A Search For Common Ground – Part Three: Conversations That Work!

A Search For Common Ground – Part One: Authentic Discourse

A Search For Common Ground – Part Two: Overcoming Resistance

None of us wants to be judged or criticized, especially for our thoughts and beliefs. We want to feel safe before we’re willing to talk openly and share our opinions, especially about “hot” topics. Because uncertainty induces fear, we want to trust in each other’s good intentions.

If you’ve decided to tackle a tough topic with someone and desire to have a constructive conversation rather than an adversarial debate or a conflict, recognize that there are always (at least) two sides in any situation.


1) Are you emotionally ready to resist the temptation to judge, criticize, denigrate or attack the person with whom you disagree in order to pursue mutual understanding?

2) Is your true motive for engaging in a tough talk about a social or political issue, to learn, to understand, to persuade the other person, or to win?

3) Are you ready and willing to listen in order to understand, without interrupting or judging?

4) Are you willing to be civil and speak with care and respect?

1) Determine whether the other person would be interested in establishing clarity of purpose and a spirit of collaboration. Is it someone who would make the same kind of effort that you are prepared to make? If the person declines, accept the response.

2) Establish “ground rules” for how to proceed: one topic at a time, a time and place with no distractions or interruptions, no acting out (yelling, walking away, bad language, attacking), and shared speaking and listening time.

3) Bring your best self to the conversation. Manage yourself so you have no regrets about your behavior.

4) Listen actively — seek to understand with no interrupting. Paraphrase the meaning you hear and show respect by responding to the points made and affirm your understanding. This helps to avoid misunderstandings and ensures that you are both discussing the same thing and not talking past each other — a common problem with challenging conversations.

5) Speak only for yourself, from personal experience, not defending or representing an ideological approach or an entire political party.

6) Maintain a positive spirit of dialogue; a learning attitude. Avoid a critical or dismissive tone or other negative non-verbal communication— lack of eye contact, deep sighs, crossing your arms. This is important because the most powerful and credible communication is not the actual words we use.

7) Engage to comprehend the other person’s perspectives and beliefs, not to persuade. You cannot change people. The only person you can change is you.

8) Seek first to understand (facts, issues, perspectives, priorities), then to be understood. Assumptions are deadly and are usually wrong. Paraphrase the person’s meaning before you disagree.

Most of the time, discovery of common ground results from mutual understanding and regard for the hopes, fears and values that underlie individual perspectives and beliefs. For example, while we enjoy and value the liberties and freedoms assured by our Constitution, we may disagree about how to achieve and sustain them. Such are the challenges and opportunities of free speech provided by the Founding Fathers and protected by many wars. Freedom is not free.

Secrets For Making Your Conversations Connect

The quality of conversation determines the quality of a relationship. Much more than words, a conversation is engagement, interaction and the glue of relationships. And, when communication is authentic, it promotes connection and earns trust between people.

Brain research shows that 93 percent of communication is not words. Author and academic Judith E. Glaser explains that, “In terms of importance, people allocate 7 percent to words, 38 percent to tone of voice, and 55 percent to nonverbal behaviors.” Nonverbal communication will always trump the words.


The primary purpose of communication is to convey meaning and understanding. Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu’s wisdom, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” reminds us that within the context of a relationship, the quality of each conversation matters.


No single conversation defines an entire relationship. Therefore, each interaction is important — sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Does your communication invite connection and build trust? Are your conversations genuine?

Do you know that…

  • Transparent communication can withstand scrutiny.
  • Superficial and disingenuous messages lack credibility and fail to earn trust. We feel uncomfortable, anxious or suspicious when we can’t make sense of things or don’t know what we can count on.
  • “Politically correct” rhetoric may provoke anger precisely because we sense that a message is not authentic — it avoids saying what’s true or attempts to obscure an undesirable reality or what may be obviously biased.
  • Candid and dynamic conversations can co-create resolutions, stimulate collaboration, create connection, inspire curiosity, and identify options — all in service of advancing a process of getting things done.
  • Honest conversations help us to listen to, acknowledge and understand conflicting perspectives and to work our way through the sticky and prickly situations of life.
  • Thoughts, ideas, beliefs and values can be transformed through dialogue. A collaborative exchanging of ideas can create a shared meaning and reality.
  • The ability to engage authentically and be fully present with another person promotes trust, connection and respect.

9 Tips to Improve Your Conversations

  1. Check in with yourself before you begin speaking.
  2. Be sure that you are “present” with the other person.
  3. Identify your feelings about the person or topic.
  4. Think about the immediate and long-term outcomes that you desire. What meaning do you wish to convey?
  5. Speak only for yourself; do not assume that you can speak for others.
  6. Clear thinking is essential for effective communication. Be sure that you know what you mean. If you don’t know, no one else will either.
  7. Be mindful that your words match your feelings.
  8. Ensure that you are open and forthcoming and not withholding or defended.
  9. Be ready and willing to listen with 100 percent attention.

A Search For Common Ground – Part Two: Overcoming Resistance

A Search For Common Ground – Part One: Authentic Discourse

A Search For Common Ground – Part Three: Conversations That Work!

Are you with me or against me? In life, we’re all essentially in the same boat — as humans, as Americans. Are we willing and able to keep our boat afloat? What will it look like — balance, focus, leaning in, pulling together? Or, will we resist, struggle and capsize?

