Robert Pérez and the Genius of Upstairs, Downstairs – Transcript








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Kirk: And we’re back. Welcome in. It’s another edition. You found us. It’s, Let’s Hear It. We’re glad to have you, Mr. Brown. Glad to see you here today. We’ve got a good one for everybody.

Eric: Come on in, people. No, no, don’t stand out there. Come in. Welcome in.

Kirk: Gather. Gather. Welcome.

Eric: Okay, Kirk.

Every so often something happens and I just have to tell you that. Prepare yourself for, for a revelation. You are right.

Kirk: Yes, thank you. You owe me an apology.

We need this podcast.

Eric: I apologize. I’m very sorry.

Kirk: Robert Perez is here today and oh my goodness, just in time. And, and Robert, you belong here.

Don’t feel shy. Don’t feel intimidated. You belong here. In fact, you’re the reason this podcast exists. And later you’re gonna hear Mr. Brown, Eric Brown say sometimes our guests talk to each other. They absolutely do. So, set this up because this is a great conversation.

Eric: I spoke today with Robert Perez, the founder and chief exploration officer of Wonder Strategies for Good, which is a, uh, network, a firm that is a network of experts working on messaging, storytelling, psychology, public opinion research.

And I will tell you that I went back, I always go back and listen to the show one more time, the interview. Before you and I do the, what I affectionately call the blah blah, uh, this time I went back. I listened to it three times.

Kirk: Yeah. Because yeah, of course you did.

Eric: I kept getting new things. It kept inspiring ideas in my mind and I just kept listening.

And I may go back and listen to it five more times because there’s so much in here about how we do what we do and how we can do it better. That I learned a ton from, and I know other people are really gonna just eat this stuff up.

Kirk: Well, and it’s so good. Not only do you owe mean an apology, which you gave me, thank you, ’cause this podcast is a good idea, but we do need a new format because I will say I was left wanting more. This is a good introduction to what Robert’s doing here, but there is so much meat here to get into. So, uh, one thing Robert did give us his cliff notes for how to bring people through this. And I do wanna point out you can go to wonderful to find the resources that Robert and I are gonna talk about in terms of hardwired.

But let’s list it in and we’ll come back. So this is Robert Perez from Wonder for Good, on Let’s Hear It.


Eric: Welcome to, Let’s Hear It. My guest today is Robert Perez, the founder and chief exploration officer of Wonder Strategies for Good, an amazing firm that works with foundations, nonprofits, activists, and advocates to advance pro progressive causes across the country and around the world.

Now, I have to just say that in this business I have been lucky. Indeed to re meet really wonderful people every step of the way. And Robert, I have to tell you that you are absolutely one of those people. Thank you so much for joining us on, Let’s Hear It.

Robert: Oh my gosh, it is such an amazing pleasure to be here.

I feel incredibly honored, humbled, uh, when I, when I look at who you have. Interviewed in the past. They are certainly, I’m a nerd and so I like, I don’t follow sports figures. I follow nerds who are really good at social change. So when I look at the sheroes and the ROEs and the heroes that you’ve had, Chanel Matthews and Trabian Shorters and Aaron Balkan, like I am just, it feels like such an honor to to be here.

So thank you Eric.

Eric: I am honored that you’re honored. This could go on for a while.

Robert: Love fest, mutual admiration society.

Eric: I will, I will say we’ve known each other for a long time and just this, I’m just very, very happy to have this conversation. Um, so you’ve been, now you’ve been doing, like, as I said, you’ve been doing this work for a while now.

Can, can you just talk about how you got started and what led you to create wonder?

Robert: Oh gosh. How I got started, like growing up. Little kid got started. Yeah. Well, you know, yeah. Everything comes from somewhere. Yeah. Well, I think I had a passion or. Social change communications from the very. Beginning when I was thinking about like what to do, what to study in college.

I was the first person in my family to go to college, didn’t really know what the heck I was doing. Decided that I liked politics, studied politics, freaked my parents out. My sophomore year when I’m like, I’m gonna take a break from college and go work on a political campaign. I was kind of good at writing, so I got put into a press secretary role in that.

I made a whole $25 a month on that campaign and I kind of just stuck with social change communication. And then throughout the course of my career, I owned got more specific about what I love doing, what I felt my true superpowers were my calling. So for the last 20 of maybe the 30 years, I’ve been a working communications professional.

I have been a consultant in various firms. I’ve worked at Fenton, did a short stint at Spitfire, and then just almost 10 years ago, next month, ah, started Wonder Strategies for Good.

Eric: Wow. 10 years. Happy anniversary. Thank you. And what led you to start Wonder, which I have to tell you is not like. Many firms that I know and you can talk about how you’re different or how you’re yourself, but talk us through about how Wonder got got started.

Robert: Oh yeah. Uh, well there is, there is an origin story for Wonder. There is an origin story for Hardwired, which I’ll talk a little bit about probably later during our conversation. So I started Wonder in 2014, but really. The inciting incident or the origin story happened probably more like in 2008. I’m in California.

I live in San Francisco, and in 2008, the election was very like a sort of like a bittersweet moment in our state. In California, folks, voters in California overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama. I was really excited. 61% of Californians voted for Barack Obama. That year, overwhelmingly 63, almost 64% of voters said that chickens and cows and pigs should be free.

