughtful and get more data before you say anything when people are dying around you.

Yeah. That’s a danger. Yeah, there’s a fear. Yeah. You are forced therefore to make decisions with imperfect data. And that was happening all the time. Sometimes the data was good enough. You were fairly sure you understood what was going on. Sometimes it was more of a guess. 

But when you say fear, I think for the public health folks, the fear was really more what should we do in a circumstance where there is danger to people’s lives? And if we are . Making the wrong decision or being too slow about the decision, we’re gonna make things worse. So let’s look at the data we got. Let’s admit that it’s really not what you would like to have in the ideal world. And then decide, okay, this is what’s gonna happen. A lot of that happened in the situation room during 2020 in the group that Mike Pence chaired.

And I was part of that,  But a lot of the decisions there were being kicked around by the Surgeon General by Debbie Burkes. By Tony Fauci. Trying to look at the data and make a decision and Pence then trying to push people, are you sure of this? I think it was actually a pretty good process, but it was woefully inadequate, if you wanted to say you knew everything you needed to know, ‘cause you didn’t.

Mónica:

Thank you both. Travis, I’ll let you just give your kind of closing thought and then I’ll move us on. So go 

Travis Tripodi:

okay. Sorry about that. I could go every, all day long.

I’m just curious Francis, given that what you’re saying that that there was uncertainty in those decisions, do you think that the uncertainty around those decisions was adequately communicated or do you think that it was sometimes communicated like this is science.

Dr. Francis Collins:

I think the latter. Yeah I, that is my number one lesson for what went wrong during COVID from the perspective of public health communication, that the uncertainty was not conveyed every time a recommendation was made. There should have been this, “and this is the best we can do right now with the information we’ve got, which is imperfect. So y’all try to not be surprised if we have to change this next week.”

Mónica:

All right. Thank you all that. You did it. Okay. I’m gonna… can we just kinda do a quick stretch,

Travis Tripodi:

Sure 

Francis:

Oh.

Mónica:

All right. Yes. Thank you. Thank you for speaking directly to each other on this. And so now for this last piece of our conversation, I really want us to try to, as candidly and fully as possible, offer our listeners responses to the main question of this episode, which is, how do you build a bridge when the two sides are so far apart? So I wanna start just really open with where your minds and hearts go with that question.

So Francis, I’ll start with you. How do you build a bridge when the two sides are so far apart?

Dr. Francis Collins:

I think Travis deciding to hang around so that he could say hello and shake my hand after this very difficult morning that we had, that’s how you start to build the bridge and my deciding, okay, let’s just not make this a perfunctory handshake. Let’s really get it and. I think when you encounter a circumstance where there’s a range of people’s views, and you can tell that you are like really far apart from some segment, that’s the segment you ought to go straight to and try to have a better chance to understand. Not in an aggressive, I’m gonna prove you wrong, but okay, I can tell you feel really strongly about this. Tell me why. And that’s the start of building the bridge. 

Mónica:

I’m assuming is a bit scary. It’s certainly scary, I’m sure for a lot of listeners imagining bringing this into their own lives. So Travis, I’ll just ask you really directly, was it scary?

Travis Tripodi:

I think that. Being vulnerable about how you feel about things is always scary and reaching out and communicating, because you have so much uncertainty about your actual, your own knowledge on the topic…

And I think that that’s the way I really do think that having conversations, having difficult conversations, having healthy conflict is the way that you bridge these divides. I think that it’s really important that we are able to between individuals reach the humanity and the other person by saying oh, this is what I think and this is why I think this. And then, people can really see, they’re not evil. They just think that because they have a different fact in their mind that they’re focusing on, their priority is a little bit different.

And I really think that’s the way that we bridge the divide between individuals. I think that there’s a bit of a different need when it comes to bridging the divide at like a, between an authority figure and a, and an individual. And I think that in order for us to move forward and, rebuild trust that there really needs to be a high degree of accountability, whatever that means with the people that are in decision making positions. Because Francis, you and I can connect over You know our share humanity, right? And I like you as a person, but there are decisions that you made during the pandemic or people under you made during the pandemic that had significant impacts on my life that. I need accountability for as a member of, as a member, citizen of this nation, right?

And I need to understand that, like why that decision was made. And so I, in terms to moving forward and rebuilding trust, I really think it’s important that these conversations are had, not between myself and yourself, but publicly at the highest level between authority figures on both sides, to really get to the bottom and to say what was right, what was wrong to a root cause analysis.

Understand without trying to put anyone in jail, or anything like that. Really understand like we went wrong in how we can improve good faith conflict from people that really know what happened and what needs to happen differently.

Mónica:

Here’s one where I’d love sort of an itemized list if possible.

