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Mares: Common Ground

I wish Americans today might follow the sensible example of an organization I’ve belonged to for quite a few years now. One hundred and forty years ago, the Vermont Beekeepers Association noted in its founding charter, that "No member shall be entitled to the floor more than three minutes in a discussion of any motion, resolution or petition without the consent of the Association."

Or we might take a lesson in aboriginal democracy from the indigenous peoples of Northwestern America with their talking stick, or speaker's staff, which was used by leaders as a symbol of their authority and passed around a group to confer the right to speak in public.

And of course, "Robert’s Rules of Order" and a moderator who knows how to bank the flames under the respective pots about to boil over, have kept many Town Meeting encounters civil in that annual exercise in local governance.

Even as I feel strongly on "one side" of most current issues, I want to believe that private differences on many issues are not as great as many shrill voices in the public forum today would have us believe. And I take heart from Winston Churchill’s assurance that, "Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war!"

In building a forum for discussion, success will depend on both substance and process. There will be parties on opposing sides, and the hotter the topic, the faster people accelerate their mental motors from 0 to 60, so it’s critical to recognize and honor our shared experience.

In small groups, one ground breaker is to invite each person to characterize how they want to be viewed - and how they think they are viewed by the opposition. It can also be useful to ask participants to be reporters first, giving the Who, What, Why, Where, When and How before the opinion.

We also must keep in mind that our goal might not actually be "Getting To Yes" – to borrow the title of a popular book on negotiations by a couple of Harvard law professors. We may have to accept that most people won't openly change their minds; that the best outcome we can achieve may simply be grudging consent.

And sometimes all we can do is leave the participants feeling like loyal fans of a big time football team with a fifty-fifty record – sullen perhaps, but not rebellious.

Writer Bill Mares of Burlington is also a former teacher and state legislator. His most recent book is a collection of his VPR commentaries, titled "3:14 And Out."
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