And that same set of voters, um, said that same sex couples should not be able to get married. 52%. Voted to take away the freedom to marry after the California Supreme Court had ruled it to be a constitutional right. And that was both heartbreaking for me as a queer person. I married my husband Robert in Tober.

Yes. We’re both Roberts. Um, just in case you, you missed that, and I took a step back and I said, how is it that people who voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama who voted overwhelmingly to say that chickens, cows and pigs should be free? Those were the same voters who’d said that same test couples should not be able to be married legally.

And that was a moment in my mind where I think myself and others realized that we fundamentally did not know how to talk about this issue in a way that connected with voters. And I wanted to do something about it, like many people, like allies, and especially like many queer people did to change that.

And so I started some research on how to talk to Christians about LGBTQ people to have Christians who are overwhelmingly the majority people who vote in the United States on issues that I care about, to have them be supportive of the issues that I care about. Not despite being a Christian, but because they were Christians to, to use that as a framework by which they would support inclusion of LGBTQ people in their congregations and everything up to the freedom to marry for.

Same sex couples. So that’s the work I started and immediately had some aha moments and some breakthroughs, breakthrough ideas about what we needed to shift in terms of how we communicate about social issues. And maybe about nine years later, the Packer Foundation gave us, uh, gave us myself Wonder Strategies for Good.

And Goodwin signed a strategic research, a grant. To take everything we had learned about talking about and communicating about socially sensitive issues and to share what we had learned with change makers in the United States and across the globe.

Eric: I’m, I’m fascinated by this because, uh, you know, many of us and, and you created a framework called Hardwired that we will talk about in just a moment, but I’m very interested in, in this aftermath of 2008, and you sit down, you’re obviously frustrated, angry, we all were.

And then decided to go out and kind of do that kind of exploration around why people could hold these competing values simultaneously. How did you go up? What kind of questions did you ask? What approach did you take if you took an approach to going in and learning more about how to do this? Because I think we all sometimes come up with these.

Big questions that we have and, and it’s great to have a structure for going about doing that research. What was your approach?

Robert: Uh, it’s a great question. There, there are lots of, there are lots of layers and over the years I’ve tinkered both with the approach to strategy and there really are two parts of the to the equation.

One is how do you do deep listening that practices empathy and compassion for the audiences who we want to persuade. And then how do you take that and use that to develop. We would call successful messaging interventions because we think of messages, stories, narratives as psychological intervention that untie, uh, unie the psychological knot to prevent people from being supportive.

In fact, if you just think of, of narrative work, there is this, this concept of a Daniel mon, the, the moment in which the psychological knots were un hide for the tension in, in a story. And it’s similar for. The ways in which our narrative interventions and messaging interventions work. The thing that I will say is hard about the work that I do is I am often, um, in the old days, physically behind a two-way mirror listening to people tell me their thoughts, and more often behind a virtual two-way mirror where I’m listening to online focus groups and hearing people say things that I disagree with.

That I find quite troubling, and I had a moment where I had to shift my perspective. We were doing focus groups in 2011 on gender affirming care, healthcare for transgender people, and we were transitioning between one focus group and the other, and we had just heard a lot of. Honestly transphobic stuff from the people who were in these focus groups in Las Vegas.

And I said that that’s how I was feeling. I always had a human moment. I said, wow, listen to all the transphobia we just experienced. And I’ve had to learn to hold the tension of opposites, what young would call the tension of the opposites, which is that could be true. And it’s also true that these are the people who I need to communicate with.

Effectively, and a lovely psychologist named Dr. Phyllis Watts, who was in the room with me who has a lovely soothing therapist voice reached over and she, she, she touched my arm and she said, now remember, you can’t message effectively to audiences who you turn into a caricature.

Eric: Mm-Hmm.

Robert: You have to be able to see something in them.

That is good. Is wholesome. So while you’re seeing the stuff that is deeply problematic, also look for things that are good about them. The, the fact that they are caring parents, that they’re volunteers, that they have values that are actually often aligned with you, and they actually have a deep desire to see themselves as good.

Even if. Their downstairs brain, which hopefully we’ll get a chance to talk about a little bit later. We will. Makes them go to, to, to, to makes them go to bad places, right? So beginning with listening and it is hard and it’s hard to this day for me to do this because these are issues that are deeply personal to me.

But I also have this deep think of myself having sat in hundreds. I don’t know if I’m getting close to thousands of hours of, of focus groups. I’m a, I’m a optimistic realist. I both know the hard work that we have to do to make progress on the issues that we care about deeply, and also believe that people’s hearts are not set in stone, that people have the capacity.

To change, and I just think of my own personal story. My late father was born in 1927 in Texas, in Laredo, along the border. When he went to school, he went to a, a segregated school. Mm-Hmm. Not segregated the way they are today because of financial, legally separated. He could not because of his brown skin, go to schools with white children.

And so things are able to change over time. The way I think about it is what Dr. King told us. The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, and I believe that Dr. King believed this, that we play a role in bending the arc toward justice by figuring out how to communicate and move people along a spectrum toward greater support for the issues that we care about.

Eric: Let’s talk a little bit about hardwired, right before we, we take a break. Can you talk about how all of this led into this way of. Doing research, listening, creating messages, and then building support for movements.

