If you’ve ever been to an Ethos camp, you know how much we stress the importance of finding common ground in debate. Our passion is to foster healthy communication in all aspects of life and we’ve found that identifying common ground and shared assumptions while working towards clarifying where disagreement exists and working to bring peace is the best way to communicate.

We teach this through what we call the persuasion chain. We take a controversial subject (feminism, black lives matter, Islam Donald Trump, etc) and work at seeing how each group on either side of the battle lines is viewed by the other group. Then we see what each group agrees on and try to find the point of disagreement, known as stasis in classical rhetoric. From there, we work towards finding peace and resolution.

This is insanely useful in debate. We work towards building an understanding of an issue and harness our audience’s likely predispositions to an issue while working on breaking down the crux and solving it. Here’s how.

An overview:

Identify how each group views each other.

Identify how each group feels viewed by the other.

Find out what they have in common. Example: The strong majority of non-feminists and feminists agree that women have value, assault and abuse are huge problems, men ought to be chivalrous in one way or another, women are special, women are unique, etc. Students are always pleasantly surprised at the amount of common ground we can find on an issue.

Follow the assumptions. Example: Women are valuable –> Women are unique –> Women and men ought to be treated equally in society –> Men and women are currently not equal. –> X step should be taken to ensure equality.

Identify the crux. Example: Men and women are currently not equal is probably a pretty good crux for feminism. To find the crux, we say: “It really comes down to _______” and fill in the blank.

Establish common ground. Now we move from merely preparing and thinking into real interaction. Before you walk up to a feminist and yell, “Hey! Men and women are TOTALLY equal!!” Start by establishing that you and they both believe in the unique value women contribute to society. On the other side, before you walk up to a non-feminist and yell, “Hey! Men have it so much better than women!!” Start by establishing that you think that women are each special and unique! This common ground establishes a strong foundation for productive conversations.

Work from the crux: The most vital part of this step is to seek to understand and THEN to be understood. (Stephen Covey’s 5th habit of highly effective people) Understand why they chose a different path than you when it came to the crux. Once you feel like you truly understand the other side, try to bring others to an understanding of your beliefs. Don’t do it through shouting, sarcasm, or snark. That’s not persuasive. Do it through peacemaking and empathy.

I never truly saw the value in this approach until a few weeks ago on a beach in California. I’ve been blessed to travel with a missions group this summer to a variety of different areas. We practice drama evangelism by performing a drama that tells the gospel story in the analogy of a toymaker and his son. We perform this drama at a myriad of different areas and go to pray with and talk to people afterward.

On this day, we were performing at Newport Beach close to San Diego.  A bunch of different people had set up tents in the grass and were grilling dinner. One of those groups was a large group of Muslims. Obviously, intimidating to perform the gospel in front of people who believe something adamantly different.

We performed. Afterward, we went to talk to people who saw the performance as always. First, my ministry squad talked to three little girls. I didn’t even realize they were Muslim. We asked them if they liked the show. They told us they absolutely loved it and loved the message. So, we did what we always do, prayed with them. They giggled a bit, but were receptive! A 15-year-old friend of mine had moved to the tent and begun talking to some of the women. This missionary spoke a little bit of Arabic and was laughing with the women at her bad pronunciation. However, they were mostly just surprised that a white girl was speaking their language.

Arabic was their common ground.

As my friend, Julia was speaking with them, she began to move into deeper questions. They said they didn’t quite understand the message of the show, so Julia explained to them what our show exemplified. As she was kindly explaining, a group of the men came from behind and began to heckle us. They shouted things like,

“So you believed God died??”

“So God gave birth? Who did he marry?”

“Are there three Gods??”

So I went with a small group to talk to these men and got NOWHERE. I kept trying to answer all of their questions but was unable to get complete sentences in-between shouts. I was hitting a wall because I forgot about working for common ground. They were working from conclusions. I met them and tried to work at changing their conclusions. However, conclusions are based upon previous premises and assumptions. You can’t change conclusions without first changing the foundation upon which they are built.

A week or two earlier, I’d been working at a camp with Isaiah and saw him teach the persuasion chain using Islam. Eventually remembering that experience, I remembered what Isaiah taught me was the first assumption to identify: That both groups want to have a real conversation. So, I asked, “Are you interested in learning about each other? I’d love to share with you what I believe and see if that brings some clarity to your questions, but I can’t do that when I keep getting interrupted.”

Saying that felt unbelievably weird.

But I saw a look of intrigue fall upon some of their faces. They agreed to let me talk for one minute without interruptions. And we found shared assumptions:

  • There is a God
  • He created everything
  • The Old Testament is real
  • Jesus existed
  • Prayer is important

Then we found two crux issues:

  • Jesus was just a man vs. Jesus is the Son of The Father as well as God himself.
  • God is one distinct being vs. God is one distinct being made up of three different beings.

We didn’t solve the crux issues in our 5-10 minute conversation. None of them came to Christ. But, after we had both explained our beliefs and the rationale behind them, I asked if I could pray for them. They said, “Sure. But only if you’re fine with us praying for you when you leave.” I agreed and was able to pray for them and they prayed with me.

I’m confident that our group left that interaction with those Muslims understanding the Gospel a little bit more. We weren’t going to change all their deeply built assumptions and premises in a 15-minute interaction. However, we can show them the Love of God and show them that we want to understand them.

Working from common ground is not only effective, I’d even argue that it’s biblical.

  • 1 Corinthians 9:20-22, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law, I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law, I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”
  • Paul on Mars Hill in Acts 17. He used their Gods and their understanding of religion to connect them to Christ.
  • Jesus used parables so that his audience would find common ground in the gospel.
  • John 4: Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman and told her the intimate details of her life in order that she feel known, seen, and understood.
  • The entire gospel is partly based on the fact that Jesus became a man and showed us that he could walk through every trial and temptation we’ve faced and emerged having never sinned. He walked the same path we all walk, yet came through perfect.

I’d used common ground in debate before. I’d found it to be a potent way to help me craft persuasive speeches and debate cases. However, until I was face-to-face with a Muslim on a California beach, I didn’t know the true value of crafting common ground.

Drew Magness currently works as a Coach and Editor-in-Chief for Ethos. Drew believes strongly in empathy and creating understanding in his students and audiences. Drew has not only enjoyed debate with all his heart but has found great success, holding over 50 top 3 finishes and over 25 first place titles. He was also blessed to finish the 2016-2017 as 6th in the nation on speechranks. As he enters his senior year, Drew looks forward to participating in three forms of debate in Stoa, NCFCA, and NSDA and diving deeper communication and rhetoric.

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