Back about 25 years ago, when I was an undergraduate living in a fraternity, I was right in the middle of a house-wide contentious debate about how we would choose to support the co-ed chapters of our fraternity, if at all. The details aren’t as important to remember as the emotions — at the time, it felt like the house’s very survival depended on resolving this intractable situation. Tempers flared. Ad hominem attacks flew. Fallacious accusations and misattributed positions confused the issues. But I distinctly remember one person playing peacemaker by trying to identify the beliefs that everyone had in common first. It went a long way towards defusing the tensions and building at least some consensus, which led the way to compromise and resolution.
Since then, whenever I find myself in a situation in which two opposed groups have formed and emotions are running high, I regularly make a point of looking for common ground facts that all sides can agree to, state them for everyone (with as little “marketing spin” as possible so as not to inject my own opinion), and try to converge support for the reality they represent.
One can usually find something to build on. Even strongly opposed groups, such as pro-choice and pro-life supporters, may have common ground somewhere — for instance, both want to lower the rate of abortions. By elevating the discussion above the points of contention, you can discover problems both sides can work together to solve.
I’ve been trying this rhetoric when it comes to the recent schism in the chorus I sing in. You can read my attempt over here on my other blog. Rather than talk about who’s right and who’s wrong, I try to talk about what happened, to identify the questions being debated, and to point out a higher level problem — in this case, the need to rebuild trust.
It’s also how you can spot when you’re unlikely to succeed. For instance, in today’s politics and media coverage, when the facts often get shoved aside in favor of a good narrative, it’s even more difficult to find that common ground. Some retreat to their own realities and see any admission of common ground as a sign of weakness. In the chorus example, as the rhetoric ratchets higher and higher, I’ve seen some members so overcome by emotion that they make highly charged, arguably unreasonable and hurtful statements. I don’t yet know how to elevate the discussion with people who have stopped listening and are determined to scuttle any compromise. So far I think the answer is the same answer to “how do you eat an elephant” – one bite at a time.
There’s joy in finding that common ground that can be the first step toward getting two factions to listen to each other. See if you can spot it the next time you’re watching the Hatfields and McCoys go at it, and be a peacemaker yourself.