Robert: Yeah. Well, one thing that we, when you get to work on a lot of different issues, and so the work that we’ve done has helped to allow LGBTQ people to be ordained in the Presbyterian church and many other mainline Christian denominations has.

Not only allowed LGBTQ advocates to win for the first time at the ballot box on the Freedom to marry in 2012, but those four victories in 2012 that came from evidence-based messaging recommendations led the Supreme Court to say, okay, we’ve hit a tipping point and we feel comfortable ruling and these two Supreme Court rulings that ultimately allowed LGBTQ couples to get married across the country.

So you take, you take that, you take some work that we’re doing right now. On math learning for black and brown students. I call that my redemption project because I, math was the one subject I sucked at. And, uh, so same, uh, lots of different things that we’re, we’re doing behavior change work. We are doing work on medical aid and you know, we made progress on medical aid and dying, doing work on college affordability and encouraging students in California who have not been on the sort of four year college track to still want to pursue financial aid even if their start in colleges at the community college level. So lots of different issues and we’re constantly having these things sit in the back of our mind to say, what are the common similarities that connect all of these issues? And one thing that is common is that our beautiful and complex human brain.

It has both the capacity to be amazing, pro-social, thoughtful, empathetic, compassionate, and it also has the capacity to be fearful, angry, distrustful, racist, et cetera. And how do you leverage that, that understanding of how are brain processes, social issues, our relationship to math, et cetera. How do you leverage that understanding to help calm the downstairs brain?

To give people access to the upstairs brain, and I’m happy to give the short description of how we think about it for folks. And it doesn’t require, honestly, you being a psychologist. I’m not a psychologist. I just needed to understand it at a basic level so that I could figure out how to use it to communicate more effectively with the audiences who I’m trying to persuade.

Eric: Well, we’re gonna take a very quick break and we’ll be back with Robert Perez of wonder for Good. And we’re gonna talk about upstairs, downstairs, and, uh, who knows, maybe other PBS programming. But, uh, we’ll be right back after this break.


Eric: You are listening to Let’s Hear It, a podcast about foundation and nonprofit communications hosted by Eric Brown and Kirk Brown. If you’re enjoying this episode, you may just be a rule breaker. Tune in to Break Fake Rules, a new limited series podcast with Glen Galaich, CEO of the Stupski Foundation. Hear from leaders in philanthropy, nonprofits, government, media, and more to learn about challenges they’ve overcome by breaking fake rules and which rules we should commit to breaking together. We are also sponsored by the Conrad Prebys Foundation. Check out their amazingly good podcast, and we’re not just saying that, Stop and Talk, hosted by Prebys Foundation CEO, Grant Oliphant. You can find them at And now back to the show.


Welcome back. We’re back with Robert Perez, the founder and Chief Exploration Officer of Wonder Strategies for Good.

And we were just talking about this concept or a framework called Hardwired and you, you talked about the upstairs brain and the downstairs brain, and I’m fascinated by this. Can we just talk a little bit more about what it means and what it is and why? Why it matters?

Robert: Yeah, so what we’re specifically talking about is we’re talking about the prefrontal cortex.

Our homosapien brain and the older, or maybe you’ve heard it, called the lizard brain, reptilian brain amygdala, and or downstairs brain. What I love about this framework, it’s not our framework and in fact our approach. To the work that we do is, is not dependent on any one school of thought. We try to pull from research, uh, across the world.

Um, this is, this is developed by doctors Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Brown, who wrote a great book called The Whole Brain Child. So for the parents out there who have ever experienced a meltdown in the middle of Target while shopping, it’s a great read to understand when to have. The factual conversation versus when to have the emotional, the emotional conversation.

I’d love to just read the, just like the brief if I could. Yeah. The brief description of what, how they describe it. So this is what they write. Imagine your brain is a house with both the downstairs and an upstairs. The downstairs brain includes the brainstem and the limbic region, which are located in the lower parts of the brain, from the top of your neck to about the bridge of your nose.

Scientists talk about these lower areas being primitive because they are responsible for basic functions like breathing and blinking for innate reactions and impulses like fight or flight. For strong emotions like anger and fear, your upstairs brain is completely different. It’s made up of the cerebral cortex and its various parts, particularly the ones directly behind your forehead, including what’s called the middle prefrontal cortex.

Unlike. Your more basic downstairs brain, the upstairs brain is more evolved and can give you a fuller perspective on your world. You might imagine it as a light IL second story study or library full of windows and skylights that allow you to see things more clearly. So what I like about this is it just, it just makes it simple.

Like you don’t have to remember, this is not studying for a biology test. You don’t need to remember amygdala. You don’t need to remember. Free frontal cortex. You can just remember I got my upstairs brain and I got my downstairs brain, and I will say, and there’s lots of research to show this. When you are aware of what is going on in your brain, you can more likely avoid that fight with your partner or your spouse because you’re like, whoa, I am trying to have a conversation with my husband.

I am so in my downstairs brain, this is not gonna go well. Maybe I need to just take a step back, breathe and say, let’s, let’s pause this for a moment. So, when you know what’s going on in your brain, it actually is, it’s deeply helpful. What is helpful for the work that we do is understanding the ways in which the downstairs brain can hijack your upstairs brain.

