Updated: Feb 6, 2021
Polite conversation does not include politics. We’ve all heard that old adage, but it’s hard to see in action scrolling through the echo chambers of social media these days. According to a recent survey by Ipsos (a multinational research group), most Americans say that differences of opinion are less of a problem than not knowing how to discuss differences productively. The solution is not polite silence but learning to identify common ground in order to have meaningful conversations. As we head into the holiday season, on the heels of an incredibly divisive election cycle, it seems like a perfect time to share my tips for finding common ground on difficult topics.
Define Your Goal
Let’s be honest. We pretty much all think our own stance is firmly on the right side of any political issue. In order to find common ground we have to intentionally set aside our motivation to prove the other side wrong. Approaching a difficult conversation with the goal of understanding the other person better is vital. Common ground does not mean both sides will reach an agreement. It simply means we are committed to understanding the issue more fully. Be prepared to agree to disagree if necessary.
Lead with Values
It’s easy to charge into a polarizing conversation with partisan rhetoric, but what drives us to support or oppose a policy is our own deeply held values. The same is true for people who disagree with us. When we start from a place of shared values, finding common ground is far more likely. Set aside the current politics and dig deeper into why the solutions matter.
Take a difficult issue like immigration for example. We may not each agree on the specifics of how families crossing the border should be handled, but almost all Americans agree that immigrants should be treated humanely and processed fairly. Most also agree that the current immigration system needs to be reformed. Let’s assume we can agree on these shared core values: fair, humane treatment for all and the need for a better immigration system. We can use those shared values to create the foundation for open dialogue on what a successful immigration system should look like.
We all come to the table with different experiences that influence our world views. Authentic communication is not possible without actively listening to those experiences. Far too often we listen for the main points while formulating our own comeback. Let the other person know that you are sincerely interested in their opinion by asking questions and fully listening to the answer before responding.
This Thanksgiving when your brother-in-law starts ranting about whatever over the pumpkin pie, try asking questions with the intent to understand him better. Open ended questions like: “Why do you trust that particular expert over others?” or “what could our leaders have done to better address the pandemic proactively?” Actively listening to his responses may help identify his core values and begin shifting the conversation towards solutions.
Tell a Story
Personal stories have been used to influence society since cavemen first painted images on stone walls. Today sharing our experiences is still one of the most powerful ways we can motivate people to engage on a difficult issue. Facts and figures don’t change hearts and minds, but a personal story can. Think of how the specific political issue being discussed impacts your life or the life of someone you care about.
Know When to Walk Away
We can seek common ground even if the other person is not actively working towards the same. Disagreeing without getting heated is hard. Remember that the goal is to understand, not persuade others to agree with us. Hard conversations are more likely to be successful with the people who we care about and truly want to understand. In other words, don’t waste energy on internet trolls.
Finally, we must be clear that any argument centered in depriving another person of their fundamental human rights does not have merit on both sides. For example, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness should be inviolable regardless of race, gender identity, religion, or sexuality. We must never confuse finding common ground with compromising our principles.