And first to Travis what did you get from the conversation with Francis that you had over the non-lunch at the Brave Angels Convention, and perhaps here as well that was more satisfying to you than what you experienced in the public sessions. And one of the reasons that I ask that is because Francis, as has come up, you’re an authority figure. You had, quite a bit of power and responsibility at a very key time for America, et cetera. So you’re coming in, with a different role to play. So yeah. What did you get that was more, more satisfying in those one-to-one conversations? 

Travis Tripodi:

Yeah, so I think, one of the things is that it’s the iteration of a conversation that is really like necessary and that. What is the iteration of a conversation?

Mónica:

Say more of that. What is an interation…?

Travis Tripodi:

So Francis might put forward his perspective on a situation, say natural immunity with regard including natural immunity in a vaccine study. And then if I’m not allowed to respond to that, it’s. I don’t agree with it. And it dies there, and I’m an, I’m just like I, there’s so many questions that I have, but I’m able, in a conversation, I’m able to say,okay I, I think, what really happened here? Why did you decide that you can’t consider national immunity or you didn’t want to consider national immunity, or was too difficult to consider national immunity? And then Francis comes back with his explanation and, I’ll be honest with you, I don’t, I didn’t love the answer 

Mónica:

Yeah, 

Travis Tripodi:

But the process of iteration and not feeling bottled up at that first bit. Does allow level of therapeutic experience where it’s okay yeah, I don’t love the answer and I maybe would do it a little bit different and I’d like to hear, how we could maybe do it better in the future. But I’m not angry, and that’s, and I can’t really explain more. It’s just a feeling that I have, like going through that process.

Mónica:

I wanna zoom into that because what you’re calling therapeutic. I wanna unpack that a bit. So Francis,  there something about what is it like a relief of anger? The therapeutic piece that also ties to, to trust or the fact that you can respond to something where in the other context, the sort of lecture hall type of thing, you just, they would move on to the next topic and you were like, Ugh, and there was nothing to it. Francis, I’d love to turn to you, what’s coming up for you? When you think of what he just said about there was some kind of release, something therapeutic. How do you think of that same dynamic?

Dr. Francis Collins:

It’s taking conflict which can be very unpleasant and transforming it into what Travis has been calling healthy conflict, where you actually have the chance to understand each other as opposed to just feeling this guy really doesn’t like me and everything I’m saying seems to make him really upset and angry.

It’s no, wait a minute. Let’s figure out what the issues really are and then I’m gonna learn something by understanding that perspective that I needed to know. I won’t necessarily agree with it, but I’m gonna learn why this person feels that way and that’s very real to them. And so it should be real to me as well.

And then just as I think we’ve in this conversation had the chance to talk about some very substantive issues and disagree, but understand each other and recognize why we each feel the way that we do, then it feels like a conflict that has a gain to it instead of just a loss. It elevates your understanding instead of just making you wanna run away.

Mónica:

And coming back to accountability, I can see how the gain is, the understanding, the gain, is the interaction, the gain is the loss perhaps of the kind of anger that felt really frustrating and debilitating. Coming back to accountability, coming back to the fact that there’s strong disagreements here in a sense that, hey, there’s right and wrong and you did the wrong thing, or you did the wrong thing. Is there a connection there that you see?

Dr. Francis Collins:

I think the accountability settles on one in conversations like this settles on me that the next time , There needs to have been a learning curve here. And I wouldn’t have gotten on that learning curve without having this sort of substantive conversation with Travis and with other people who have things that I needed to hear.

I’m going to all of these conferences about science communication and “what went wrong and what do we need to do to regain public trust?”, because you can see all the surveys showing that public trust and science has taken a no dive since COVID, and I think I’ve got some answers for people who haven’t really thought about it, about some of the things we need to do better the next time.

Mónica:

And I’ll share something of an assumption that I have I guess with both of you. And the assumption is that many people in your position, Francis, who occupied, some responsibility and some authority through this issue are maybe not taking as much time to talk to folks who have very different perspectives and have felt unheard.

Dr. Francis Collins:

It’s possibly the case. We’re all different. I think some people are more ready to run towards this problem and others may be ready to just run away because it was so painful and they took so much abuse and let’s. Let’s not gloss over that. There were some people who really were trying to do the right thing for no personal gain, who were treated just awfully and who were suffering PTSD and just don’t even want to think about this.

Mónica:

So Travis, parallel question, how did you get to the point where, you had your frustrations, you had your anger, and yet you wanted to talk to Francis?

Travis Tripodi:

Part of the thing that I’ve learned through my work with Braver Angels is that. when you don’t have answers to things, when you don’t understand somebody, you’re able to fill in the gap. With, like ascribing, like an ill intent or like a bad motive. You assume the worst. And I do think that’s human nature. And I think that the resolution to that, I don’t think that it’s this crazy thing that came about only about COVID.This is just This is just human nature. That when people don’t understand things they really, they’re like, oh, they start to become conspiratorial.

