Finding Common Ground / Constructive Approaches for Addressing Differences: a Discussion Guide

by Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess

December, 2019

Purpose: One key to moving beyond the destructive politics that are tearing apart so many communities is developing an ability to work together to both recognize the things that divided communities have in common, and to find ways of more constructively addressing the differences that remain. The following discussion guide is designed to help groups do that in the context of a wide range of complex and controversial issues.


This post is part of the
Constructive Conflict
MOOS Seminar's

exploration of the tough challenges posed by the
Constructive Conflict Initiative.


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 Needed: 2-3 hours is best, although the discussion could be divided up into several 50-minute class sessions. 

Materials Needed: A newsprint pad or blackboard to record agreements.

Appropriate Settings: This discussion guide can be used in a variety of settings.  When we were writing it, we were thinking of four: 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.

This discussion guide can work with participants who have deeply-held and sharply-opposing views on highly controversial social issues, but it also works with participants who are less entrenched, but still interested in an exploring a controversial issue. It can work with participants who are formal representatives of contending interest groups, as well as with those who are participating as individuals, offering only their own personal opinions. 

It can even work with people who have, but do not want to openly express, their personal views.  In this case, and in the case of participants (including many students) who are undecided, participants may simply offer their best guess at what members of contending groups, when viewed sympathetically, are likely to think. Distancing the conversation from one's personal views in this way one creates a safer environment in which people are less likely to feel vulnerable when exploring unpopular views. 

Procedure: We will first describe the procedure we use in classroom settings, and then will discuss changes appropriate for the other three settings.  One of the big differences between these settings is the degree to which participants are likely to have deeply-held and opposing beliefs on the topic being discussed.  Classrooms, in our experience, tend to have students with fairly similar political views, or if they differ, they are reluctant to speak out about it. That requires one kind of facilitation.  "Official" dialogue groups, on the other hand, will almost certainly have participants who have deeply-held and opposing beliefs that they intend to talk about. That requires a different approach to facilitation.  But both can use this basic discussion guide, as can families and civic groups (with or without strong disagreements regarding the topic to be discussed.)

Classroom Procedure: Ideally, before the class or in the previous class, take a private poll to gauge student beliefs on a variety of controversial topics.  I used this procedure in the highly-liberal University of Colorado-Boulder, where I found students pretty homogeneous on LBGTQ and abortion, but fairly diverse on gun rights and the death penalty.  So I usually focused our discussion on one of those latter issues. 

If you don't have time to do a poll, or students are fairly homogeneous on everything polled, or are reluctant to discuss their own beliefs, it works to do a role play where you arbitrarily divide students into two groups--say the "pro-life group" and the "pro-choice group."  Then give each group some literature that describes the views of their own assigned side sympathetically and fairly and ask them to play that role as best they can, even if it does not represent their personal views. While they may not be as accurate in their depiction of their assigned views as someone who actually holds those beliefs and is willing to talk about them, it still allows people to talk when they otherwise wouldn't feel comfortable doing so, and will help people find areas of disagreement, common ground, and what can be done about both.

Divide the class up into groups of 5-7 people, trying to get representatives (real or role-played) of each side about equally represented in each group. Ask each group to chose one person to be the "facilitator" who will lead the discussion. (Ideally, there will be 2-3 people on each side and one facilitator.) It helps to have students read a little bit about facilitation and ground rules before participating in this discussion, so they will be willing and able to take on this role. (The links go to recommended Beyond Intractability essays on each topic.) 

The first job of the facilitator is to get the participants to agree to follow (or, perhaps, help develop) a series of understandings or ground rules designed to make the purpose of the discussions clear to all and to protect participants from the many downsides that now, unfortunately, give people good reason not to want to talk about controversial issues. While these ground rules can be relatively simple and common sense, they are still enormously important to the constructiveness and success of the overall process. 

The facilitators can either propose some ground rules for discussion and ultimate agreement, or they can ask the group participants to develop them themselves.  Either way, they should direct the conversation so they come up with something similar to the following: commitment to teach treat one another with respect (and unpack what that means), listening well, not interrupting, taking turns talking (sharing "airtime"), not forcing people to talk when they don't want to, no name calling or put downs, using preferred names--such as "pro-choice" rather than "pro-abortion," keeping discussions confidential. (These are fairly typical dialogue ground rules.)

