Questions About Common Ground Training

A recent exchange with a school board member from Illinois posed some interesting questions about the training we do at BridgeBuilders. I thought others of you might benefit from that exchange:

How many people do you typically work with at one time? What is the “best” total number, as well as the make up of the group?

My preference is to work with groups of less than 30, since that gives the best opportunity for interaction. However, I have worked with groups as small as 5 and as large as 250. As far as the make up is concerned, that depends on what we’re trying to accomplish. Our trainings our tailor made to fit our audience. If it’s just teachers, or just school board members, we will target are material for them. If it is a broader audience made of board members, administrators, teachers, and parents, we not only expand the material to encompass all of those groups, but in the course of our workshop help those groups connect with each other in a way that will allow them to work cooperatively in the future.

One of our favorite type of regional presentations, which many county offices of education offer, allows each school district to send a team of 5-6 people drawn from administration, teaching staff and communities to sample Common Ground Thinking and strategize about its usefulness in their own district.

Do you recommend including representatives from “all groups”—from the beginning? We, as a board of education, along with the district administration, are looking for productive ways to “disarm conflict and build mutual respect”.

Without knowing more about your district that would be a hard call for me to make. I’d say this… if your board and administration is divided, it might be advisable to start with them as a group. I’ve done that on a number of occasions. If, however, your board and administration are cohesive about wanting to build a common ground framework in your district, then I think we open it up right from the start and include ‘all’ groups. You will not believe how easily this approach brings people together who are on very opposite ends of the political spectrum. It’s a way of looking at conflict that most people have never considered. When they hear of it there is almost always universal acceptance of it and the willingness to work together to produce a ‘civic’ public school.

Is your workshop interactive in nature, and do you provide follow up training or interaction?

The workshop is very interactive. I am always willing to do follow-up as needed. I have 20 hours of material on these topics that we can use in a higher education setting and offer teacher credits. However, we have yet to do the common ground workshop where a school district felt they needed a follow up. I get letters now from districts I dealt with seven or eight years ago who want to let me know that the common ground they forged by my being there is still working well and is a blessing to the entire community.

Also, while you are not a “religious group” by nature, you do deal with a religious perspective that many people bring to the table. Do you ever find that this makes it difficult for some people to be willing to work with you–and that your organization is seen as controversial?

The only controversy we seem to generate is when people wrongly assume they know what we do without finding out first hand. Once I’m present in the community and people learn what common ground thinking is, we don’t find that it generates any kind of controversy whatsoever. Rather it gives a community a way to talk through their worldview differences and come to solutions that are fair for the common good in public education.

People who operate from an us/them mentality, will typically think that they are right, and that the person asking for “we” is wrong. In order to dialogue there is no room for power games and one-upsmanship. I have a strong personal faith, but unfortunately it is often those with a religious background that are the most unwilling to come to the table. They fear cooperating with people who don’t share their beliefs will mean they have to compromise their faith. Finding common ground agreements does not require anyone to compromise their faith or give up their convictions. The common ground does not pretend that we all agree, but gives us a proactive way to handle our disagreements.

You have to remember that all of us (from the left and the right) have been schooled by advocacy groups to demand our rights and vilify any opposition to our point of view. If you add an overlay of faith to that, people can push for their agenda thinking they have God’s backing. What we look at is the right role of government in matters of faith and while we free each person to live to the totality of their convictions we do ask them to contemplate whether or not it is fair to demand the engine of government to compel their point of view on others who disagree with them. I think that’s the key to getting cooperation beyond our differences. So far we’ve found that people of faith are quick to respond to common ground thinking as a way not only to protect their point of view, but also to be fair to different points of view in the culture.

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