So I, I think that my, what I’ve learned is that like the way to resolve that, the way for myself internally, to not feel that way and to not feel that hatred is to really get to the bottom and explore it. Even if it means that you might be wrong even if it means that you maybe have to come to terms with the fact that you’re really not You have not been the most generous person, throughout the experience.

And so I’ve learned that’s just it’s the necessary antidote to that negativity. 

Dr. Francis Collins:

One of the things that I’ve learned the most from in Braver Angels is the experience of both having people explain their position very straightforward. You’re not trying to sugarcoat it. This is how I feel. But then somewhere along the way people also start to say “here’s something that I probably did that made things worse.”

If you’re building a bridge to have the opportunity to have that vulnerability be part of it where people aren’t just staking out a position and saying, this is where I am, and just take it or leave it. They’re saying, yeah, and I see you over there. And I think maybe some things that I have done have widened the gulf between us and maybe I need to admit those.

That’s helped me a lot sort of recognizing my own imperfections and mistakes along the way and being comfortable more than I maybe was at the beginning of my Braver Angels experience. Just admitting that part and the more we can do that the better chances we have. 

Mónica:

No, I really like that you brought that up. ’cause a lot of folks, are ready to come into these conversations, with everything except maybe how they might have contributed to a difficult dynamic in the past with this person or on this topic, or where they might be a little bit rigid, where a little flexibility might be good. My hope is that listeners, in hearing back some of the ways that you disagreed a little bit in this episode… we don’t have time to go through some of the things that I observed you all doing. You would say that’s a good point. You would say that’s fair. You’d say I, that’s not wrong. I can agree with that, but here’s where I still think that’s wrong. and then for Travis, for you to come in and say. Hey I had come in dehumanizing this guy, and to be honest about that, and Francis obviously, you played a role where you were just confounded by the fact that folks weren’t just going along with a lot of the stuff and the distress that came up and you went, you decided to go and try to figure it out, right?

So yeah, these circumstances that brought you together at the convention pretty extraordinary and hopefully a model for others if these moments can exist and can happen and can repeat themselves. 

Final thoughts from either of you for listeners who, they’ve been through through this with you, but they’re thinking about their own places, probably different issues as well, where they are just stuck and they cannot imagine. Where can a certain amount of hope come from for them?

Dr. Francis Collins:

I think there can be a lot of hope. But before we close this down, I do wanna say, Travis, you broke my heart about Robbie your cousin, and I’m so sorry to hear such a terribly sad outcome with all of the complexities that I know are involved in this circumstance. But that COVID apparently played a significant role in making a bad situation so much worse. I’m just so sorry for your family and for you.

Travis Tripodi:

Thank you.

Dr. Francis Collins:

I guess maybe people listening. I don’t know that how we’re gonna really get past this current societal situation with so much distrust and divisiveness except sort of one person at a time. And that’s what Braver Angels is trying to do. But I want to scale it to the whole world.

But that basically has to be, because people decide to take a risk. And as Travis did when he reached out to me that morning, so yeah, if you’re listening to this and there’s somebody that you think has a very different view, maybe even one that seems really misguided or a little threatening, but you think it’s a person who otherwise is the kind of person you might have wanted to talk to. Just decide, get together, say, okay let’s try this out and figure out how to listen and understand one person at a time. Now it’d be helpful if you had Mónica there with you, ’cause that would probably make…

Mónica:

Honestly, I don’t know. I think you moderated yourselves for the most part, but that’s my opinion.

Dr. Francis Collins:

But it just feels like we’ve gotta take this opportunity, as individuals to try to be part of this solution. I think there’s a lot of America that’s probably ready for that. Not quite sure how to start. Just start somewhere.

Mónica:

Travis. 

Travis Tripodi:

So I would actually take it one step further and say it’s not one person at a time, it’s one conversation at a time. If anybody is listening to this, that shares or that comes at this issue from my perspective of being skeptical of the po COVID public health response, I would say that there is a lot of good that can come from one conversation and allowing yourself, putting aside all of the evil that you think that the other person embodies and allowing yourself to see the humanity in the other person. I listened to, Francis, speak once and I was angry. We had a conversation and I felt great. I listened to him speak again, and I was angry. 

(all three laugh)

Dr. Francis Collins:

I should stop speaking.

Mónica:

You mean it doesn’t all go away after one conversation, 

Travis Tripodi:

I read news articles. That didn’t make me feel great about, whatever. And then we have, we’ve had this conversation and, I feel good and that I sense your humanity and I trust your humanity. but it’s even now, after all of that, it’s not the end. I’m not totally convinced, I, you haven’t bamboozled me into getting rid of all of my convictions.I’m..

