Planting Seeds on Common Ground

Planting Seeds on Common Ground

If you’ve read my books or taken one of my classes, you know that the foundation of the entire persuasion/consensus-building/negotiation system I teach is discovering and addressing the interests of both parties.

You also know that “making people wrong,” as by scathing contradiction, sarcasm, or accusations, only makes them dig in their heels and resist your ideas even more. So my “Silver Rule” is “Avoid or minimize wrong making.”

When you find an interest that both parties share, that’s a gift, a gift of common ground, a great place to begin discussion. And when you do, follow the Silver Rule.

A real life example: When the “bathroom bill” was in committee in the Texas Senate, I heard an idea that would interest both Democrats and Republicans. I phoned the committee members’ offices.[i] In a Republican senator’s office, I actually reached a human being who didn’t just note my comments, but engaged in conversation with me (perhaps because, instead of telling the man my opinion, I asked questions).

I spoke calmly, with sincere curiosity. The conversation went something like this:

“Hi, my name is Margaret Anderson. I live in Houston, and I’d like to speak with you about the bathroom bill.”

“OK.”

“How would such a bill be enforced. Would we have to carry our birth certificates everywhere? Would schools, office buildings, and so forth have to station someone in each restroom (I’ll apologize that I can’t think of a more graceful way to say this) to look down people’s pants and check that against the birth certificates? Would they install CCTV?”

[Pause] “No, that would be an invasion of privacy.” [I could tell by his tone that he was thinking about my questions.]

“I agree. And even if one could find a way around the privacy issues, what would enforcement cost? How would it affect the Texas economy?”

“Hmmm.”

[Pause] “Well, thanks for speaking with me.”

“Thank you for calling.”

At other committee members’ offices, I left similar messages.

The committee reported the bill out to the Senate, who modified it slightly, passed it, then sent it to the House.

I read something else that would interest both parties. Some Houston area business leaders had visited legislators in Austin. They told them that, if the bathroom bill passed, they might not relocate their existing Texas facilities, but they would not consider expanding in Texas. New facilities and operations would go elsewhere.

Meanwhile, several other states’ legislatures that had bathroom bills pending, quietly let them die when they heard about the Texas bill, positioning themselves to step in and attract the business expansions and new start ups that would have gone to Texas but for the bathroom bill.

My state representative, being a Democrat, did not support the bill. Still, I phoned his office. When I told his staff member what I’d read about the Houston business leaders and the actions of the other states, he said he hadn’t heard about it. (That made sense. Considering the nature of the business leaders’ message, they would have been visiting Republicans, not Democrats.) So I elaborated and said perhaps my Rep. might find some talking points here.

The bathroom bill was not passed by the House before the session ended,[ii] and the Governor declined to call a special session to deal with it.

“Yes, but,” somebody’s thinking, “Margaret, what you told the committee members didn’t stop the Senate from passing the bill. If it failed in the House for reasons given by the Houston business leaders, what those leaders said to the Republicans made that happen, not what you said to a Democratic representative. You wasted your time and accomplished nothing.[iii]

I disagree. The fact that someone doesn’t fall in with your ideas immediately, doesn’t mean you didn’t plant a seed. The more strongly one believes something, the longer it usually takes them to change their mind. When the seed you planted is watered by input from other sources and time for reflection, it can sprout a new outlook.

I planted a seed in my conversation with the Republican staff member. We reminded each other that people who disagree can have a civilized conversation and find at least some common ground. I satisfied my own strong urge to do what I can to make the world a little better, even though I might not live to see the results.

Perhaps more importantly, I did as Hippocrates instructed physicians: I at least did no harm. Suppose I had phoned those committee members, called them bigots, told them how cruel and insensitive they were, how transgender people don’t attack cis-gendered people in restrooms. All that wrong-making would only have made them dig their heels in deeper.

Somehow, we all tend to think making others wrong will change their minds. Yet, when someone makes us wrong, we resist. I sure do. Does it make sense that everyone responds well to wrong making except me?

I’ve taught negotiation training courses to attorneys. Take a group of intellectual property[iv] specialists.

I would say, “How many of you have had a client come in with a letter saying, ‘Stop infringing our patent, or we’ll sue you’?”

All would raise their hands.

“How many of you wrote back, ‘The patent’s invalid, my client isn’t infringing anyway. Here are all the cases supporting our position. And if you do sue my client, we’ll mop up the courtroom floor with you’?”

All hands rose.

“How many thought your reply letter would make the patentee and his attorney see how weak their case is? They’d tuck their tails and back off.”

All hands rose.

“How many of you have had a client whose patent was being infringed? You sent a cease and desist letter. You received a reply about how weak your case is and how they’re going to mop up the courtroom floor with you?”

All hands rose.

“And how many, upon reading that reply, thought, Oh, wow. I never realized how weak our case is. We’d better back off?

All of them broke down laughing. It happened every single time.

Likewise, we offer those with whom we disagree full-frontal contradiction, accusations and sarcastic “humor,” believing that, if we keep hammering away on someone, he’ll eventually come around to our way of thinking. But how do we react when they hammer away on us?

Hence, my Silver Rule.

“Yes, but, Margaret, I need to speak truth to power.” So do I. But we don’t have to speak it indiscriminately. We can pick and choose when, how, and to whom we speak different aspects of our truth so as to maximum our chances of at least planting a seed.

We can invest time in looking for common ground, preparing to converse (not just text or share a meme) in a civilized, persuasive manner, possibly doing some good, and at least, doing no harm.

In the past, people have given years of their lives, sometimes those very lives themselves, to keep this country free and civilized. If ever there were a time to invest a little more time thinking and planning before we speak or write, that time is surely now.

[i] Some activists advise calling lawmakers’ offices in the capitol. That might be a faster way to get the information to the lawmaker. However, I’ve had better luck getting to actually speak with someone in person when I call their local offices. So I do so when time permits.

[ii] The Texas Legislature meets every two years, for a maximum of 140 days.

[iii] Since then, I heard in a speech by a member of the Texas House that sometimes senators have an understanding with the representatives. Senators who don’t really agree with something will vote in favor of it because they have to grandstand for their supporters. But they know the House will see that it doesn’t pass. As he put it, “OK, we’ll clean up your mess for you.”

[iv] Intellectual property means patents, trademarks, copyrights, trade secrets, and such like.

2 comments

  1. I love that you were able to break into the staffer’s brain and then quickly get out, having put there a seed of–whoa, what is that?! a logical thought flow–
    Haha!

    • Thanks, Mari. It was fun, and all the more so because it was not a confrontation, but rather, a conversation.

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