Is Finding Common Ground Possible?

I just finished an article by Bill Donahue that is….well….exactly what I want to say, what I have been trying to say.  But the author said it so well, I thought about simply posting it and suggesting folks read it.  Then I realized that those I would like to reach would not read it because it came from The Washington Post.  So, I figured perhaps I would do my own analysis of the author’s story.

Words and Phrases

In my first read-through, what struck me was the plethora of phrases and words I keep hearing lately as I try to talk with folks about our country’s current climate.  Just to be clear, I do not support either political pole.  I support or don’t support issues in our country, but I don’t believe any one ideology has all the answers.

My journey started about a year ago when I posted an article saying I supported Black Lives Matter.  A commenter asked how I could support a terrorist organization.  First of all, I had never considered that some may call BLM a terrorist organization.  Just didn’t enter my brain.  But that created cognitive dissonance in me that has only grown more difficult to manage.

Over the past year, I have found myself in conversations with someone who supported the Qanon ideology.  I didn’t want to be caught off guard again, so I began reading about Qanon.  I learned more than I wanted to know, but I felt as if it was my responsibility to understand.  I asked questions that never seemed to get an answer.  He just invoked words and phrases that I’d already read as I researched.

I tried to get him to tell me in his own words.  He wasn’t able to do that.  He kept reciting the ideology and pointing me to “non-MSM” websites and chastising me because I read MSM.  I was so tired of being called a “sheep.”

But the words I heard over and over from him, echoed in the author’s article as he tried to talk with those who thought differently.

“Radical leftist”

“Those are the facts”

“Bent on destroying the American way of life”

“BLM is a Marxist organization”

“Black Lives Matter…is a ‘myopic’ organization that’s ‘fomenting violence’ to serve a globalist agenda.”

“There are some very powerful forces driving it,”

“Wall Street establishment types. Globalization works for them.”

[About face masks] “Simply, we are violating the rights of our people.  This is not something we can tolerate now or in the future”

“Trained Marxists [are] running the Black Lives Matter movement”

[It’s] “All about their hatred for President Trump, eliminating America as we know it, and mob rule”

“Open your eyes…it’s happening all over the country…this is not up for debate. [Ed note:  I really hate being told my eyes are closed]

“When they show up and destroy your property and drag you out of your home you may think differently”

“I don’t support mainstream media or news organizations that are corrupt.”  (The speaker goes on to suggest that I [Donahue] “write an article about the corruption and Fraud that is occurring. Talk about the overwhelming evidence and demand this be investigated for the good of our country. I challenge you to stand up.”  Intrigued, I write back, wondering whether he is referencing the presidential election or a “wider pattern of fraud and corruption.” “Please don’t insult my intelligence,” he replies. “Have a good day.”)

“Look, white privilege exists only if you let it exist.”

And it isn’t only those on the right.  These days, just about anything can be deemed by “the other side” as negative, as Donahue’s example shows:

“Days later, when I tell a couple of Portland friends about Cote and her warning shots, they’re horrified and suggest that, simply by communing with such a gunslinger, I’ve slipped over to the dark side.”

We keep piling it on, hawking fear, talking in generalities, and trying to scream loud enough that someone will change their mind and think like us.

That’s not me

I take issue with all of those words I have heard.  I do not support terrorists, I do not want mob rule in my country, I do not want to destroy the American way of life.

If someone tries to tell me our government is corrupt, I may rephrase the statement into:  “I think our elected officials are more concerned with power than with our country.”

If someone tries to tell me Blue Lives Matter, I will say, “You betcha!”

If someone calls me a Marxist because I support Black Lives Matter, I will say, “Please help me understand what part of Marxist ideology you are referring to, because his ideology was multi-faceted.”

Assume Positive Intent

In the article, Donahue spoke of his conversation with a neighbor….

“Our luncheon chat is doing what dialogue should do: It’s making me see my opponent as complex and human.”

Every one of us is complex, made who we are by our culture, our experience, our size, our abilities, our gender, our race, how our parents treated us, how we learn……

When we put labels on people we take away their humanity and put them in a box.  That serves no purpose other than to alienate.

When I work with clients, I introduce a new phrase intended to help leaders communicate.  We talk about “Assume Positive Intent.”

Communications go south when assumptions are made.  We are complex and every word and every phrase we utter can be taken well or badly.

By starting with a commitment to Assume Positive Intent on another’s part, we minimize the risk of disagreement and maximize the possibility of finding common ground.

Getting Beneath the Rhetoric

Donahue ended his article with the following:

“Great conversations are rooted in courage and trust. We need them to keep our nation civil and stable, and during the past few weeks, I’ve seen just how difficult it is to make them happen. Over and over, I’ve been stonewalled and reminded that a lot of people would rather say cruel things online than talk in person.”

That is sad, to me.

Call me naïve, I think we can do better.  Here are a couple of ideas:

  1. Take a deep breath before responding either in person or (especially) online. Right now, online is about all we have.
  2. Commit to assuming that, behind what the other person is saying even if it goes against your beliefs, has value.
  3. Ask questions rather than rush to make your own statement. Look for the value in the other opinion.  One of my favorite questions is, “Can you tell me a bit more about why you feel that way?”
  4. Don’t allow ourselves to be wooed by someone else’s ideology or rhetoric. That person is not you; you deserve your own thoughts.
  5. Break down labels into smaller parts. What is it about conservativism that you support?  What is it about liberalism that you support?  Talk about things that can actually move us forward, not just the ideological label.
  6. Read stuff. Not just what supports your own views, but things that contrast.  You just might learn something.

Please don’t take this article as me saying I have all the answers or that I practice what I preach consistently.  I’ve made conversations go south with the best of ‘em, getting defensive and blocking out what “they” are saying as I try to construct my debate.

