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Shared Understanding and Common Ground

Updated: Apr 28

I have a real weakness for the Hidden Brain podcast hosted by Shankar Vedantam.

Logo for the Hidden Brain Podcast

Driving home after a board meeting I listened to the latest episode, The Easiest Person to Fool, focused on how we can engage in critical thinking and decision making that avoids the easy pitfalls of entrenched positions and “my way or the highway” thinking. Three of the episode’s key points resonated with me as a member of the Jeffco Schools Board of Education, and align strongly with one of my core values: engagement.

First, I thought about the difference between task conflict (disagreement about how to move forward with a given issue or situation) and relationship conflict (disagreement about core values and identity). Task conflict can be a driver of innovation and critical thinking - being challenged and challenging others on what’s possible to lead to a better outcome. Task conflict can be healthy and productive and avoids personalizing the conflict as a direct assault on another’s values and identity. Relationship conflict is both interpersonal and deeply personal. It can interfere with innovation and critical thinking because it challenges the very core of who people are, rather than the ideas they have to share. How we actually hear information is largely dependent on who is delivering that information and how it’s delivered.


As we engage in conversations about essential issues within Jeffco that impact tens of thousands of students and their families, it is essential that we all are able to truly listen to one another and share ideas without devolving into relationship conflict that only shuts the doors of what’s possible.


So how do we do that? The second takeaway for me focused on humility and curiosity as drivers to critical thinking. We live in an age of data bullying and confirmation bias. Everyone can find data to support their position and we tend to seek out data that confirms our existing way of thinking. Humility and curiosity allow for questions to guide thinking, creating the possibility of seeking common ground. Rather than seeing this as a weakness of position, I see it as a strength of working toward shared understanding and collective action.


Rather than preaching or prosecuting, we can ask questions of one another, understanding that we don’t have all the information or answers.


Finally, I’ve reflected a lot on the notion of psychological safety as an essential component of innovation and critical thinking. Psychological safety is the notion that you can take a risk without being punished. Organizationally, psychological safety enables productive task conflict and a healthy learning culture, something that cannot exist if people are afraid to challenge the status quo. We need innovation and strategic thinking in Jeffco Public Schools, now more than ever, as we navigate learning models, leadership transitions, learning losses, and widening equity gaps.


We cannot serve the students of Jefferson County if we do not move away from polarizing and binary disagreements and toward shared understanding and common ground.

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