A recent NBC News headline reads “Americans are divided over everything except division.”
The article and many others of late make similar claims: those in the United States who disagree strongly on many issues at least can agree that this is an extremely divided nation.
That’s a start, says Arthur Lupia, the Hal R. Varian Collegiate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Michigan. He says it is in such areas of common ground that people can begin to find ways to listen and respect differing points of view, and realize that often we generally agree on many of the big issues of life, even if we differ on how to approach them.
Lupia will offer an online teach-out called Finding Common Ground. It begins Nov. 5. The self-paced learning opportunity offered through Michigan Online also features several students from his similar popular campus course. We asked Lupia to share his goals for the teach-out:
What is the basic premise of Finding Common Ground?
Lupia: Every person needs things from other people. We need security. We need support. We need to be able to trust strangers and people that we don’t know so well. Without this trust, our stores, our schools, our factories, our farms, our hospitals and so many other institutions can’t provide the kinds of services that we need to live each day. We need security, support and trust to manage the challenges we face and pursue our dreams. To achieve this outcome, we need all kinds of people finding common ground and working together.
Yet today on some parts of social media, and on 24-hour partisan news networks, common ground is hard to see. This polarization sends reminders of our differences minute after minute, hour after hour and day after day. It relies on controversy and division to draw clicks or increase ratings. But these polarization machines do nothing to solve the problems that most people face.
Particularly after an election, many people want to know if it is still possible to work together. They want relief from the constant pounding of talking heads and conspiracy theorists. They seek new reasons to trust strangers. They seek new reasons to have faith in their community, their country and their civic institutions. For people across the political spectrum, there is a sense that we can be more than this. That we can get beyond polarizing rhetoric. That we can get beyond partisanship and do truly great things for our families, our community and our nation.
Who would benefit from this online learning opportunity?
Lupia: Many different types of people can get something out of this teach-out. If you want to make a difference in your community, but don’t know how to approach people with different views, the teach-out gives some useful tips. If you want to understand how to have more constructive and civil conversations at the dinner table, at the office or online, this teach-out offers a way forward. Many people today are frustrated with the quality of political discussions. This teach-out shows how you can be part of a more constructive and satisfying way to speak to and learn from others.
In your on-campus course upon which this teach-out is built, you bring in people on opposite sides of the political aisle to demonstrate that there is much common ground between people with differing, sometimes polar, viewpoints. What are some of the issues we agree on—the great ideas people have—regardless of their political persuasion?
Lupia: There are so many topics in which most Republicans and Democrats agree. We spend a whole segment on this topic in the course. Topics include keeping kids on their parents’ health insurance, taking care of veterans, maintaining international alliances that keep our country secure, finding real solutions to the opioid crisis, and so many more.
Please explain your statement that persuasion is 90 percent listening?
Lupia: In the teach-out, we discuss how to present ideas in ways that others are willing to hear. While we may think instinctively that talking about our ideas is the best way to persuade others of their value, we explain that listening and understanding what is important to the other people in a conversation is often a better way to gain the attention and influence that you want. Some of the reason persuasion works this way is biology.
Human capacity to pay attention to information is extraordinarily limited. As a result, we are more likely to pay attention to information that relates to our most immediate needs. By listening to people, we can learn more about these needs. When we do, we can more effectively relate them to things that we might like others to think about. Understanding the needs of others is a critical step in having them be more receptive to your ideas.
You are launching this right before the election during a time of great political division unlike anything we’ve seen in our country, at least in recent times. Come what may Nov. 6, how can this country get past the partisan politics and move forward to find common ground?
Lupia: Partisan politics play an important role in our society. They remind us of both the challenges and opportunities that the future presents. At the same time, when a person is trying to win an election, or when a person is trying to draw higher ratings to her television show, blog post or tweet, they often have a strong incentive to focus on what divides others. Candidates do this to draw attention to policy differences. People in traditional and social media do this because conflict tends to draw higher ratings than emphasizing any of the many issues where Democrats and Republicans agree.
Yet beyond the shouting and division, there are many issues that affect us all. Education, taking care of elders, safety, security, the opioids epidemic, and so much more. Every day, there are people in our community and people in our nation who are struggling with a changing economy or with personal misfortune. There are others who want to build the great technologies of tomorrow. It is through these aspirations that people need one another because in all of these cases we accomplish more together than we do alone.
The circus-like atmosphere of the type of politics that gets on TV causes lots of problems and solves almost none. To build our families, communities, businesses and nation, we need to work together. Finding common ground is a source of strength and hope. It is something that anyone of us can do. My hope is that this teach-out will inspire people to do so and offer useful advice on how to succeed.
In an article about your research and teaching in LSA Magazine, you talked about our usual need to win the argument and how the goal instead is to lay out the welcome mat in discussion. Can you explain?
Lupia: Working together requires building trust. Building trust, in turn, requires that people feel validated and respected by others with whom they could work. So, if we are in a situation where we are better off working together than being apart, the question becomes how can we validate and respect people that we do not know very well. An answer is to have a willingness to listen. A willingness to understand where other people are coming from. A willingness to hear about their views and perspectives without judgment.
When people create moments to be generous in this way, they lay the groundwork for perceptions of legitimacy. By legitimacy, I mean the ability to understand why others hold the points of view that they have. When people see one another as legitimate, they can agree to disagree on some issues, and find common ground on issues that are important to all.
So, if you have a chance to lay out a conversational welcome mat instead of seeking to win even the most trivial of arguments, you create new ways to find common ground and improve quality of life.