Guidelines for “Adult” Conversation, #10 – Finding Similarities as well as Differences in Disagreement

Welcome back. Previous essays in this series are available at

Often in disagreement both sides get so caught up in defending their positions and attempting to prove the other wrong in order to ‘win’ – whatever that might mean, they simply cannot imagine, or aren’t interested in speaking about areas in which their views are similar – or even the same. This is especially true when there’s an audience for their exchange. Two generic and general ways to express this are:

  1. Both (or all) parties in a disagreement disagree about which trees are most important, where these specific trees are, and how they should be cared for. In their focus on the which, where and how of the specific trees, they never notice that, in fact, they agree that all the trees together make up a specific forest, and they agree on where this forest is located and on many of its characteristics.
  2. Both (or all) parties in a disagreement disagree on how to do something and never notice that they agree on what needs to be done. There are exceptions to this, of course: an ongoing example is the state of the U.S. insurance-pharmaceutical-medical-government industry before the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (tens of millions of Americans had limited or no access to affordable health services for decades; some people were fine with that and some weren’t). After the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, many (not all) of those tens of millions did get access to health services, and the insurance companies raised the rates on others – in many cases making insurance unaffordable for a new population. On this issue, it seems there is disagreement on both the what and the

In essay six I briefly mentioned Ken Wilber’s concept of orienting generalizations,1 which, simply put, refers to stepping back from an issue far enough in order find a level at which opponents can agree (oh yes, we’re definitely talking about the same forest). Consider this rather striking example from Salvador Sanabria, former Salvadoran guerrilla, and law student when he served as part of a reconciliation team visiting Bosnia in 1997:

“These people don’t want peace. They want revenge. After 12 years of war in my country, we realized that no one could win. Both sides were exhausted, so we settled for peace. These people have not reached that point. They still have two or three more years of killing in them.”2

Sanabria spoke from the perspective of a war veteran who, along with his opponents, had recognized a shared desire for peace amid a shared exhaustion. He further recognized that the Croats, Muslims and Serbs with whom his team met were not yet able to step back far enough and find a common goal – a similarity or orienting generalization that would allow them to stop killing each other.

Fortunately, most of our disagreements do not match the scope, scale and slaughter that accompany civil war. Still, we dig in, arm ourselves with the arguments of our beliefs, and label, generalize and insult our perceived ‘enemy’ as they do us.

On a more ‘ordinary,’ practical level, each of us who is interested in conversations that minimize or eliminate differences rather than maximizing or creating them might begin to look for the relevant, respective what’s and how’s that inform our disagreements, share what we see with our perceived opponent(s), and in the best of circumstances, even agree to step back together until our views are broad and/or deep enough that we find a shared perspective – an organizing generalization. Noble work, not easy, and inevitably worthwhile – perhaps invaluable.

Two final points:

  • The process of engaging conversation that recognizes similarities and is grounded in genuine curiosity and a desire to learn and understand is easier when both (or all) parties recognize and embrace such recognition and grounding.
  • In the absence of such mutuality, it falls upon the courage, strength and vulnerability of those who do embrace this level of engagement to proceed in difficult conversations in ways that honor their embrace without putting themselves or others in serious danger – whether, physical, emotional or any other meaning of that word.

So practice looking for the similarities in situations in which the stakes are low – where the danger is slight and more of an inconvenience than anything else.

In essay #11 we’ll explore the value of agreeing to, and actually staying focused on, the specific content of the current conversation.

1Wilber, Ken. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. Boston: Shambhala, 1995 (xiii-ix).

2Ryback, Timothy W. “Violence Therapy for a Country in Denial.” New York Times Magazine. 30 November 1997, sec. 6: 120-23. Archive:

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