Can people with opposing views find common ground?

Perhaps, but it takes a willingness to move beyond their positions.

Identifying the interests behind strongly held positions may assist any number of people who hold opposing views to discover they really do have something in common. To demonstrate, let’s consider a scenario where opposing positions about private rights versus public rights are being broadcast in a municipal setting. 

In this example, a public meeting has been convened in some local community to review proposed zoning policies. 

Resident A, who is concerned about too much government regulation, stands up and says, “I oppose planning and zoning regulations because I am worried that big government will be telling me what I can and cannot do with my property. Zoning will devalue my land!” 

Resident B, a newcomer to the area, speaks next. “As a newcomer to this county I demand a zoning policy be enacted now! I don’t want strange people with mobile homes moving into my nice neighborhood! I want to maintain my property value and high standard of living.” 

The positions or desired outcomes of Resident A and B are at odds with each other. Resident A does NOT want zoning. Resident B does want zoning. 

However, when looking more closely at what Resident A and B said, some of their interests or underlying concerns are similar. For instance, Resident A values individual freedom and maintaining property values. Resident B wants to preserve the neighborhood and quality of life, as well as maintaining property values. 

Resident A and Resident B share similar interests because they both want to maintain property values and their personal quality of life. 

Once similar interests have been recognized, both/and thinking is introduced. By identifying a both/and question, the residents may be able to move toward a zoning decision that will satisfy both of their interests, despite holding different positions. 

The both/and question could be, “What can the Planning Commission do to maintain property values AND personal quality of life?” This is when the residents attending the meeting, perhaps with the help of the planning commission or a facilitator, would brainstorm possible solutions. 

After recording the ideas, the facilitator or planning commissioner leading the discussion, would help the residents clarify and prioritize the brainstormed solutions. 

As this simple example illustrates, the process of identifying interests behind a person’s positions, determining a both/and question and brainstorming possible solutions, can lead to finding common ground between people that hold different positions. If willing to stay in dialogue opposing parties may even discover there is something they can work on together! 

Publications providing more detailed information about brainstorming and prioritizing may be found on the Michigan State University Extension website -Brainstorming is Divergent Thinking, Three Simple Brainstorming Tools, Three Simple Decision-Making Tools and Make Decisions Easier with this Prioritizing Tool. 

Michigan State University Extensions’ Leadership and Community Engagement team offer programs, such as Facilitative Leadership and Advanced Facilitative Leadership, that help leaders, managers and citizens build important skills and teach tools that promote effective communication.

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