Negotiating Intractable Conflict: The Common Ground Dialogue Process and Abortion
by Michelle LeBaron and Nike Carstarphen
Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: "Negotiating Intractable Conflict: The Common Ground Dialogue Process and Abortion," Michelle LeBaron and Nike Carstarphen, Negotiation Journal, 13:4 (October 1997), pp. 341-361.
The authors describe the use of the common ground dialogue process to address the North American abortion debate. Such dialogues seek to prevent further polarization, to prevent intergroup violence and to build relationships across conflict lines. They do not seek to change the parties' views regarding abortion, or to resolve the basic conflict. "The aims of the dialogue are to restructure and reform the abortion conflict away from its negative spiral; to reduce the polarization that prevents the two sides from recognizing shared values; and to help advocates form working relationships around shared interests."(p. 343) Dialogue groups have produced jointly authored papers on adoption and community initiatives to prevent teen pregnancy and promote family life education.
Successful dialogue requires substantial advance work. Local sponsors must survey local conditions. They must recruit pro-life and pro-choice individuals to form a planning committee to decide on the dialogue goals, content, structure, and groundrules. The committee must find or train dialogue facilitators, and must select a group of participants. Participants must represent "an equal number of pro-life and pro-choice views of roughly equal status."(p. 343) Participants must agree to abide by certain communication groundrules, which usually require respectful behavior, a desire for mutual understanding, confidentiality, speaking for oneself, and refraining from attempts to convert the other side.
The opening session of a common ground workshop focuses on creating a safe, positive atmosphere. Participants introduce themselves, and the facilitators explain the dialogue process. Participants fill out an opinion survey on issues relating specifically to abortion and more generally to societal values. Then the fill out the same survey as they think members of the opposing side would. After the surveys participants move into small groups. Participants describe how they came to hold their views. Facilitators monitor the groups and encourage active listening. The aim of these exchanges is to break down stereotypes, to reveal individual complexity, common experiences, shared concerns and values, and to foster trust and empathy.
The whole group then reassembles and views the responses to the questionnaire. Generally, the participants' actual views do not match the other side's anticipations. Usually the surveys show areas of shared belief, which can serve as a basis for further dialogue. The authors observe that "the survey modality is powerful. It invokes the reverence with which numbers, statistics, and data are held in our society; it also clearly shows without any embellishment exactly where stereotypes diverge from the self-perceptions of each group."(p. 345) As each group sees that both they and the other are subjects of inaccurate, exaggerated stereotypes, mutual trust and empathy build. Dialogue continues in further sessions with small groups and the whole group.
Common ground workshops focus on dialogue rather than debate. Debate is an adversarial, polarizing, often hostile process where opposing views contend, and it is the typical mode for public discussions of abortion. Many workshop participants are impressed to find out that abortion can be discussed in a respectful, open way that allows for real communication and understanding. Facilitators use the metaphor of interlocking circles, and of the continuum, to emphasize that the sides have both divergent and convergent views. The goal is to uncover the existing commonalties, not to compromise to create new middle views. Participants move away from the polarized views of the other side to rediscover the broad spectrum of opinions that people actually hold. They are encouraged to be curious and to explore and appreciate the nuances of various views along the continuum. Workshops also foster connective thinking. Connective thinking focuses on finding connections between people's experiences and feelings, and on acknowledging what is true in other people's words and views. It seeks to produce a web of shared knowledge.
The main dynamics of the common ground dialogue process are reconciliation, trust building, and empathy. Reconciliation involves emotional healing and rebuilding relationships. Reconciliation processes reframe conflict away from cognitive, analytic views, focusing instead on the emotional and experiential aspects. The authors observe that "personal experiences and feelings are not subject to argument, agreement, or disagreement. They simply are."(p. 350) Common ground dialogues create a safe forum for parties to express their feelings and experiences, acknowledge each other's pain and responsibility, and seek and give forgiveness. Usually reconciliation is pursued in the last stages of a conflict, after the substantive negotiations are complete. "Occasionally, however, emotional issues will block even the entry into negotiation. This might be especially true when deeply held beliefs are central to a conflict."(p. 349) Common ground dialogue is unique in that it focuses on fostering reconciliation before any substantive negotiations begin.
"Trust grows from shared commitment, familiarity, and respectful listening."(p. 353) Although the parties distrust each other, dialogue is possible if they can trust the process, the security of the forum, and the facilitator. Sharing experiences rehumanizes each party's view of the other, and fosters the mutual concern that is he basis for trust. Empathy gives the parties a more nuanced view of themselves and of others, more concern for others and a stronger sense of connection. Empathy can have a moderating effect on the way the conflict is acted out. The authors found that, "While none of the participants in this [abortion dialogue] group reported changing their strong views on abortion at all, their genuine regard for each other tempered their advocacy away from exaggeration and any tactics that might border on bad faith."(p. 355) The common ground process builds a shared culture between the opposing sides.
Common ground dialogue does have some limitations. Some participants become frustrated with the lack of concrete actions and outcomes. The quality of the dialog process is crucially dependent on the skill of the facilitator. Currently, facilitators receive too little training. Extremists on both sides are less likely to be drawn into dialogue. Established dialogue groups may find it difficult to open up to new participants. Groups may find it difficult to publicize their dialogue experience, for fear being labeled traitors to their respective sides. Still, the common ground approach is very helpful in restarting constructive dialogue in highly polarized conflicts.