The Myth of Common Ground?

Approximate Read Time: 4 minutes

When controversy flares and conflict is brewing, there is often a push to find “common ground.”  That makes sense, but does it work?

It depends. We know. That’s not a response many like to hear but it is the most truthful.

What does common ground depend on?

It depends on two factors: the nature of the controversy and the perspective on it held by the opponents in the controversy. At this point we are in extreme danger of becoming wildly philosophical, so let’s see if we can break it down with an example.

In a field many are familiar with (teen pregnancy prevention), a historically common debate is on how much information youth should receive about sex and sexuality. On the one hand there are people who believe young people should be encouraged to avoid sex altogether until they are older, in a committed relationship, or even married. This “abstinence” approach tends to favor less information about sex and sexuality to reduce the risk of youth being inclined to try something they learned about in a sex ed class. On the other hand, there are people who believe more information is the key to reducing teen pregnancy. They would like youth to receive information about their bodies, sexuality, sexual health, contraception, relationships, and a host of other topics which are considered part of “comprehensive sexuality education.”

To be clear, for the sake of space, this is an oversimplification of this particular ongoing debate. Our apologies to any or all who feel we have not done justice to either position. Please remember, this is just for the purpose of illustration.  

In this example the nature of the conflict is really about how much sexuality information youth should receive, not whether teen pregnancy is an important social issue. Since people agree on the problem it seems pretty simple and straight forward, right? Just have the debate, agree on a core body of information that youth should have (which is common ground), and then deliver the information to them. Issue resolved. If not perfectly then at least tolerably. But it really isn’t that simple because the reason people hold their positions is a huge factor in the controversy.

Some hold their positions because of research, science, testing, and reasoning. They also tend to view teen pregnancy as a public health and rights issue. Others hold their positions because they tend toward viewing teen pregnancy as a public morality and personal responsibility issue. Because of these distinct positions, there are often deep divisions in communities about teen pregnancy prevention.

Ironically, both positions represent particular worldviews and ideologies. Now, there are major differences between these two things (worldviews and ideologies) but we ask you to follow the links to read the brief descriptions yourself to save time here. Wikipedia does a remarkably respectable job of differentiating them in common language.

It’s in the clash of worldviews and ideologies that people struggle to find common ground.

This is because both are matters of belief. One believes in science and has faith in the scientific method. One believes in a particular morality and has faith in the philosophy, religion, or other ideas that inform it. When such belief and faith enter the debate, common ground becomes more elusive because it requires the “conversion” of one to the belief/faith of the other or unacceptable compromise of one’s deeply held belief.

To convert (or change) to another position or compromise on beliefs is not something that happens quickly to anyone. It can take years at an individual level and even longer for whole groups to change their positions on issues.

We know. This sounds pretty discouraging, eh? Does it mean that common ground is a mythical creature that only makes occasional appearances before disappearing again for prolonged periods? No. Only that common ground is elusive, and it is not a quick fix. It is an aspirational goal that communities and organizations undergoing change strive to reach but only with a lot of work and, usually, a whole lot of time.

Maybe we make too much of reaching common ground? Common ground implies a level of agreement on how we see the world that we may never attain. Is it enough that we agree on a shared problem or issue of concern and then reach together for a shared aspiration of the future? Perhaps the common ground is not below our feet, but ahead of us? Hmmm…

Reaching common ground when conflict flares can be so difficult and time and resource consuming. It is important to prepare for controversy in advance and prepare to manage it when it emerges. Join us on April 19th to learn and discuss more.

P.S. To read this blog in context, begin with our blog on March 13th, Planning for the Unthinkable.

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