Dr. Francis Collins:

Darn. I thought I was making progress here. 

Travis Tripodi:

And so we’re not, we are not gonna resolve everything with one conversation. It’s one conversation at a time. And you should take the most difficult person in your life, whether it’s your mother or your brother, or the former head of the NIH and, have those conversations and remind yourself of the humanity of the other person and allow yourself, even if, somewhere deep inside, you still think maybe there’s some bad motives, put that aside and engage in the conversation and you don’t have to get rid of it, but just, there’s a lot of good that can come from going through that process. And I want to thank everybody involved for allowing us to have this conversation again, and specifically you, Francis for, inviting me to lunch or the lunch that wasn’t. It’s been it’s been great to get to know you through this process. 

Dr. Francis Collins:

And same to you. I’ve learned a lot from you, Travis. 

Mónica:

Wow. Yes, thank you for ending on that note. It’s one conversation at a time. You are not gonna solve it all. You’re probably gonna walk away, still disagreeing, but something will have changed. There is a gain, some kind of progress. So one step at a time. Thank you both so much for joining us for this and taking the risk, which also seems to be a key ingredient. So thank you both.

Mónica:

Before we move on, I want to tell you about one of our supporting partners, Friends Committee on National Legislation. The Friends Committee on National Legislation is a nationwide non -partisan Quaker organization that’s lobbied Congress and the administration to advance peace, justice, opportunity, and environmental stewardship for eight years. Even in times of deep division, FCNL believes that people across the country want to see a government that works for the people and that this vision is attainable.

By partnering with organizations like Braver Angels that are working to strengthen democracy and foster dialogue, they believe they can expand collaborative policymaking, build connections, and identify policy solutions that resonate across ideological differences.Visit “FCNL.org” to learn more.  Thank you to the Friends Committee on National Legislation for being a supporting partner of a Braver Way and a member of Braver Network. To learn more about Braver Network and how your organization can join the movement for civic renewal, go to “braverangels.org/abraverway”.

Mónica:

So what we heard back there from Francis and Travis, I submit to you. you, is something we don’t get to hear every day. Two people with very different experiences, frustrations, and levels of influence on a volatile issue. Not just disagree, but explore the contours of that disagreement with each other. And they kind of hinted that they would keep going. I don’t know about you, but I’m really inspired by this. And you might be thinking, wait, Mónica’s at Braver Angels. She wrote a book about curious disadvantages. Isn’t she like a master of doing this?” Here’s a deep dark secret. No! I mean, yes, I have a strong sense of what works. Yes, I have a strong sense of how to put it into practice, and I’m better at it than your average internet troll. But I’m human, and consistently applying the strategies time and again, with some issue that means loads to me, staying totally honest, and totally civil, while emotions boil inside me and all I want to do is hide or tell them they’re nuts, it’s still hard. Which is why we can’t stop looking for models and dissecting the strategies and practicing the point of course of this whole podcast.

So we’ve listened back to a pretty powerful model right here on this episode. And to help me dissect the strategies, I’m once again joined by my good friend and a red to my blue, April Lawson.

Mónica:

All right, April. Here we are.

April Lawson:

Here we are.

Mónica:

Here we are. We have just done something we haven’t done before on this podcast. We’ve invited two people who disagree in a huge way on something really tough to just go at it to engage each other. And it’s.. Because the question that we’re chasing down this episode, this two part episode, is how do you bridge a divide when you’re starting so far apart?

So gonna do something a little different and we’re basically going to unpack some of the tools we heard them use in their conversation. So the prompt is just when Francis and Travis engaged each other, disagreed openly, what did they do that worked? Why do we think it worked? And how can people apply it to their own life? So

April Lawson:

Can I just say real quick that like I thought that what they did was really brave and I am also I’m impressed. Like I I heard some, This is my work, right? So I’m around a lot of conversations like this and there were several moments where I was like, Ooh, he said that. How’s that gonna go? And then it, they, but they, they flowed with it. They moved, they responded it. So

Yeah.

Mónica:

I, noticed myself listening so intently that if a kid came up, while I was listening, I was like, shh, , or I paused it and backed it up I hear that again. That’s what was going on. 

So the first thing I wanna point out is not necessarily something that I witnessed happening, but not happening because I think it’s so important. I did not hear in this conversation. Any sign of fear of the other person. So the way I think about that is . In a prior episode we did about trauma and trauma response, fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. So fight. If you hear people fight as a defense in a disagreement, there might be accusing each other or there might be personal attacks. I heard none of those 

With flight, you’ll wanna get away from the conversation, but they actually wanted to keep going. With freezing. That’s happened to a lot of us. I bet certainly happened to me, where you have this sort of deer in headlights moment where your thought stream seems to escape you, and it didn’t seem like either of them lost track of their thoughts with each other and then finally fawning when you end up performing agreement for the sake of pleasing the other person or trying to get yourself out of some dangerous place.

