790 words
4 minutes

Debates: Finding Common Ground

No Tags

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently has been: how do we find common ground with people with whom we fundamentally disagree?

One aspect we all share is being human. There are certain universal truths about the human condition we must accept. For example:

  • Humans are finite: we have limited knowledge, are bound by our experiences in many ways, and can only possess a limited perspective. Everyone is bound by time: we all die eventually.
  • Humans are fickle: based on our experiences, knowledge, etc. we might change our minds. Very rarely does a person hold to all of the same opinions they had from 10 years prior.

There are other aspects that most humans share, but not all. For example:

  • Most humans are capable of rational thought: despite possessing emotions, which can sometimes cloud our judgement, we can use reason and evidence to come to conclusions. This is possible even without education or experience.
  • Most humans communicate: we are able to share information between minds via verbal or written methods.
  • Most humans consciously suffer: the existence of pain is universally understood, since everyone has experienced it.

It’s a humbling exercise to come to these terms. “Nothing is new under the sun” — a conclusion we may come to kicking and screaming. There are certain aspects of being human that we cannot change. We’re bound to them by simply being.

On the other hand, it’s these same shared characteristics that can establish common ground. Communication itself is predicated on our ability to cooperate in some form or fashion. So if we’re able to use the same language to exchange information between minds, we’re likely to cooperate in other ways as well.

Perhaps it’s this that gives us hope in our current cultural tribalism. When examining conflicting ideologies, we can feel worlds apart. But in reality we are all humans in the same universe, with many shared characteristics, that go even beyond what I listed earlier.

When debates arise over a disagreement, there are sometimes too many mental misalignments to produce anything productive. For example, one person might use a word or phrase with a presupposed, self-ascribed definition that doesn’t align with the receiver’s definition.

Consider this statement: “I believe in human rights.” An argument can arise simply from misunderstanding the definition of “rights” here — two people could actually technically be in agreement, but because they aren’t aligned in their definitions of the word “right” here, they start an argument over it. What is meant by rights? Or more specifically, human rights? It’s worth a discussion for what would constitute human rights to begin with before you start debating whether or not you believe in them.

So how do we align to make sure we have productive conversations? The first step is finding common ground. Establish where there’s alignment first, and progress from there.

To find common ground, though, we have to first examine our own presuppositions: our fundamentally-held assumptions that subconsciously inform our worldview. This will help you frame the discussion in a way that everyone can see more clearly — and it also helps you pull back the curtain to the presuppositions of others.

You can start by defining some of the key words or phrases that are relevant to the discussion and get unanimous agreement on them. If there is a disagreement over the definition of those words or phrases, you now have arguably the root of the difference of opinion, and you can begin there. This is much more advantageous of a position than jumping in the deep end, assuming what you’re saying is being received the same way you’re intending to send it. Have you ever had a debate with someone and felt you were talking past each other? That’s what happens when you don’t align and establish common ground.

Along those lines, here are some helpful tips to find common ground and have more productive debates (assuming the end goal is learning and improving your position on the debate topic):

  • Start with identifying your own presuppositions coming into the discussion
  • Use empathy to boost your understanding of the opposing side (put yourself in their shoes)
  • Listen carefully
  • Define key words or phrases and get consensus as a group
  • Ask clarifying questions, or restate what was just said to you
  • Steel man their side to give it the most charitable interpretation possible
  • Be honest about the arguments with the best merits, and consider them: even if they seem to contradict your position
  • Allow yourself to entertain even the most seemingly absurd notions to understand the other side — you do not need to accept them
  • Never lose focus on the original debate point: keep those rabbit trails in check

Hopefully by employing these tactics, you can achieve a greater understanding of the other side and thus have more productive conversations.

What tips have you found to find common ground in your conversations?

Debates: Finding Common Ground
David V. Kimball
Published at