Common Ground

How We Find Common Ground in Our Controversial Conversations at CSB and SJU

One of the most frequently cited strengths of Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s is our profound sense of community. Our students, many of whom come from families that have attended CSB/SJU for generations, typically feel very connected to one another and share a strong sense of Bennie and Johnnie pride. Many, in fact, say they chose our schools primarily because of the sense of “comfort” they feel here—something about which many faculty members are uneasy! Members of our founding religious order, the Benedictines, have a tradition of intentional community that is 1500 years old, and most people here are quick to name “hospitality” and “community” as their favorite Benedictine values. We were not surprised, therefore, that our initial survey revealed relatively small gaps between the ideal and real scores for the cluster of behaviors we identified as “common ground.” Students value such behaviors as identifying points of agreement, building on shared values, and building strong relationships, and for the most part they believe these behaviors occur in our campus conversations (see Table 15, Components of Dialogue and Conversational Behaviors). Given these relatively positive initial results, we have not subjected these behaviors to extensive analysis.

Some members of our research team have, in fact, raised the possibility that we may have too much common ground on campus—that our emphasis on areas of agreement may prevent us from fostering truly inclusive and challenging conversations. It certainly seems likely that common ground is easier to achieve on a campus that is racially, religiously, and (to a considerable degree) ideologically homogeneous. It could be very fruitful to compare our research results with comparable studies conducted at highly heterogeneous campuses. Even if homogeneity contributes to common ground behaviors, however, it does not follow that the behaviors themselves are negative. Thus far, we have found no evidence that the practice of common ground behaviors contributes to flight or other negative experiences in conversation.

Of 138 observations (of about 40 distinct events) completed in spring 2007, only 10 resulted in a common ground rating of “needs improvement” or “unsatisfactory,” a more favorable result than for any of the other behavioral clusters. On the other hand, there were only 39 “exemplary” ratings. This, however, was primarily because of one key phrase we included in the definition of an exemplary conversation. In such a conversation, we said, “participants build on common values and identify significant areas of consensus, without neglecting real differences.” Virtually all of the observers who offered ratings of “satisfactory” did so not because of any failure to build on common ground but precisely because of a neglect of real differences (see Table 20, Controversial Conversations Assessment Rubric: Spring 2007 Results).

It may, in fact, be the case that students at CSB/SJU lack the common ground skills needed to build consensus and strong relationships within a context of real diversity. On the basis of our study, though, the most we can say is that they rarely have the opportunity to exercise such skills. For the time being, therefore, we would do better to focus more of our efforts on increasing diversity and the expression of diversity than on building common ground skills.