So I wanted to point that out because that is not easy to get to in a lot of circumstances. But what it is sign of in this conversation is first of all, the fact that it wasn’t their first conversation.They spent that non lunch at the Braver Angels Convention. Being in the presence of each other in disagreement, not avoiding it, but getting into it, and I think that probably cultivated the kind of goodwill  that allowed this disagreement to be so constructive in the first place.

April Lawson:

Yeah. I agree completely. I think you’re totally right that the fact that it wasn’t their first conversation is very much part of why they were able to turn it up to that level of heat and still not get burned.

But Yeah. What else did you notice?

Mónica:

So another thing, April that I saw them doing is sculpting their conversation so they were really clear about, I see where you’re coming from here. I see that, I agree with that, but here’s where I disagree and I wanna go deeper.

And. It’s a sign of how their disagreement could move and build momentum because they were able to do that. That sort of sculpting, that sort of splitting. I’m given material by whatever you just said, and I’m hearing it and I can distinguish the part that I’m like, I’m with you here, but I’m not with you here.Let’s keep going there. And I think that’s just, that’s a really effective way to build momentum in a disagreement  that keeps it moving. April Lawson:

Absolutely. And part of what enabled them to do that, I think, is that they trusted each other, they were both open enough to be able to retain their… the prefrontal cortex was still online. They were not in fight mode, as you said. that’s the kind of thing that can be hard to do and hard to do in a way that is like where you have the, where it’s clear in your tone that you’re curious rather than fixating on the, like the place where the other person’s wrong or whatever. And so I wanna just take a second and talk about that piece because I think that you are right to point out that they were not in like fight, flight, freeze those places. And I just think that there’s if there are things that they had going for them that, helped them be able to navigate that that way. And the good news is that people can, like anybody can create a version of those things. I also just wanna skip to the punchline and say that Travis said, find the person in your life that you disagree with the most and go talk to them. And I love the spirit of that very much because it says, don’t give up. Keep trying. That person still matters. You don’t give up on relationship with them. And I totally like, that’s beautiful. However, I do wanna also say that there are some, How that happens is really important because of course most of us have tried to talk to that person and it hasn’t gone well. And so I think it’s worth going through what are some of the reasons that this was able to take flight One of the ways that they were set up for success is that they had the benefit of a formal setting. And I, of course, I run debates, so I’m partial to formal settings, but they knew they knew that okay, this is this is not just, shooting the breeze with my obnoxious family member. This is we are like going to have a conversation. And so there was what that ultimately generates is intentionality about how you show up and how you engage. And the good news is that anybody can choose to do that, right? If you’re gonna go and talk to that person, that really difficult person, you can sit yourself down and say, okay, I wanna go into this and I wanna show up as my best self. And, making a plan for that I think is really important. Like doing active prep for that conversation and knowing, for example, what your goals are.

So for these two, I think, I don’t know if they would say it this way, but I feel like the goals were moderate. I would not recommend going and having a first conversation and expecting everything to get fixed. You’ve gotta start with my goal is something like, understanding better, getting their perspective better than I have before. And that’s it. That’s all I’m gonna try to do in that hour long conversation that I’m gonna walk away.

Mónica:

Yep.

April Lawson:

Think about it and then make a plan of approach for the second conversation. But just I think it’s really important to… they had the benefit of the prompting of the structure to, to show up as their best selves and to plan. But anybody can do that. Anybody can 

Mónica:

Right. Carving out the space, inviting someone, I’m gonna meet for coffee, I’m gonna make some space for it. It’s not just in the middle of something. It’s not too spontaneous. I didn’t just jump into this on Facebook. I built space for it, which allows me to come . With some goals and being present enough to actually execute on them. Absolutely.

I thought, I was really listening for the kinds of things that make the flow of the conversation easy when the tension is high, and there were definitely points. I heard them…

April Lawson:

Yep.

Mónica:

…react to each other with a, there was one point where Francis scoffed at Travis, bringing up an example around Rachel Maddow and a Pfizer commercial after something that she had said. And you hear him go, Ugh. But he keeps listening. And so there’s humility that they both exercised in three very specific ways that I wanna call out.

 One is acknowledgement. Each other’s good points. So I heard them both say that’s a fair point. That’s a good question. That’s fair. When you’re not feeling humble and flexible, you don’t wanna give an inch, including acknowledging that you at least understand what they just said. But when you do that, it’s just a little bit of that glue.

The second way they demonstrated and practiced humility was conceding points, which is that’s advanced. Francis is saying, “I accept that,” when Travis, leveled the criticism that scientists didn’t go outta their way to correct the record when the media was saying with a lot of certainty, things that were not certain.

