Monday, May 21, 2012

Seeking Common Ground

How often do you exchange ideas with others? I’m not referring to the common (and intellectually lazy) practice of sharing like-mindedness; that’s what MSNBC and Fox News are for. Rather, I’m talking mental gymnastics. When was the last time you had a stimulating exchange with someone that required you to test beliefs and stretch what you assume to be true and right and just?
A couple weeks ago, I received an email from Jim, a person I didn’t know who wanted to meet. Jim had read several of these columns and was interested in discussing why I think about things the way I do. From his note I suspected he might not agree with some of my ways of thinking. That made me curious. It also made me cautious. After all, he was a total stranger. But his note seemed friendly enough, so we agreed to sit down for coffee downtown. What happened next caught me off guard.
On meeting each other, we immediately noted differences between us: Jim was white, a few years older and a factory worker; I was younger, black and more of an office type. He was an evangelical Christian and a vet; I was Episcopalian and missed the draft. He also was warm and welcoming. After initial introductions my reaction was that he seemed rather conservative, compared to my somewhat progressive mind-set.
The first 10 minutes or so were polite enough but there seemed to be no common ground on which to build. Yet as our conversation deepened, similar thoughts and ideas began surfacing and converging. Perhaps the most important one was that Jim and I held a mutual curiosity – something that provided space for us to listen, really listen to what each other was saying.
We’d start a topic, explain what we thought and/or believed and then shared stories about ourselves – personal experiences that helped us see where we were coming from. Through stories, we lifted one another beyond mere caricatures or stereotypes and developed fuller pictures of who we were.
Although our conversation was only an hour or so, I came away with a sense of understanding Jim. He was open and honest about who he was and how he thought, and I did the same. That made our dialog all the richer. What surprised me most about our talk was that despite the obvious philosophical differences between us, we discovered more points of agreement. That created lots of room in which to appreciate the areas where our thinking diverged. It also helped that we didn’t approach the conversation from a place of judgment or one-upmanship.
Listening to understand, versus listening for points of disagreement, has served me well over the years. As we go about our daily lives, there are many opportunities to exercise this approach to learning. These openings to seek common ground present themselves in surprising places, from waiting in line at a grocery store, to playing a round on the golf course, to sharing a park bench while watching your children or grandchildren play.
Take advantage of these moments. They are chances to grow. They are situations to connect with someone who on the surface might only be different in superficial ways (age, income, culture). Who knows, you just might find they share many of the same hopes and fears you hold inside.

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