Guy Burgess: Finding Common Ground / Constructive Approaches for Addressing Differences

by Guy Burgess

November 15, 2022

In 2019, we posted a detailed description of an exercise we have used for some time to help people discover where they have common ground on contentious issues, and what they can do to address their remaining (perhaps intractable) differences more constructively.  Given our frequent call for partisans on all sides of our political divides to try to find more constructive approaches for working with "the other(s)" to solve mutual problems, it seems to be a good time to dust off this exercise and share it again. 

The Basics:

Purpose: The purpose of this kind of discussion is twofold. Most obviously, the goal is to help participants think through a particular issue. More importantly, this exercise gives participants a framework for much more constructively talking about the many issues which divide us and developing better ways of addressing those issues.  

Time and Materials Needed: 2-3 hours or several 50 minute class sessions; newsprint or a blackboard to record agreements.

Settings: This is useful in a variety of settings: 1) classrooms (high school to graduate school)  2) community groups (e.g., civic groups, church groups, or even book groups) 3) dialogue groups (such as those facilitated by professional dialogue facilitators) and 4) family groups (such as extended families getting together over the holidays).  It is also a framework that we can use individually to think about for about today's controversial issues.

Topics: The exercise is designed to be applied to highly contentious, intractable conflicts--abortion, LGBTQ+ rights, race, environment, etc. 

The Questions:

This exercise asks participants to think about and discuss five questions, with one additional, optional, question at the end.  The questions are:

1) On what issues, sub-issues, and facts do you think there is broad agreement among members of contending groups? If participants have trouble here, the facilitator might suggest thinking about both issues that are related to the core elements of a conflict, as well as underlying points of commonality that may stem from other aspects of a relationship, or shared values about how to live together as good citizens in a community.  For instance," a facilitator might ask, "might most people agree that abortion should not be used as simple birth control?" or "Do you think most people would agree that we are experiencing too many mass shootings in the U.S?" or "Do most people agree that we need a better way of talking to people who disagree with us."  

2) On what issues, sub-issues, and facts do you think there is clear and strong disagreement among members of contending groups? Here, the facilitator should try to encourage people to be as specific as possible with a focus on identifying essential, core differences in beliefs. Examples might be whether or not abortion is murder, or whether gun ownership makes us safer or in more danger.

3) To what extent is each disagreement attributable to different images of objective facts? And, to what is extent is each disagreement attributable to differing values or moral beliefs? For example, the disagreement about abortion being murder is a moral belief--there is no way to factually determine it or not.  However statistics are available to show how gun ownership seems to relate to death by guns. The facilitator should help the participants decide whether each disagreement they named is factual, moral, or a combination of both. 

4. For differences attributable to differing images of objective facts, can participants imagine some sort of joint fact-finding process that would resolve each disagreement in ways in which all could have confidence? In classroom setting students can be given readings about joint fact-finding processes to help them answer this question. 

5. ​​For differences attributable to differing values or moral beliefs, how can we most fairly and constructively handle those disagreements? Here teachers or facilitators may help people understand constructive conflict options if they are having trouble coming up with some themselves. 

6.  (Optional) What do you think that the various groups are now doing that contributes to the destructiveness of a conflict, while also undermining a group's ability to protect its own interests?  Here the facilitator should help parties identify advocacy efforts which are, in fact, being counterproductive – the kind of things that everybody should be able to agree to avoid.

The detailed process description describes how to adapt this exercise for use with different audiences: in classes, in dialogue groups, in family groups, an in unstructured conversations.  However it is done, though, we find it helps people understand the nature of the disagreement and more importantly perhaps, how that disagreement can be more effectively handled.  This is different from traditional dialogues that explore in detail what participants' beliefs are and why they think that way, but don't take the next step to figure out what can be done to address those differences in the most constructive way possible, so as to make decisions about controversial issues, even when complete conflict resolution cannot be attained.