Finding common ground is a challenge

Published 6:01 am Saturday, July 28, 2018

As my summer class in communication comes to a close, I am coaching my students on their final speeches: A persuasive presentation to an audience that disagrees with them.

This is, of course, the most challenging assignment of the semester as I allow uncivil behaviors. For example, I bring a bag of marshmallows and allow audience members to throw them at the speaker. They are also allowed to heckle with shouts of “Fake news” or “No way” or “You lie.” They can feign disinterest and disagreement by folding their arms across their midsections or reading a newspaper or checking messages on their phones.

This seems to be a highly appropriate exercise with rampant hostility on social media sites as well as in-person altercations between persons who hold differing viewpoints and are eager to challenge those who don’t agree with them. At times, fists, pipe bombs, burning crosses, and fire arms become a part of the battle.

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In the rubric which I provide to students, I ask them to first clarify their position on an issue of their choosing and then define the demographics of an audience that would disagree with that position.

This part of preparing to speak before a hostile audience is rather easy as many of us know how we feel/think about a host of topics from the performance of those who represent us in Congress to capital punishment to abortion to whatever. We also can identify, we believe, the demographics of those who disagree with us, beginning, of course, with “They’re just plain stupid” or “They don’t live in the real world” or “They belong to X political party.”

The challenge comes, whether in the U.S. Senate or a college classroom, with finding common ground with those who disagrees with us.

Most of us know that we dress in particular ways for specific audiences and that a smile and pleasant demeanor can connect us with others with whom we want to communicate. There are other strategies in terms of body language, “working the room” prior to speaking, acknowledging influential members of the audience and so forth, but at one point, the speaker must begin the presentation proper.

And therein lies the problem: how to establish common ground in these turbulent times. What do we as Americans value? Stop reading for a minute and see if you are able to articulate what you value.

What’s on your list? Fairness, inclusion, justice, freedom to make your own decisions, pursuit of the American dream. If it’s about the American dream, what exactly does that mean in 2018? And in addition to yourself, whom do you include or exclude in the American dream?

If “common ground” for you includes phrases from the Constitution or the Pledge to the Flag or the Declaration of Independence or the Geneva conventions, will your audience interpret “freedom and justice for all” the way in which you interpret it? What about the Fourteenth Amendment that calls for “the equal protection of the laws” or the Due Process component of that amendment which was argued in the Roe vs. Wade decision of 1973?

As I worked with one of my students who is currently employed in a medical facility and is in the R.N. curriculum at Edison State where I teach, she indicated that her speech to an audience that disagrees will be a pro position on the use of medical marijuana.

She felt very comfortable with stating the positions of those who disagree with her as well as her arguments in favor of the use of medical marijuana, but she was uncertain about a strategy for establishing common ground.

After rejecting several approaches, we discussed the possibility of listing previously devastating diseases that prior to the discovery of medical treatments killed and/or maimed as a segue into the use of medical marijuana. This could be followed by a brief discussion of the Tenth Amendment (given that Federal law views marijuana as illegal) which states that “powers not delegated to the U.S. by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Do you believe her approach will establish common ground? With what percentage of her audience?

In conclusion, I teach my students that the likelihood of changing the opinions of many of those who disagree with us — especially with religion and politics — is slim, but as educated individuals, they have the responsibility of using their critical thinking skills to determine the positions of those who disagree with them. They must then present thoughtful, organized arguments in favor of their positions and consider the ways in which they use logic, emotion, and ethics. But establishing common ground? It’s a challenge.

Dr. Vivian Blevins is a Harlan County native. She has taught undergraduate and graduate students as well as prison inmates, and now teaches communication and American literature classes at Edison State Community College in Ohio. Reach her at