And then I heard Travis say. I think that’s true. People were making statements about things they didn’t know. 

When Francis said, I see your point on natural immunity, but these folks who were saying that because of natural immunity you should blow off vaccines were also being uncertain. And, Francis conceded that, or Travis conceded that.

And then the third way that I saw humility come in was really practiced in their, each thing that they said almost was both in tone and word. Truly inviting disagreement. The most direct way they did it was Travis at one point saying he’s talking about the variability of age and he thinks that wasn’t considered enough. And he said, you may disagree, please feel free to. Francis said, I do disagree. And then went into his point. 

By that point, that was one of the points that told me as the observer of this disagreement, oh yeah, they’re rip roaring. Like they’re really, no wonder this ended up being such a positive experience for them that they wanted to keep going. They’re actually inviting the friction and anticipating it. 

April Lawson:

Yes. Yes. Absolutely. Yeah. That was amazing. And it’s just feels good to listen to, because it’s exactly what we want, which is hearing both the real passion and like genuine, rigorous engagement. I loved, they wanted to keep going I, and frankly, I forgot that they were gonna have to stop because I could have listened to that for a long time.

Mónica:

I didn’t wanna stop it. And for what it’s worth behind the scene to our listeners, like me and the producer David, were in the back going, oh, can we let them go on a little longer? Yeah, let’s do another 10 minutes. We…

April Lawson:

Yeah. I feel like too, that part of what can help people. actually achieve that level of humility, right? Where they are able to concede is there’s this little sort of cycle where you can build trust and it starts with, just like presuming good faith to begin with, right?

Walk in saying, even if you have not felt this way in the past, saying, I think there’s something here. I think this person is trying to say the right thing. Even if, I don’t know what it is, there’s something that I’m missing. but there’s something they’re trying, right? They’re in it with their best their best self. This is a hard thing to do inside yourself, right? Like it is hard for a person. oh my goodness, especially on an issue like this, to sit there and hear thing after thing especially, and this gets harder. This is part of why when Francis was like, go find the hardest, Travis was like, go find the hardest person. I was like, okay, but let’s think about that because this is especially hard the closer the person is to you because the more they’re like your friend, your family. Internally it gets harder to just sit with, to sit and hold the fact that person is saying something that you find very problematic in whatever way. And so presuming good faith helps with that. And then another thing that I think helps with it is, taking ownership, right? So when you walk into that conversation, say, I’m gonna be the, I’m gonna lead here, like I’m gonna be, Looking for ways to be humble, looking for places to make concessions. I’m not gonna require the other person to know all the skills that I’ve been working on learning, right? Because I don’t know if they’ve been working on learning them often they haven’t And so just walking in with the like understanding that you may not feel like it’s reciprocal and that it’s still worth doing.

And then what I think that makes possible. Is, open listening. And that’s where you can get to the sort of thing you mentioned earlier where you can identify, I agree with this, but not that, because your mind has to be sufficiently, your body has to be sufficiently calm. You have to be sufficiently like open to be able to take that in and actually analyze it in the moment.

Mónica:

That’s right. There’s a kind o freedom and liberation. But if any of any part of you feels implicated, accused, defensive, then your brain has to give resources to that, which keeps it from being expansive and listening openly. Open listening. I like that. I think that’s it.

April Lawson:

Yeah. Yeah. And I think also one of the things that I was thinking about as. I feel like with COVID there’s a dynamic that’s reflective of some of the red, blue divide, but not in, but there’s also different stuff. And I feel like it, it really is exemplified to some degree by Francis Collins, the like, educated expert who has the ostensible structures of power and like, what some would say a monopoly on truth, right?

He has all of that sort of formal Power. And then you have sort of regular smart person in the form of Travis who is democracy is great because of people like Travis and, sort of independent thinkers who will like, say I see your structure, I see your power, but I’ve got power too. I can think about this too. And what I feel like they did that has not happened in America around this conversation is, I think the authority figures have trouble listening all the way through to the regular folks. They, because it’s, I think it’s threatening and it’s, and to be fair it’s often also like the language that is used to critique is not always kind. But 

Mónica:

Francis pointed that out. There’s a lot of… 

April Lawson:

He did. 

Mónica:

…and there’s a lot of abuse to be thrown, right? But there’s also just a lot of power that people have to live under when they feel that they can’t ask a question and expect to be taken seriously. And that’s, that 

April Lawson:

For sure. And to be honest, like I understand that we’re all people and that it’s hard to listen when the critiques are so pointed. And with power comes responsibility, and so I think that it is on them to listen all the way through.