Why should we bother engaging with others who have views, beliefs, values and concerns in opposition to our own? Probably because my side/your side battles will prevent us from growing and thriving. All-or-nothing, black/white, right/wrong positions are extreme and most of life occurs in the gray zones. In fact, we need each other’s ideas and passion to resolve important issues, accomplish goals and effect change, especially in the realm of important social and political issues that impact us all.

So, how can we learn to overcome our resistance to listening to, and actually hearing, what others have to say? Here are a few suggestions:

Assess The Situation
We cannot solve problems or accomplish constructive change if we don’t understand the current situation. In order to do this, we need to obtain accurate information and to acknowledge that creative problem solving involves investigating multiple options.

Start by knowing that everyone thinks they are right, and everyone has their own reasons for their beliefs and behaviors. Telling someone that s/he is wrong and, that you are right is not helpful. Dismiss your self-righteous attitude, be humble for a moment, and seek first to understand the other person’s reasoning before you attack, judge or disagree.

Many politically active people in our country today believe that they are motivated by love and their opponents are motivated by hate. Imagine that your ideology is based on benevolence —you want to help people. Do you truly believe that the other side’s positions are intended to be malicious or destructive? This is common in world conflict — Palestinians and Israelis, Republicans and Democrats, for example.

Separate The Person From The Situation
One of the first rules for dealing with a difficult situation is to separate the person from their words and actions. A decent and intelligent person may hold ideas or beliefs with which we disagree. This does not make them evil or stupid. It means they have a different opinion. Name-calling, denigration and vilification of others is ignorant, rude and cruel. Our society cannot progress when this type of stereotyping, cynicism and judgment prevails and predominates.

Fear Rears Its Ugly Head
Uncertainty and volatility surrounding disagreement and conflict induces fear which causes our defensive behavior patterns to take over: fight (move against others), flight (move away, avoid) or freeze (shut down). This instinctive stimulus occurs so quickly it tends to preempt rational thinking and choice responses. And, when we are afraid, we distance ourselves from others, precluding engagement or cooperation.

What’s In It For Me?
Again, why bother to reach across the aisle, to have a difficult conversation? First, ask yourself, what’s in it for me — to understand, to gain information or insight, to participate in a solution, to show respect for another perspective, to give respect to another person, to “have a vote?” Nobody has all the answers, and collaboration and partnership can unleash creativity and possibilities.

I have several close friends who hold very divergent views from mine on important social and political issues. So, I ask myself, “Why does this smart person seem to believe such a dumb or ridiculous thing?” Since I hold each of them in high regard, I want to understand their perspectives and reasoning. This type of discourse promotes and solidifies respect, trust and lasting relationships.

What about you? I encourage you to be ready, willing and able to overcome your resistance, one conversation or one interaction at a time.

A Search for Common Ground
Part Three: Constructive Conversations will provide specific steps for having conversations instead of adversarial debates by acknowledging and understanding differences in order to discover common ground.

A Search For Common Ground – Part One: Authentic Discourse

A Search For Common Ground – Part Two: Overcoming Resistance

A Search For Common Ground – Part Three: Conversations That Work!

Jacob and Phil wrestled with each other in friendly but intense disagreement about a range of issues: power, government, same-sex marriage, religion, media, morality, race and more. Each often felt misunderstood and couldn’t understand why.

“You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong),” written by Phil Neisser and Jacob Hess, presents an engaging look at a conversation that launched a sustained dialogue between Jacob, a professor, and Phil, a nonprofit leader. [Read more…]

The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year

It’s been called the most wonderful time of the year — the holiday season. In the United States, it begins with Thanksgiving and extends through New Year’s Day.

Thanksgiving, a uniquely American tradition, celebrates the pilgrim’s gratitude for survival, emigration to this continent and appreciation for the help of the Indians who lived here.

Christmas has come to mean many different things, depending on your faith, religion, culture or country. It represents a time of celebration, tradition, gift giving, and gathering with family and friends, and of reflection. We turn our attention to the quality of our personal lives and away from more worldly things — we acknowledge gratitude for our blessings and connect with our desire for a more peaceful world.

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People throughout the world, regardless of their religion, recognize this time of year by observing a variety of traditions, music and meals. Decorated Christmas trees, Santa Claus, elves and reindeer, presents, special meals, decorations (lights, candy canes, Poinsettias, snow & snowmen, candles, bells, wreaths) can be found throughout many countries.

For Christians, this season is about the birth of Jesus Christ, a baby who came to be with us and who changed the world in profound ways. The words of Handel’s beautiful Messiah celebrate his name: Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

The holidays are generally a time of connecting, slowing down, and longing for peace in a world that is often fractured and tense. While it is true that much about this season has become commercialized, our desire for connection is in stark contrast to the frenzy of daily life. We long for a simpler existence and meaningful relationships with family and friends.

Each New Year inspires wishes and dreams for new beginnings. For the opportunity of fresh starts, for renewal. For me, the entire season inspires self-reflection, gratitude and appreciation for family and friends.

Whatever your personal beliefs, I wish you blessings, peace and grace during this season of celebration and reflection — what I believe truly is the most wonderful time of the year.

Merry Christmas and Peace on Earth