So your upstairs brain is, is amazing and gives you the ability to be empathetic, to be compassionate, to be pro-social. Your downstairs brain can completely hijack it because it is the thing that is meant to keep you alive. It is there and has been honed over tens of thousands of years to say there is a threat out there.

I’m gonna hijack your upstairs brain. I’m gonna, I’m gonna take you offline and put you in fight, flight, freeze, or flock mode. And it is hard for a modern brains to, to sort of distinguish between the saber-tooth tiger, uh, tens of thousands of years ago from the stressful email from a boss. Hopefully my emails aren’t seen as stressful to my colleagues or how we might relate to a social issue, for instance.

So we have the same emotional reaction. And again, to hear what I just said, it takes your upstairs brain, offline, floods, your downstairs brain with negative emotions, and prevents you from being the thoughtful person that you have. So we have to think about, and what we’ve learned is there are ways to actually calm the downstairs brain in order to give people access to their pro-social, empathetic, compassionate upstairs brain.

Eric: I’ve read hardwired. I’ve never really, in my, I think my downstairs brain never fully took it in properly. The upstairs brain did, but it’s, I’m feeling the description right now. I, and I’ll just tell you a quick little story. I was at a concert the other night and I was really loving the music and it was all fabulous and someone just wouldn’t stop talking behind me.

And I spun around like Linda Blair in Exorcist, and I became the succubus. And when it was, and when it was over, I felt so deeply ashamed of myself for, and then like, I had feelings of hate. I was ready to throw someone over the balcony. I mean, like almost literally, I was so angry and so frustrated when it was all over.

I like, oh my God, I’ve been completely hijacked by my emotions here and, and I can see how this manifests itself. In political speech and in every other kind of conflict or situations in which conflict is beneficial to the, the person who is fomenting the conflict. It almost can help you understand the attack on the capitol, if you think about it.

Robert: It, it definitely explains attack on the capitol and the challenging part. For us who, who wanna make progress on, on social issues and have a progressive view of the world is often the case that our opponents, when we have opponents, just need to trigger the downstairs brain.

They just need to get people into fight, flight, freeze, or flock mode. Some people have heard variations of those four apps. I love the addition of flock. That’s, that explains what actually happened in the insurrection on the Capitol. And the good news is we’ve learned actually how to help people manage what’s going on in their downstairs brain and to give them access to their upstairs brain.

But what we have to do is much more complex. What our opponents need to do is just to freak people out, get them angry, get them riled up. We need to calm the downstairs brain. And then activate the upstairs brain where empathy and compassion and altruism reside.

Eric: Alright, let’s go there. How do you calm the downstairs brain?

Robert: What we have been seeing, and this is, this is fairly, this is fairly new. This may make up, uh, when we have time, a, a maybe a hardwired to point out, but there are five, five messaging principles that help to do these things. And I’ll just say them very quickly and, and they’re, the messaging principles are focused on the psychological aspect.

Then the communications aspect are live below those, so, so the five principles are to build trust, to acknowledge complexities, to calm concerns, to nurture compassion, and to activate hope. And the first three, build trust, acknowledge complexities, calm concerns. That’s step one of calming the downstairs brain.

And in that sense, you kind of wanna sequence that in your communications. In order to get people to just, to start to calm down and to have the capacity to listen, to be open, to be in that light-filled upstairs library with, with a sort of skylight showing. And then once you’ve done that, then you want to activate the upstairs brain by nurturing compassion for the people.

Who, where we, who we wanna see change for. And those people could be LGBT communities, they could be communities of color, they could be immigrants, but they also could be yourself. So like in the math learning project that we’re doing, we’re trying to, for at least one audience, we’re trying to facilitate self-compassion among our audience.

And then we wanna, we wanna end by activating hope that change is possible, because you can get to this through the first four. And if people aren’t hopeful that change is possible, they’re just gonna say. Sounds nice, but this doesn’t seem like something we can make progress on.

Eric: Yeah. Anat Shenker-Osorio calls that messaging through inevitability and when she said that, the top of my head came off because you have to help people understand that the a beautiful place in the future isn’t just possible. It’s coming. Yeah, our guests have a tendency to talk to each other through these conversations, and so Trabian Shorters talks about rewiring the brain by engaging in that empathy and helping people understand the humanity of the people that we’re talking about, and that it actually rewires the chemistry or the.

Whatever the wiring changes and then now you’re seeing things from that perspective. And I honestly think that marriage equality has done that because we went from, in a very short period of time, the the progressive state of California voting against it to people running ballots in lots of very. Red and purple places because they know that we’ve managed to connect with people’s humanity in a way that becomes politically viable, which seems kind of amazing.

And I, I’m just wondering for you, in some of the issues that you’re working on, where else do you see this rewiring? Taking advantage of a hardwired approach, making real inroads. ’cause we, I do feel optimistic about the future and I, I’m optimistic about how the, your work and the work of people like you are helping to bring that about.

So can you talk about some of the issue areas that are really producing that kind of politics or messaging of inevitability?

Robert: First, let me, let me say it’s one of the things I love about doing this work is the opportunity to learn from. Others and to be open to learning from others. So hearing what AANA is shared hearing what RAB is shared, it’s really useful for the work that I do because people are gonna approach things from a slightly different perspective.