And there are techniques for this, right? Like you can take breaks, you can walk away and come back to it tomorrow. There are ways to.. and so I think that’s a sort of an area for growth. That, but that Francis, oh my goodness, is modeling just like saintly, superhero in a way…

Mónica:

You know what? Let’s state the obvious about that because I think a lot of the ways that people encounter, critical voices on something like COVID is online, where there’s a body, there’s no real person. It’s an avatar. It’s a bunch of opinions being thrown around. It’s so hard to engage with that in any way productively.

So there’s just not that many opportunities. That’s the other thing. There’s not that many opportunities for someone who had the power that Francis did. Even to interact meaningfully and personably with someone who was more in a skeptical role. people like Francis have the power to completely avoid that if they want to. 

April Lawson:

And they do… well and frankly, who can blame them on some level. Like the stuff that gets thrown at people online is hideous. And if you’re also trying to save the world by inventing a vaccine,

Mónica:

You’ve got things to do

April Lawson:

Working a hundred hours a week. Yeah. On the flip side, and actually that also speaks to the, what I think is the I guess area for growth of the other side, which is that Francis and Travis did, which is, they did presume good faith. and I understand once again, this is natural, and Travis even said this, like for disempowered people to assume the worst about the motives of the other side.

And so in the public discourse, I feel like the, I have friends who are very strong anti-vax, anti-vaccine activists and the place that I would challenge them is can you presume good faith? Can you presume that the motives here… Yeah, sure. Maybe there the system is rigged, maybe there’s money influencing things. Okay. But like that for the people that their motives are strong. Because when I listened, I felt like the hurt that Francis named was around that and they, Francis and Travis. and again, Travis is like incredibly admirable for his like. Willingness to show up that way and say I think this guy does mean and therefore I’m gonna talk to him. So they modeled the things that are missing, I think, in a broader COVID conversation.

Mónica:

Yeah, I think that’s right. And I thank you for, ’cause we’ve had a couple conversations about, the proud American tradition of the independent researcher and I’d never thought of it that way before. that there’s something cool about people having the freedom to not conform to what you’re supposed to believe in and not adopt the consensus and want to do their own thinking and there’s a part of me that thinks there’s probably a natural immunity that a society has when it has enough people who are tending towards skepticism and not wanting to conform and feel comfortable enough saying, “no, I’m not okay with this. I’m gonna quit my job because this isn’t okay with me.” There’s a lot of people who just wouldn’t do that because it’s so hard to do.  one of the most powerful moments from this for me was when Travis told Francis, there are decisions you made during the pandemic that had a significant impact on my life that I need accountability for as a citizen of this nation. I thought that was the most, one of the most important things, having talked to him prior to all of this that he really felt he needed to say.

So when I think about the dynamic that you are giving where it, it’s likely more of a hard thing for folks. In his position to assume goodwill in those who they see as having power over them. And it makes me think of, yeah, and when you’re at work, it’s easy to hate your boss. You know what I mean? Like…

April Lawson:

You’re a kid, it’s, easy to hate your parents.

Yeah. 

Mónica:

…there’s an accountability thing and a power thing that even that they were able to say, 

April Lawson:

Yeah. Yeah. And it, and I thought Francis responded well too. He owned it. He like held that rather than saying “if you were in my shoes, you would say how hard this is.” Which he could have said legitimately because it is hard.

Mónica:

He did say it. like he did say those things, but rarely as a reflex. No. no no. You don’t understand this. You didn’t notice that the scientist did this. It worked this hard. Francis would always begin by saying, I agree that was a weakness. I al he said at one point, but I think that there’s some sympathy that I would throw to the Rachel Maddows of the world for being afraid that if they don’t speak with a lot of certainty about something that could save lives, then they become responsible for people dying and things like that.

And just the, yeah, there, there’s a lot to being able to express yourself. In such a way that you’ll be able to be heard even when you probably want to be defensive. 

April Lawson:

Right, And on the point of being heard, I thought Travis’s point about the iterative nature of conversation was just right on key because the thing about conversations is if you can keep your cool, if you can listen, stay open and, follow your lead with curiosity, that’s what enables people to be heard. That’s what enables you to be heard and that iteration can succeed. And of course, the internet is the worst thing in the world for this. So that’s part of it. But I think that’s we’re made for that, right? We’re made to be heard in that way.

Mónica:

Yeah.

April Lawson:

I wanna point out one other advantage that they had, but that people can create in their own lives, which is, this initial interaction happened at a braver Angels Convention. And which is to say they were in a context which was queuing them towards encounter rather than, demonization. And, they had both self-selected in to show up to that. so they had the prompting of the surroundings and also the community around them to show up well and to like. be able to risk that. And I think that for all of us in our everyday lives, the way to apply that is obviously, showing up at things like the Brave Angels Convention is great, but like in regular life it’s. I would say two things. One is, seek that out. Seek out the coaching, seek out the support for if you’re gonna go talk to your,I don’t know, your friend who just totally disagrees about Israel Palestine. Before you do it, talk to a friend who will affirm your desire to have that conversation at all.

