But, we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement.
~ Senator John McCain
Throughout my career, a large percentage of my work has been facilitating learning in the workplace. The format is often a one-day workshop, and classes are filled with individuals who may not know one another well, if at all, and the desire to be there falls anywhere on the spectrum from enthusiastic and eager, to detached and disinterested. Much of the potential learning comes from the wisdom in the room, and the willingness of the people in that room to engage in conversation with one another. Therefore, one of my most important responsibilities is to get people talking to one another as soon as possible.
One of my favorite tools to accomplish this is an exercise called *Commonalities.
It goes like this.
I divide participants into small groups of 4-5, and instruct them to find something that they all have in common. Easy, right? But then I give them the caveat. It has to be something that is really interesting. For example, if everyone had a childhood hobby, that might be sweet. But it's not particularily interesting. However, if they all raised and raced pigeons (like my husband)? Well now that's pretty darn interesting. The pigeon racers would have so much to talk about. What distance did their pigeons race? (Anywhere from 75-600 miles) They could share their best pigeon soothing techniques, and take turns imitating pigeon coos.
I give the groups work 10 minutes to see if they can find something in common, and for the first few minutes it's apparent that no one knows where to start. There is a lot of uncomfortable silence and awkward shifting in their seats. Eventually, someone in each group dares to go first, and the room begins to change. Standing back, I can actually feel the energy begin to shift. Conversations become animated. Laughter erupts. People actually lean in towards one another. Often times groups can find something that a few of the people have in common, but not everybody. At this point I try to let them go a little longer as it has become obvious that they want to find that something that they all have in common. The wisdom in the room begins to kick in as they sense that if they just dig a little deeper, they will find it. And they almost always do. People have discovered commonalities in experiences ranging from spending a night lost in the wilderness to spending a night in jail. Others have found a shared passion for line dancing, while others have a mutual fear of small things in large numbers. Some find that they are all children of college professors, while still others uncover the fact that they are each the first in their families to graduate from college. Regardless of what they find, whatever it is creates a thread of connection that they didn't know they had when they came into the room. With these new connections, all of which are grounded in common experience, the participants learn with one another, and from one another.
Inside of the classroom or out in the world, we are at our best when we can learn with one another, and learn from one another. In a time of increased polarization, finding commonalities in the midst of our differences has never been more important. We are all story tellers at heart, and we see ourselves in one another's stories.
Dare to go first.
Tell your story.
Lean in towards one another.
Who knows? Maybe you will find something really interesting that you have in common with one another. Like a group in one of my classes where every one had pulled the head off of, and plucked a chicken. Go figure.
* Thank you Joel Sinclair for sharing Commonalities with me. It is a tool that sheds light on that which connects us to one another.