Monday, November 11, 2013

Common Ground

a nearby desert pathway

Now that the weather in the desert has turned gloriously cooler, no one stays indoors. From daybreak to sundown, the many pathways and wilderness trails around my "Desert Retreat House" are filled with strollers and bikers, walkers and serious hikers - all out exploring the wilderness and taking in the beauty of Autumn in the desert. 

Every day my wife and I engage in a daily ritual of walking the trails, and more often than not, our two dogs accompany us on the way. 

As we walk along, we pass by all sorts of people - some of them tourists who flood into the area now that the "season" has begun, others are neighbors and residents.  Usually we all nod to one another as we pass by each other on the path - a smile and a brief greeting: "good morning." However when we pass by dog lovers or dog owners, this all changes. Almost inevitably, "dog people" will not just pass by. They will stop and chat with us about "dogs."

Yesterday, after a rather lengthy "dog conversation" with a stranger we met on the trail, my wife commented: "we would never meet half the people we do if it weren't for the dogs." It's so true, our dogs have been the "common ground," - the reason for strangers on the way to stop and take the time to chat.  

With our dogs in tow, we have met neighbors we otherwise would never have encountered, and we have talked with people from all over the world who have come to vacation in the desert. And while we usually start out talking about how beautiful the dogs are, we often wind up talking about much more, as together we share some life-stories, and "strangers and foreigners" become "neighbors and friends" along the way.

Walking with the dogs on the desert trails has taught me a great deal about the importance of common ground.

Just the other day I heard a very touching NPR report about a Ku Klux Klan "Imperial Wizard" and an African American community organizer in Mississippi. One day the obviously divergent lives of these two men happened to intersect in a local roadside bar, and the common ground was "jazz." The African American man was there playing guitar; the "Wizard" from the Klan was in the audience listening to him, and they happened to have a brief conversation about the music.

The story went on to report that gradually, over a very long period of time, these two men continued to interact.  Their initial conversations were often quite stormy and it took years before even minimal trust could be built up between them. However as time went on, they both realized that while they had many, many differences, they also walked together on some common ground (beyond their mutual love for jazz). They were both concerned about drug violence. They were both interested in educational standards for their communities. They both had children whom they loved very much. The more they talked, the more they found the common ground. 

The common ground these two men established gradually led them to share meals together, and ultimately, much to the dismay of his fellow Klan members, the "Wizard" in Mississippi realized he could no longer be involved in the Klan and he turned in his white hood -  strangers and enemies had become friends and collaborators. 

There is a well-worn concept I often use when teaching principles of interpersonal communication:

Look for the differences in similarities, 
and the similarities in differences.

It's rather easy to find differences among people. However, it's much harder to find similarities, especially when we label "others" as different - enemies, foreigners, strangers, opponents. 

And yet, when you scratch beneath the surface and look for the similarities, you will inevitably find them even among those who are most different.  

There is always some common ground -sometimes it may be dogs, other times it may be jazz.

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  1. Hello Paul,

    What a treat to have stumbled upon your blog. I know exactly what you mean, being a dog person myself. On one of my dog walks, a few years ago I encountered an elderly man and we got into conversation. It was one of those unforgetteble meetings with someone you never meet again but we shared a very meaningful conversation, sharing quite personal information. When we parted I felt I had met someone exceptional and have never forgotten him.

  2. Thanks Anita..dogs have a way of introducing people to one another,don't they? I hope you visit my blog often