Originally published by Katya Andresen on LinkedIn: Finding the scarce, precious space of common ground
After another divisive week in my home city of Washington, D.C., I've been reflecting on the challenges of finding common ground -- whether on the cracked bedrock of our current political landscape, in a charged professional environment or within a fraught personal relationship. And I've been wondering: When we are at odds, how do we find our way back to the scarce, precious space of shared understanding?
While I don't have an easy, elegant answer, I do have three stories about the journey of moving toward common ground. What's interesting about these examples is no one side "won" by setting out to alter someone else's core beliefs. The path away from divisiveness was blazed through listening, reflection and connection rather than conversion. I often repeat a phrase I learned from a mentor of mine, Sharyn Sutton: Don't tell someone to value your cause; show how your cause relates to their values. Finding common ground may mean searching for a shared right rather than a proved wrong.
Or sometimes we will never arrive at common ground. But we can grow less distant and distrusting of each other. And that is equally worthwhile because it makes it possible to better work together. A team of people that sees the world differently is among the most powerful of teams if there is respect and trust within that diversity. Perhaps the goal of our engagements with each other isn't common ground as much as more expansive perspective.
My first story is about David McRaney's book, You Are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality; How to Buy Happiness; and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself. McRaney explains that the first key to getting to a better place can be found within ourselves. As covered in the wonderful blog Brain Pickings, McRaney writes, "Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do this instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them."
We tend to cling to the territory of our own perspectives, and that gets in the way of expanding our horizons. To have any hope of common ground or even mutual respect, we have to want to step beyond the space of our own convictions. The first challenge is within ourselves: to focus on not on winning an argument but rather gaining greater understanding of the other side. If we can do that, we can begin to move closer to each other within a larger zone of possibility.
My second story comes via Mike Wilson, the editor of the Dallas Morning News. He recently set out to engage some of his readers who felt the paper's coverage was politically biased. He invited them to attend an editorial meeting and went over stories they felt were unfair. Both sides listened to each other, and while they weren't always in agreement, they found areas of consensus and recognized there was no bad intent behind their differences. As one reader put it: "It's good to talk to people one on one and realize that they don't even realize necessarily what you're thinking." Journalist David Kestenbaum, who covered this story, noted, "That's the funny thing about talking stuff out. Even if no one changes their mind about anything, sometimes everyone still feels better." While perhaps no one could fully agree on the truest version of a story, they could arrive upon the common idea that they were all concerned about understanding the news - and each other. That quest for comprehension is what media should be all about, anyway.
I heard one of the most extreme examples of seeking common ground through dialogue on a road trip last summer, when I listened to Love + Radio's episode, The Silver Dollar. This podcast tells the extraordinary story of how the R&B and blues musician Daryl Davis turned conversation into a force for good in the face of hate. Curious about what drove racism, he visited with members of the KKK over many years. Some ultimately denounced their membership in the Klan. In a later episode that explored the lessons Davis has learned in his unusual quest to connect with those who hated him, Davis talked about what he has learned: to set out to fully understand the other side, have a conversation that starts with listening, look for commonalities and keep talking - which requires a wealth of patience:
Patience doesn’t mean sitting around on your butt, waiting for something to happen. Be proactive, and don’t just sit around and talk with your friends who believe the way you do. Invite other people who have differences of opinion; invite them to your meeting, to your table. Learn from them, because while you are actively learning about somebody else, at the same time you are passively teaching them about yourself. And I can tell you right now – I’m gonna say that again, because that sounds so good: while you are actively learning about someone else, you are passively teaching them about yourself."
I agree that sounds very good. A desire to understand someone else creates the space for them to understand you. That may not result in common ground, but it moves us in that direction. It gets us past the most limited and limiting parts of our own selves. It is an extraordinary action we can choose to take.
As Shankar Vedantam puts it in his book, The Hidden Brain:
Good people are not those who lack flaws, the brave are not those that feel no fear, and the generous are not those who never feel selfish. Extraordinary people are not extraordinary because they are invulnerable to unconscious biases. They are extraordinary because they choose to do something about it."