Once the ground rules are set, the facilitator begins the discussion by asking the following questions.  For each question, the facilitators can ask someone to start and go around the circle, or they can let people take turns talking as they volunteer.  If no one seems willing to start, the facilitator can start by giving a fairly innocuous answer and then urging people to follow with their own answers to each question. The facilitator summarizes each comment on newsprint or a blackboard as a record of the conversation (which can then, if participants agree, be transcribed and distributed to participants). 

At the facilitator's discretion, questions can be asked in sequence or the group can skip around, following a particular issue in ways that explore how it addresses all questions.

The questions include:

  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.  For instance, abortion disputants might agree that pro-life advocates believe abortion is murder because a fetus is a human being, while pro-life advocates may assert that a fetus is not a human being until it is born, or until the last trimester, or some specific time.  Or in a discussion of guns, gun control advocates might assert that the proliferation of gun ownership is the cause of so many mass killings in the U.S., while pro-gun participants might assert that guns keep people safer by allowing them to defend themselves and others.  
  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? For this question, it might be helpful for the facilitator to provide information about joint fact-finding strategies that have been successfully used in other contexts. Some articles they might share or talk about include:  
  5. ​​For differences attributable to differing values or moral beliefs, how can we most fairly and constructively handle those disagreements?  Here facilitators should help participants identify how issues might be effectively handled in a spirit of mutual tolerance, respect, coexistence, and pluralism.  While these principles can cover many issues, there are, of course, more challenging situations in which one or more of the parties feels obligated to directly and vigorously oppose the what they regard as the immoral and intolerable beliefs and actions of others. (Abortion is an example that is likely to lead to such assertions, for example.) For these cases, facilitators should ask the group to explore how these confrontations might be most constructively handled. Ideas might include, for example, encouraging the public to thoughtfully consider the moral questions involved or by limiting dangerous confrontations that could easily escalate in ways that undermine other, positive aspects of intergroup relationships and, potentially, could even lead to violence. 
  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.

Procedural Changes for Civic Groups:  The procedures for civic groups are about the same as for student groups, although adjustments might need to be made to adjust for the level of division among the participants on the topic in discussion.  If the participants generally share similar views, facilitators can ask some participants to "role play" the other side, just as we suggest can be done in classrooms.  If participants hold divergent views, efforts should be made to have participants in groups made up of about equal numbers of each viewpoint.  Also, facilitators need to make sure they develop and get buy-in on civility ground rules, and enforce those ground roles firmly to make sure arguments don't get destructive.

Procedural Changes for Dialogue Groups:  Dialogue groups are generally formed with participants who diverge on the topic in discussion, but whom are willing participants.  Facilitators still should discuss and get buy in to civility ground rules, and they may want to impose more—​structure asking people to go around a circle, at least initially, to talk, using a talking stick—or some other mechanism to keep the conversation ordered and "in bounds." People should also be allowed to "pass" so they are not put on the spot if asked a question that makes them uncomfortable or that they otherwise don't want to answer. (Passes should be allowed, we should note, in all types of groups.)

Procedural Changes for Family Groups:  Discussions in family groups may be less structured than the other discussions, yet there should be someone designated a "facilitator," and that person should clearly explain the purpose of the discussion, and how the questions and format of the discussion will differ from typical family conversations about controversial topics.  They should also suggest (and get agreement on ground rules) and encourage everyone to listen carefully to the questions and to others' responses before formulating their own.  (Hence they should be encouraged to listen actively, rather than reactively, to the conversation taking place.)

Unstructured Conversations:  The structured approach outlined above is, however, not absolutely essential. Small groups who feel comfortable exploring controversial issues together could benefit from simply using the above questions as a series of prompts for guiding their conversation in ways that are more likely to get beyond typical 'tis-'tain't debates.

We hope you find this helpful as you try to think through today's tough issues. We would be very interested in hearing about your efforts to apply these ideas and any suggestions you might have for possible improvements.