And like you, I often have these aha moments that I’m like, oh, that’s so interesting, and I can see how it’s letting me see something that I, maybe I didn’t, I wouldn’t have seen on my own. Or it’s helping to explain something. That we are seeing, but maybe from a slightly different perspective. I can give some examples from work that we’ve done.

I can give some examples. I, I’ll give an example actually of something that I am not personally working on. My collaborator, Amy Simon, who is the co-author of Hardwired with Me, um, has been doing work both in United States and in Latin America to advance, uh, well in Latin America to advance legal access to abortion care.

And in the United States to win back legal access to abortion care. So tremendous progress that she has been doing and seeing in that work. But if you just take what has happened since the Dobbs decision and the overturning of roe, it’s an example of why I feel hardened, which is that folks in various states said, how do we need to talk about this issue in a way that aligns with.

Pretty, these are not blue states that we’re winning in. We’re winning in some, some sort of, not even purpleish states, sometimes pretty deeply. Red states. A thing that is a, that is a common denominator and core to our approach is that our approach is focused on equipping audiences to arrive at support for the solutions.

And let me say what I mean by that. And I, I count myself as an advocate and I certainly have done this throughout my career. It is common for advocacy communications to tell people how to think and to feel, which doesn’t engage their sense of agency to arrive at a conclusion themselves. And I love the way that Dr. Phil Swats, who I’ve mentioned before, talks about it. She says, one of the things I know is that when a person genuinely changes, it is from the inside out. Politics. That means real lasting change happens when communications give voters an opportunity to use their own identity, their own way of thinking, and their own values to sort through an issue and arrive at a thoughtful conclusion.

So all of the five principles that I have just named the building trust, the acknowledging complexities, the calming concerns, the nurturing compassion, the activating hope. This is a psychologically aligned approach to communications that allows people to arrive at the conclusion based on their own values, based on how they are hardwired, not because I’m telling them, this is how you should think, feel, and act.

And in fact, you probably have been in a situation where someone’s like, lemme just play devil’s advocate. And you’re like, oh, I hate when the person plays a devil’s advocate. But part of what’s happening is a psychological process called reactive. Which is, I don’t like having my agency taken away from me.

You’re telling me how to feel. Even if I feel like I might be aligned with you, I’m just gonna reject it because you’re taken away. My agency and what I love about the wins at the ballot box on abortion is they have figured out how do we win in Kansas? How do we win in these particular states that are not the obvious super blue super progressive states, but who still fundamentally understand what it means to lose autonomy over your body and ability to make those decisions for yourself and those reasons for voting that way may mean that they may be slightly more moderate or conservative, and yet I wanna make sure that people.

Should have the right to be able to make these decisions for themselves and to make that a protected right. And the places where we’ve lost it. So that’s, that’s one example we did. We’ve done a work on covid, which was extremely illuminating. Talk about a stressful project because we were doing it when we were all locked down.

We were making lots of mistakes. Which is part of the process, and I like to show up in a way where I don’t feel like I know all the answers. Lots of times the things I put in front of people, bomb. And an example of that is we thought, oh, let’s scare the bejesus outta people to get them to get vaccinated.

That did not go well because if you can think back to what was going on in 2020. We were all in our downstairs brain. We were already there. We were, we were physically isolated from people. We were scared about getting this thing, many of us, and to scare people more was making people really crusty with us.

They were really reacting negatively to it. So we had to completely change the approach to how we communicated and to listen and to understand what would motivate people to want to get vaccinated as an example. And I have some examples of stuff that we tested that worked. Really well for that as well.

Eric: I really, really love having these kinds of conversations ’cause I learned so much. Every day. And from folks like you, especially Robert. Um, this work is fascinating and I just encourage folks to go to the website, to go to Wonderful Goods website to download the research and the resource that you have, learn more about it.

I’m looking forward to what happens next with you, and I just deeply appreciate the work you do. And, and thank you so much, Robert, for coming on.

Robert: Thank you, Eric. It’s been a pleasure. Genuinely.

Eric: Robert Perez, founder, Chief Exploration Officer of Wonder Strategies for Good. Thanks again.


Kirk: And we’re back. Eric, oh my gosh.

Eric: I know, right?

Kirk: So good. Can, can we start, by the way, with Robert naming his firm Wonder for Good. Which, by the way is so good. And then giving himself the title Chief Exploration Officer. This is, this is the highest of the high. This is the best, the best of the best. Just in those two beats. You, you know that this person’s coming from a very deeply thoughtful place when you just see those two things.

Eric: At Brownbridge Strategies, my firm, I am the Chief Lost in the Woods Officer.

Kirk: Yeah, there you go. That’s great. That’s great.

Eric: I’m the Chief Head in the Sand. Anyway. I’m not quite sure where to begin in having this conversation with you, Kirk, because there’s so much going on in my little tiny pea brain that I’m processing. But some of the things that stood out to me where, for one thing, I can’t decide if that was a messaging conversa, if this is an episode about messaging, uh, a conversation about psychology.

And the, the fact is that we have a tendency to. When we are communicating to forget the psychology. Yeah. Which is a problem because we have to understand the, the mindset that the people that we’re trying to communicate with, that they’re in, and he, he said something that was amazing. He was quoting a colleague of his saying that you cannot effectively message to somebody if you are turning them into a caricature. And that’s so important. Just think about, you know, I, we’ll go back. Remember when Hillary Clinton talked about the basket of deplorables? That wasn’t the best messaging in the world, right? And it was alienating and just like, oh, here’s somebody who doesn’t understand or doesn’t care, or thinks that they’re better than me.

