Frequently Asked Questions
Updated Oct 29th, 2014

What are some important fundamental concepts?

Inspired by principles of

  • Learn by experiencing the process.
  • People seek and explore their own path with guidance from peers.
  • Listen without judging.
  • Be open to learning from others who may be different.
  • Present your own position firmly but fairly.
  • Take the advice you offer others, and be a good example.
  • Look for the good within yourself and others.
  • Structure and group goals come from within the group.

How can I discuss anything with someone who has a totally different perspective?

Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?
Abraham Lincoln

You might start by considering what inspires you to stick with a discussion. How could you help someone else find similar inspiration?

What are your goals? What are the other persons goals? If you ask about a goal, and the other person responds with a game-plan, you might ask a follow-up question, such as "why is this important to you?" or "what will happen if you don't do this?" Hopefully the answer will bring you both closer to understanding the actual goal. If you think you understand the actual goal, you could try rephrasing the response, substituting a possible goal for their game-plan. If someone says, "I wish we could ban all those political attack ads!" rather than lecturing them about court decisions or freedom of expression, one possible response is, "It sounds like you're really frustrated by attack ads and want factual information to help you make an informed choice. Is that correct?" This response recognizes the desire to ban attack ads, but transforms the game-plan of banning attack ads into a goal of factual information. Once you both understand each other's actual goals, is there any common ground? If the common goal is factual information, you can jointly brainstorm and explore several potential game-plans.

If there isn't much common ground, what might inspire you to change your mind? If there is an alternative, would you want to hear it? What might inspire you to seriously consider this alternative? If an alternative might satisfy everyone concerned, would you be willing to shift your own position? What might inspire a change in the other person?

If you hear an interpretation, you might ask for a specific observation and consider other possible interpretations of that observation.

Why all these questions? Why not just lay out a specific proposal?

An old adage says "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for life." We could also say, "Give people a solution and you might satisfy them for a day, or perhaps start an argument lasting much longer. Teach people to find their own solutions and satisfy them for life." Accepting a solution provided by someone else might seem comforting, but blindly following may also have unpleasant consequences. Once people become invested in one particular solution, it's much more difficult for them to see alternatives.

If you start by choosing a destination, you can choose from several possible routes, and are free to change routes along the way. If you chose your destination well, you'll probably like where you are. If not, you're free to choose another destination.

How can I relate to someone who shares nothing in common with me?

There may be obvious differences, but two humans likely have much more than DNA in common. When people hate each other more than they want a solution, finding that common humanity is a big step toward resolving differences. Could there be something positive you can both relate to, such as a happy childhood moment, life-changing events, a mentor, role-model, or important life-lessons?

Why not just debate a specific proposal?

There are none so blind as those who will not see.
We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.
Plato
Ignorance is bliss.

Consider John Godfrey Saxe's poem "The Blind Men and the Elephant". We could try to settle the blind men's dispute with a debate followed by a vote. Each blind man could make his case, summoning all the eloquence he can muster and supporting his position with the "facts" of his observations. If this approach produces a "winner", would it determine once and for all what an elephant really looks like? Should textbooks use this description of elephants?

I prefer a system where people clarify shared goals and needs before becoming invested in a particular solution. I benefit by learning from others and by looking for something useful in the positions of others. Taking ideas from various positions may lead to a new option that meets everyone's goals. If you're inclined evaluate one specific proposal at a time, a good place to start is with your own position. What inspires you to reconsider or shift your own position? How well does your current preference meets your own goals and the goals of others who prefer a different option?

What if a group can't find common ground?

A group goal doesn't have to include everything that each member desires. Some members might ask for something at the expense of other members. In these cases, it can help to look deeper at the goals. Do the members seeking these benefits need the cooperation of the entire group or could they achieve this goal on their own? Are there potential benefits for everyone in the group such as an insurance policy or fire department that most will never need, but could be extremely helpful to some? What are the likely consequences of not receiving this benefit?

If some members don't get everything they'd like, is the proposed goal a step in the right direction, creating a foundation for additional changes? Would any members benefit by blocking the goal? If you're still stuck, take a few minutes to reflect on why you joined the group and what you get out of it. Groups often form to provide benefits to all members; pool efforts, resources and knowledge; and pursue goals that would be difficult for individuals to achieve on their own. Reconnecting with other members may inspire you to shift your position in some way.