Don’t talk to somebody who’s like, why are you talking to them? Talk to somebody who’s yeah I don’t know what’s gonna happen, but I. Good on you for trying and then the other thing is be that. person. Be that person in your community, because that’s…

Mónica:

Ah. Oh my gosh. 

It’s like disagreement wing men and wing women,

April Lawson:

Yes.

I love it. 

Mónica:

Wing people! I don’t know what the term is, but that’s cool. I love that idea. 

April Lawson:

Yeah and that’s 

Mónica:

Lean on each other. Yeah, lean on me. Lean on me. 

Let’s do a little world play if you need. 

April Lawson:

Yeah,

We practice, with our friends for job interviews. Why wouldn’t we practice for hard conversations? And so introducing that into your social circle or like showing up that way, like vocally that people know that’s that you can be talked to about that. I think that is what will help. Spread this and make it because it’s, it’s both our mandate, right? Our challenge as people who care about this, which means you, me, and everybody who’s listening, is both to do this in our own lives, right? To go ahead and attempt those conversations, even though they won’t all work. and to lead for the people around us.

Mónica:

I’ve got a term. It’s disagreement, buddy. Everyone find your disagreement, buddy. Yeah. 

April. You’re mine. I got dibs. 

You got 

April Lawson:

Yes,

Mónica:

That’s Alright, April. Thank you so much as always my friend, my, my disagreement buddy. All right. Talk to you later.​Take care. 

Mónica:

One of the ways we can brave divides when we’re starting so far apart is not to expect too much too fast. There’s a quote I hear a lot from Reverend Jen Bailey that “Relationships move at the speed of trust.” While so do constructive conversations. You test the waters with each other. Will they hear me out or rush to judgement? Will they assume the best from me or the worst? Do they think what I think matters or do they dismiss me at every turn with their tone their look their whole vibe? And You decide based on that how deep to wade how much to share and whether you can let your guard down a little bit here a little bit there and Maybe even I don’t know …enjoy the ride ride.

April said that Francis and Travis modeled the things that are missing in the broader COVID conversation. I think that’s absolutely right. And I think a lot more of us are capable of having these kinds of discussions bit by bit than we think.

Are there disagreements that seem too dark to cross for you right now? Whether about COVID or something else in America’s copious offerings of extraordinarily fraught issues? Issues? Well my hope is that there’s something you heard here, a strategy, a tool, or maybe just an approach that gave that issue in your mind even just the tiniest little glimmer of light. 

Mónica:

Now I want to tell you about Braver Angels’ national debates. I am personally such a huge fan of these, talk about good models to follow, and not just because they were designed by our regular contributor and my friend April Lawson. I love them because they tackle the biggest most controversial topics head on. In fact, in part one of this story, you heard April describe some of the intense discussions her team had around how to design the debates about COVID that were held during the COVID lockdown, so I know what you might be thinking. Aren’t these just screaming matches then? I promise they are something entirely different, and probably unlike anything you’ve experienced before. Their special format gets everyone to ask questions, to stay curious, and helps participants both hear and be heard. In the end, you walk away with a better understanding of the issue, more awareness of where the other side’s coming from, and you might even be touched and changed by each other’s ideas. To learn more about the free online “Braver Angels national debates”, check out the link you’ll find in our show notes.

Mónica:

With that, I’m ready to send you brave souls back to your worlds with a song. It’s called “Braver To Do,” Do” by Mia Roselin, and it was one of the honorees in the 2020 “Braver Angels” songwriting contest. Give it a listen. 

(music up)

(music under)

Thank you for joining us on this ninth episode of A Braver Way.

A Braver Way is a production of Braver Angels. We get financial support from the MJ Murdoch Charitable Trust and Reclaim Curiosity, and count USA Facts as a proud sponsor.

Our senior producer and editor. is David Albright. Our producer is Jessica Jones. Our theme music is by the fantastic number one billboard bluegrass charting hip -hop band Gangsta Grass.

A special thanks to Ben Caron, Don Goldberg, Mike Cassantini, and April Lawson. I’m your host and guide across the divide, Mónica Guzmán. If this episode sparked questions or stories or concerns for you, trust me when I say, “we can’t wait to hear them.” You can always reach us at “abraverway@braverangels.org”. Take heart, everyone. Until next time. 

(music up)

…Everything’s on fire now  This country is our common ground  We’re not enemies. We can help each other breathe. We may never see eye to eye God expecting We’ll change each other’s minds Still I’m reaching my hand out across this line ‘Cause I’d rather see heart to heart I believe if we both let down our guards We might find some truth It could start with me and you The harder it is, the braver it is (music ends)

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