Creating Common Ground

No matter your age or who or what you are or do, what you are about to read could make a critical difference in your success.

About a hundred members of a national association of journalists serving a particular industry were having their three-day annual meeting. I accepted their invitation to be a presenter during two sessions.

Being there was an enjoyable experience. Although I was pleased by how well I’d performed, I had a feeling I could’ve done better.

At the close, everyone completed an evaluation form for rating every aspect of the meeting. As I reviewed the results a couple of weeks later, I was able to verify that my evaluation of my presentations had been fairly accurate.

Of all the comments from those who didn’t think I had done so well, one was alarmingly memorable. It read, and I quote complete with original emphasis: “I didn’t come to this meeting to listen to some old man, I came here to LEARN SOMETHING!” I muttered to myself that this was a classic case of a speaker being the victim of audience-induced blunt force trauma.

With no way to find out who wrote that, I was left with this distasteful reality: If one person felt that strongly, others were similarly inclined, but were reluctant to give it voice. What concerned me was future presentations I might be giving. As I continued to mull over that problem, I was suddenly convinced I’d found the answer. I couldn’t be sure, however, until I had tested that strategy under real world conditions.

A few months later, I was afforded an excellent opportunity to do that, a presentation under similar conditions and about the same number attending, but with one significant difference: Four different sessions were being held at the same time. Anyone coming to my session but later deciding they no longer cared for my presentation, could leave and go to one of the other sessions. That meant my strategy was going to get an even more severe test.

After arriving at the lectern, I did a visual sweep of the room and began speaking.

“As I look out over this group, at least three-fourths of you appear to be 35 years of age or younger. And as you look at me, I must appear to be ancient.”

Scattered smiles told me that so far, so good.

“What that means,” I continued, “is that you and I are sharply different in many ways. We were born, grew up, and went to school at very different times. As a result, we view most everything differently, and have different opinions. What hasn’t changed, however,  are the basics, the fundamentals on which all of us must depend as we move forward from where we are.”

I paused to let that sink in.

“That brings me to this offer. If you’ll come up your side of the bridge, I’ll come up the other side and meet you in the middle. Then an hour from now, maybe we can all leave this room, satisfied that we know much more than we did when we walked in here.”

I was startled by the collective body language. Everyone was relaxing, becoming comfortable, seemingly preparing their ears to hear, their minds to listen. And listen they did—to every word and to every important point and summary. Not a single person left the room during that hour. Afterward, several came up to thank me.

I’ve tested that strategy several more times with nearly identical results.

Here’s a quick analysis of why this approach was so effective: I neutralized the resistance by immediately acknowledging the sharp differences and opinions between us and identifying the goal shared by everyone. By ratcheting everyone down to zero, I had prepared them for departing on another adventure in learning. Each time, and unlike that first unfortunate time, the audience and I established mutual respect for each other and our respective values; for that hour, at least, we were all one. I’m confident that strategy will work effectively and consistently as each generation attempts to listen to and understand the others.

I don’t ever want anyone to leave without “learning something.” Neither should you.