And I think that’s so much of our messaging because we’re trying to persuade people. If we need to persuade them, then they’re not there yet. And so we’re always talking to somebody who isn’t there yet. And if we think you’re not there yet because you’re stupid, because you don’t understand, because it’s so complicated, and let me explain it to you like you are losing folks.

So that was, I, I think that was the first thing that just jumped out at me and, and I smacked myself on the side of the head like, ah, that is so good. And then we can talk about, we can talk about the whole thing, but I don’t know what, what’d you think Kirk?

Kirk: Well, don’t think for a second either that this is just an academic exercise.

Even though Robert roots all of his work in such careful research and the team he’s assembled as some of the best of the best I terms of thinking this through, Robert is working on and winning some of the most contentious, some of the most difficult. Policy fights around equity, social issues, what, however you wanna characterize it, that you can imagine.

And you know, I love his origin story for his firm where he is like it’s, it’s 2008 and I watched voters in California support Barack Obama, the first Black president in history. Agree that chickens and cows should be free and yet the same election cycle defeat same sex marriage. And, and that’s the origin story that Robert tells for like how he wanted to get started.

And I think, you know, Eric, in the heart of what you’re talking about, that sort of interesting thing. Yeah. What is this? Is this messaging, is this campaigning, is this psychology? Is it research? This nugget, he pulls out where he says. We want people to support our issues, not be, not despite, but because of their identity.

And he comes outta that election and says, you know, I wanna start learning how to talk to Christians about lgbtq plus issues because I. The core of their identity, we can find a thread to pull forward where they’re gonna come forward and support these issues. And it made me think, Eric, you know, we have this whole us and them thing right in our field, and I wonder have we themed them before they, them us?

You know? Like, like, do we have too much us and them in our field? And actually is too much of the us and them, us saying everybody else is them. I kind of feel like that’s part of what I’m hearing in this conversation with Robert.

Well, another thing that. Absolutely came forward for me is this notion that we are attempting to like, oh, okay, so we’re on these two different levels.

You’ve got the upside upstairs brain and the downstairs brain. Yeah, and I kind of, to really generalize, I feel that the left has spent a whole bunch of time in the upstairs trying to explain and talk about facts and figures and research and data and the other stuff, and the, the right. Again, I’m really, really generalizing here is in the downstairs brain they’re, they’re engaging on fight or flight and those kinds of emotional experiences and you know, the downstairs brain wins every time.

Kirk: Yeah.

Eric: And you can’t, you have to connect from an emotional level and you have to help people understand that we are in this together or we have these things in common, that kinda thing. Before you ever get into this kind of intellectual stuff.

Kirk: Mm-Hmm.

Eric: And we often, I see this happen, you know, I see it in my own house, I see it in all sorts of things.

We often respond to a downstairs to an emotional thing with some kind of academic response. And that disconnect fails. It fails every single time. And I think that’s another part of, of this work I. That is so interesting to me. And then Robert has kind of a taxonomy, if you wanna call it that, or a order of things about how do you quiet the downstairs brain and then activate the upstairs brain, which makes total sense, and I get it.

And. I have printed it out and I’m going to carry it around with me. I’ll put it in my wallet. ’cause I still carry a wallet, unlike the millennials who maybe don’t. And I, I just think that this is something that is so important to us and it ought to be honestly, at the base of any kind of message work that anybody does anywhere, ever.

How about that?

Kirk: Yeah, and you could argue that this big swap of the upstairs and downstairs brains and how the different perspectives have kind of traded in those messages. You, you might make the case that actually there’s been a swap here that actually the progressive community that got us things like social security.

More inclusive societies. Initially, a 40 hour work week supported unions. They were actually really working in that downstairs brain messaging really effectively because they were talking about these basic core tenets, things we were scared to lose, and the opposition of those times, maybe we’re saying more highfalutin, complicated things about whatever, blah, blah, blah.

I think that’s been one of the big shifts in politics maybe over the course of the last hundred years, is that this trajectory, sort of huge community, more downstairs versus upstairs has evolved. And you could kind of see why the progressive community would do that. Because as the progressive community has got more sophisticated and around inclusion and trying to be more mindful and thoughtful, well, you know, that gets a little lofty and even on, even on issues like climate change, even though you’re seeing the impact of say, severe weather and stuff, but you’re still kind of trying to help people understand something that’s everywhere yet doesn’t exist.

So what are you doing? Well, you’re gonna, you’re gonna lead into science. You’re gonna try to be super thoughtful or, you know, and, and so there is this really interesting dynamic where you’re right, you can look at the opposition messaging and it’s so effective at just triggering the most basic core responses.

And I thought, man, the reflection that you guys had around the January 6th insurrection. Just looking at that in the context of fight, flight, freeze, or flock, which let’s, let’s say that out loud a few times. Alright? But the flock part of that, that is scary, right? Because you’re like, wow, you’re pumping messaging into that epicenter of people’s thinking and now you see what happens.