But can you imagine where we could take our country if we were to intentionally foster the courage and trust that Donahue references?

And now, if I’ve tweaked your interest enough, read Donahue’s article.  It is a good one.


Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson
CAROL is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications.

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  1. Related to Jim’s comment and speaking only of polarization at the national level, I highly recommend the podcast episode “An Appalled Republican Considers the Future of the GOP.”
    The guest, Yuval Levin, is an ardent conservative. The host, Ezra Klein, a liberal. They are friends.

    Levin made a fascinating point – again, looking only at national politics – when he stated that Democrats are policy-minded; Republicans at power-minded. The question to them is “Who rules? Not “What can we get done?” Levin traces this back to Newt Gingrich’s approach to legislating, elections etc. in the 90s. Take no prisoners. Governing is warfare.

    I think Republicans are quickly becoming if they’re not already there, the party of “No.”
    • Trump had no platform going into the last election.
    • Just yesterday, all but two Republican house members voted “No” to a bill that would grant equal rights to LGBTQ.
    • It’s not even a question of limited government anymore. It’s a question of no government.

    We can try to do all the things that Donahue is recommending, but the person across the table is likely to be taking their cues from federal and state GOP.

    • Another podcast! I know I’m missing good stuff but it is so hard for me to concentrate….

      I get your frustration. For me it is the cognitive dissonance – what I hear from one side is essentially the same as what I hear from another, e.g., words like fascism coming from two different sides, used without a clear understanding of what is really being said. It is all in the definitions and until we get beneath the surface, nothing will change. I can’t help but sense that there is fear of loss – loss of the identity and power structure that was once strong here. It’s different now, appropriately, and that is a threat to power.

    • The interesting thing about their conversation is that they were trying to get down to what’s really going on – away from the espoused venom and labels and hatred. What is really the fundamental situation we find ourselves in?

      What I heard is that we don’t have two traditional, mainstream parties anymore and that’s going to make it impossible to get anything done. (That and the Senate filibuster! Oy, what a travesty.) Ultimately, there is NO common ground. These are two vastly differently philosophies at work. The current GOP will block anything the Dems/Biden put up because 1. they don’t want the Dems/Biden getting credit for anything and 2. they don’t have a counter to Dem policy. That’s why they never replaced the ACA. They didn’t want to, and they didn’t have a reasonable alternative because they don’t want an alternative.

      The GOP is really three entities at war with itself: (1) you have the M.M. wing that simply cares about staying in power and taking care of their rich base; (2) you have the freedom caucus that HATES government and still loves “45”; and (3) you have a few remaining traditional Republicans like Mitt Romney who know how to spell “policy.” How do you get anything done for the people with that set up?

    • Thus my cognitive dissonance – I just don’t get it. I’ll try to listen to the podcast – it does sound interesting – but that’s my point about getting beneath the labels.

      Hey, the podcast has a transcript!!!

  2. Carol: To go back to your lead-in question, “Is finding common ground possible?”, I would have to say no it isn’t. At least it never has been. Human history, no matter the nation nor the era, has not been one of peace and commonality. Humans being what they are, compromise and finding common ground are just not in our makeup. As to the other issues, I can’t support the violence that is racking our land (and most others). I don’t care what label one puts on it (far left, progressives, BLM, Antifa, radical far-right, et. at.) burning, looting, and all the other forms of violence and expressing hate will fail to get my nod of approval.

  3. Like Jim, I am from somewhere else.
    Consequently, I have tons of opinions about things I don’t know much about. Like what life is like in America for people not like me.

    I found it immensely useful to read books like Hillbilly Elegy and Educated and The Fire Next Time and Between the World and Me to get inside descriptions of what life can also be like. It clears at least a little headspace for stories and comments that could come from such experiences.

    • Thank, Charlotte – have read Hillbilly Elegy and The Fire Next Time- Educated is in my pile to read. As you said below, the division isn’t really new but the veil of anonymity with social media is. My fascination has become digging into the detail of broad and bold statements made by anyone, to learn but also to bring things to light that might be hiding in the labels and anger. Not making me any friends, but….

  4. As much as you are trying to be neutral on this issue, I would suggest that it is an intellectual impossibility, simply because the right wing of your country has actually been mesmerized into believing every thought that Trump and his minions have planted in their brain. There is, IMHO, no objective reality here. There are just polarized opinions. The middle ground is a no man’s land, and it’s become that way over the last 40 odd years, since Reagan started the great divide. Observant people look at America from without and see this very clearly. This is not a battle that can be resolved easily because neither side will give an inch. The only hope, I believe is to convert the more moderate people on the right by showing them that the left is not a bunch of raving lefties who are out to end their way of life, and learn to live with a certain amount of dissent from the far right lunatic fringe. It’s a long road.

    • I appreciate your comment, Jim. You say “your country” so you are not in the US? You obviously have a partisan perspective, and I respect where you are at. I try very hard to be – not neutral – but measured and balanced. I do have my own beliefs but I have found that placing labels, particularly labels that are mean spirited, don’t help bring anyone together.

      The polarization is overwhelming but it isn’t new. I have become a student of US history only to find that this isn’t new. What is new is the ability to hide behind the veil of online discussion which seems to bring out inflammatory words that are hurtful. I fear that as long as that continues, we will not find any common ground.

    • Kudos for taking up the history books, Carol.
      I see so many comments stating the “never before so divided” when at most people could say “I can’t remember we have ever been so divided” or probably even more correctly “the divisions in my country didn’t influence my community before the way they do now.” The hyperbole contributes to hopelessness if we think people are as divided as they have ever been.