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Finding Common Ground: Where's the Dialogue?

Peter DeWitt is taking a break from writing Finding Common Ground until Monday, December 29th. Today's guest blog is written by Jon Harper, an assistant principal in Sandy Hill Elementary School (Cambridge, Maryland).

The name of this blog has a nice ring to it, but is finding common ground really that important? Why can't we each just do our own thing and accept and embrace the fact that we are all unique?

I believe that we must be careful not to confuse finding common ground with having things in common. There is a subtle difference between the two that is often forgotten and as a result of this misunderstanding we have lost our ability to communicate effectively with one another. Unfortunately, when common ground is not found, several problems can arise.

People Are Forced to Yell

Have you ever tried to speak with someone who was upstairs when you were downstairs or vice versa? Of course, we all have. And have you ever tried to communicate with that person only to find out that they can't hear you?

So you raise your voice just a little bit.

They don't hear you.

You get a little bit louder.

They still don't hear you.

Until finally, you must raise your voice to a level at which the other person thinks you are yelling, when all you ever wanted was to be heard.

This is taking place all across the country because we are not finding common ground where we can communicate. And so people must yell just to be heard. This yelling comes in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes it may be a nasty email and other times it may involve shouting over the phone. Time Magazine has gone so far as to use the front cover of their November issue just so they could be heard.

I don't believe that all of this yelling would be necessary if we were able to find some common ground on which to have these conversations. Disagreement would still take place. And that is okay. There is nothing wrong with people having differences of opinion. In fact, this is often how new ideas are formed and solutions are found. But, we must remember that this often occurs as a result of respectful dialogue between people that are sitting side by side in the same room.

Everyone Is Not Afforded a View

How many times have we thought that if only others could see things from our perspective, then they would understand exactly what we are trying to tell them and they would agree with us and concede our omniscience? I am obviously being sarcastic, but how many of us have had thought this before?

But if we stop for a moment and reign in our hubris, we realize that there is something inherently wrong with this line of thinking. First, and foremost, just because it is our view doesn't mean that it is the right view. Furthermore, not everyone has the luxury of even having a view.

This is very difficult for many to imagine or comprehend because if you are reading this piece then I am fairly certain that you have the luxury of having a view.

Many do not...

Unheard Voices

I believe that in order to have a view there must be space. Many of the parents that I talk to each day are simply doing all they can to provide for their children. They are immersed in life. Working two jobs. Working night shifts. Single moms. Violence all around. Drugs next door. Trying to make it so their children will have a better life. Not exactly sure how.

These folks do not have the luxury of taking a step back to look at the view. This would require space. They have none. It would also require a clear line of sight. There are too many obstructions. So they have no view, and yet we expect them to immediately have an informed one or we expect them to agree with ours without hesitation.

Finally, there is a large group of folks who believe, and rightly so, that their views are not taken seriously or are oftentimes not even considered; ethnic minorities, children, women and the LBGT population are just a few that come to mind. And therefore once they realize that their views don't count, they decide to stop having one altogether.

Herein lies another reason that we must make every effort to find common ground. So that everyone can at least have a view. It does not need to be the same view. But everyone should at least be afforded a view.

The Playing Field is Not Level

There is a huge movement in education to give students more voice. And this is absolutely a step in the right direction. Who knows more about what students need than students? Unfortunately though, at the same time that students are being given more voice, educators' are being given less.

Decisions about what is best for schools are being made by people that are currently not in schools and quite often, have never worked in schools. How can this be? I understand that it is quite possible that excellent ideas can come from people outside of education. As an educator I try to glean as much as possible from as many fields as I can.

My main concern is that when discussions are taking place and important decisions are being made, all parties involved should be seated together. Nobody should have to sit at the "kiddie table" and everyone should be allowed to order off of the same menu. Furthermore, once the meal begins, each person should have an equal opportunity to contribute to the conversation. It will make for a richer discussion and a more savory meal.

What We Must Do to Find Common Ground

In the end it makes no difference whatsoever that we agree. In fact, life would be quite boring if we did. What we must do is make every effort to find common ground where we can meet. This will help promote respectful dialogue in which everyone has a voice and everyone is treated fairly. How do we accomplish this?

  • We must get out of our comfort zones and meet people where they are
  • We must let others know that we want to hear their voices
  • We must share our stories so that others will become inspired to share theirs'
  • We must accept the fact that finding common ground isn't always easy but it always necessary

In the end, I think Peter knew what he was doing when he decided to name his blog Finding Common Ground. Because while I do believe it has a nice ring to it, I now know that there is much more to it than that.

And I'm quite certain he did as well.

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