They become incredibly destructive. They, they willfully hurt and, and then, and downright kill people. And yet in the heart of it. If they’re operating from a place of, of a deep-seated sense of internal righteousness around the actions, that is, that is really scary stuff to think about.

Eric: I think climate is an excellent example of how folks who are advocates for the climate have done it exactly backwards.

So they activate the downstairs brain by saying, oh, the world’s going to hell. The climate is changing. We’re gonna flood, there’s gonna be fires, there’s gonna be whatever, frogs and locusts and everything else. And now people are freaked out and they shut down. They don’t wanna act. And you can’t build them back to say, well, here are 47 policies for how we can deal.

With those kinds of things. And so now you’ve, you freak people out and now they’re down in this kind of limbic area where they’re stressed out, and now you’re gonna come back with a whole bunch of statistics. And so you’ve got it exact, you know, like backwards. Instead of saying the whole question around climate is that we have an opportunity to transform our economy where everybody wins.

You get to be a part of your. Community in your society and feel good about it. And then here are some of the ways that you can do it. You can save money also, and it’s gonna improve your quality of life, and you’re engaged with people in different, all that kind of great stuff. So like completely backwards, like get people to shut down and then throw a bunch of numbers at them, like have a nice day.

So I, I really do think that, that this way of thinking about how do you. Communicate and it’s really, it’s about more than messaging. It’s about building communities, coalitions, uh, that kind. So there’s a lot of strategy in there as well.

Kirk: Can we just pause for a moment too on the work that Robert, as a person, has had to do to be supportive of this kind of work?

You know, because, um, talking about I’ve done hundreds, maybe thousands of hours of focus group work where I’m on the other side of the mirror and, and, and I’m listening to conversations around issues that, you know, we care about deeply that touch us deeply and, and hearing the worst of the worst language coming from people about topics we care about deeply.

Then having to go through that process of not being triggered. And I thought that, you know, Robert talking about his own experience there, being like, man, I, I’m, I’m trying to do my job. I’m just doing my job. I’m doing this the best way you possibly can, but this language is really hard to hear. And that’s where that moment comes in, where that person, you know, says, Hey, you have to find what’s good in this person, even what they’re saying.

And, and so can we just put a little spotlight on that, that Robert personally doing that work? I mean, come on Robert. That’s just. Man, thank you for showing up for that. And if you want, you could double down on that and just be like, that’s the moment where Robert could really turn this into. Robert could go to that downstairs brain and just start throwing all sorts of accusations, calling names, whatever.

Right? But Robert saying, no. Yeah, I’m gonna take that information in and I’m gonna try to build this up into this better framework.

Eric: I totally agree. Well, this is, again, we are always bringing our personal experience and our willingness to learn. And Robert talks about mistakes that they made in messaging during Covid, for example, frightening people.

Kirk: Let’s, let’s scare people more when they’re scared.

Eric: Exactly. So, you know, but we all do it. We all do that. Right?

Kirk: We do that. Yeah.

Eric: And so I just wanted to kind of, to run down the little. Way that you get from, how do you quiet the downstairs brain and then activate the upstairs brain? So first, the principle of quieting downstairs brain is building trust.

Now we just had a conversation with Kristin Grimm about –

Kirk: Thank you!

Eric: You’re welcome.

Kirk: It’s core. It’s central. It’s central. Thank you.

Eric: I knew you would start yelling. It’s actually right. So you build trust. Right. You know, how do you build trust? That’s a very big thing. You could spend a lot of time, but you can also start, you could start with Kristen’s research and her resource.

Then you acknowledge Kristen’s launching a new field. Kristen’s launching a new field and building trust. It’s, it’s central to all of this. Yeah. Go ahead. Yes, please. Then you acknowledge complexities. Again, this is tricky. You have to acknowledge complexities without shutting people down. ’cause often what we do is we come in like, oh, this is really complicated, and we’re like, okay, it’s too complicated.

I can’t understand it. But in that sense, acknowledging complexities is, I acknowledge that you are. That there are conflicts or that people are conflicted around things or that there are differences of opinion without trying to come in and say that there is only one way of doing things. ’cause when you do that, people shut down.

Kirk: Robert writes about this really well. He talks about how you thread the needle to mirror people’s conflict while moving them towards support. Yeah. That was such a, I love that reflection you guys went through together, Eric, when you were talking about we’re equipping audiences to arrive at the right conclusion.

They’re arriving at a conclusion. It’s not that we’re showing up, telling people how to think and feel.

Eric: Yeah.

Kirk: Right.

Eric: Yeah. Incredibly important. That was, that was another thing that that really just jumped out at me. Now people will say, oh, you just manipulate people into coming up with your conclusion. But they think that it’s their idea, actually.

I don’t think that you can truly succeed unless people come to their own conclusions, in their own way, in their own time, and in ways that are really, that are genuine. If not, it doesn’t ring true. And so this is not about manipulating your audience into doing what you want them to do. This is about co-creating, which is – uh-oh. Kirk’s gonna about to scream again. What John Powell says is that he’s going to co-create that everyone has to have a ability to pick stuff that’s on the menu at the party and such.

Kirk: You’re using your own values to arrive at this conclusion. And, and, and I, I think the part about this that is truly not manipulative is that, you know, Robert talked about this as a psychological intervention, right?

Like, like it’s literally we’re trying to open up the filter so people can see how their values connect to these outcomes. And once your values connect to the outcome. You’re seeing the outcome fundamentally differently because you’re understanding it differently. So go ahead, keep going through this.

Eric: Okay, so then the next thing is common concerns. And this is kind of the precursor to what Anat Shenker-Osorio says when she’s talking about creating an understanding of inevitability. So I think that the calming of the concerns is kind of step one into creating this sense of inevitability that it’s okay, we’re gonna be fine.

You are gonna be okay. You have the opportunity to. You have agency, that sort of stuff. I, I, I believe that that’s at the middle of that. Now you’re ready. People are ready to have an upstairs brain conversation. You’re ready to talk about maybe policies. You’re ready to nurture the compassion as opposed to just deflect or push back or whatever.

So you’re having a, a nurturing conversation. People are ready to accept. And engage on a deeper level. And so that first part of the upstairs brain is nurturing compassion. And then the second one is activating hope. And now we’re into full blown Anat territory. And then what happens is then we slide over into some Trabian Shorters where we are rewiring the brain.

We’re now you have a kind of an innate understanding of. The experience or you are now going around all of these, I dunno what you would call it, the, our very brainy part of our brain. Like we are now accepting what that future looks like. We’re internalizing it and our brain is actually re rewiring it as we do that.

So that’s, now you’re off to the races. Now you can talk about marriage equality in ways that people understand across political parties, for example, and so on. So, I don’t know. There’s a lot this, like I said, I had to listen to it three times just to kind of get my head on straight, and it’s still, it’s obviously still processing.

I wanted to point out one more thing. That Robert mentioned, he was talking about working with the Gates Foundation to do strategies to improve math learning, especially around black and brown people. Mm-Hmm. And I just wanna let you know that they also just launched a new resource for that called Math.

Math Narrative. Hmm, and here’s another way for folks to see how this plays out in very specific ways. So if you’re interested in saying, okay, well this is very theoretical. Let me look at a case study. I think that this is another way of learning about how to do this through Robert’s work and the work of his colleagues.

Kirk: I love that you pointed out, because I, I was gonna say this, you know, if you think about these principles, building trust, acknowledging complexities, common concerns is the first building blocks for how you communicate effectively. Don’t think that this is an academic exercise. I mean, Robert is demonstrating how this works and the context of very contested political campaigns where this is turning, this is driving social media strategy, messaging, paid messaging, short form, long form content.

So, so this process of building trust, acknowledging complexity. Of these common concerns. The art and the science of this is learning how to deliver that quickly and effectively so people can understand it in this, at this pace at which we know they need to accept it. And then the activating the up upstairs brain part to embrace the parts we care about.

Similarly, that nurturing ion that are activating hope. You’re doing this, you’re learning these lessons in a real campaign setting and, and I do love this acknowledgement, Robert said, our opposition only needs to do the first part. Yeah, right. They just have to do. And so we actually have to quiet that downstairs brain and then activate that upstairs brain, right?

So it’s a two step dance for us. And all the time really on our side, nurturing, actual alignment and concern and compassion for these people that we’re trying to reach around these topics and, and to not be coming to them saying, Hey, I’m gonna tell you what to think and feel. That’s the work for our field as a whole.

And Robert, your team, my goodness, giving a tool and a resource like this.

Eric: It’s just awesome. It’s awesome. Pretty amazing. Yeah. So it’s or actually Robert said if people just wanna send an email, they can send an email to and the brain will respond.

Kirk: That’s awesome.

So can we say thank you to Robert? Thank you to Wonder for Good. Can we please have him back? I think there’s a part two that we have to have. I, I’d love to have Robert and some of the, uh, campaign folks that he’s worked with. Just do like a little workshop in terms of how this works. ’cause this is, this is it.

Right? This is how you win. This is, this is the heart of how we win.

Eric: Ooh. Maybe we’ll get invited to ComNet and we’ll do a thing on the stage. Oh would be that could be. That could happen. That would be nice. Would it be crazy and people start sending, you know, comment that request. Yeah. We’ll make these things happen.

We’ll, we’ll go out to Kansas City and we’ll, we’ll have a knot and Traian and Robert and John on stage. That’d be kind of an amazing conversation.

Kirk: You know what, you owe me an apology. This is a good idea. It’s gl. I’m glad we’re doing this. We do not. I’m so sorry. Own apology to Robert though. This is incredible work, Robert.

Thank you Robert. Thank you for coming on. Let’s Hear It. So that was Robert Perez from Wonder for Good on Let’s Hear It and thank you. We’ll see you next time.


Kirk: Okay, everybody. That’s it for this episode. Please let us know if you have any thoughts about what you heard today or people we should have on this show, and that definitely includes yourself. And we’d like to thank…

Eric: Our indefatigable producer, Harper Brown.

Kirk: John Allee, the tuneful and inspiring composer of our theme music.

Eric: Our sponsor, the Lumina Foundation.

Kirk: And please check out Lumina’s terrific podcast, Today’s Students, Tomorrow’s Talent, and you can find that at

Eric: We certainly thank today’s guest, and of course, all of you.

Kirk: And most importantly, thank you, Mr. Brown.

Eric: Oh, no, no, no, no. Thank you, Mr. Brown.

Kirk: Okay, everybody, till next time.