Several years ago I signed up for a walk in the woods with a naturalist. As we strolled through beautiful wooded areas I asked our guide, "What's the name of this plant?" and "What kind of tree is that?"

Instead of answering, he asked: "What color is that plant?" "What's the shape of its leaf?" "How does it smell?"

I soon became annoyed and asked again: "What's the name of that plant?" He responded: "If I tell you the name, you'll lose interest and start thinking you know everything about it."

His lesson stuck with me, and I have seen it's relevance in other parts of my life.

Recently I visited dear friends. We always have fun together. But this time we started bumping heads, as we have radically different political views.

It was easy to argue. We knew lots of facts. But after a while, I realized we weren't getting anywhere. We became more entrenched and committed to our positions. Then I remembered the naturalist. "Once you name it, you'll start thinking you know everything about it."

Clearly, I was in one camp, and they were in another. And both sides assumed we knew what the other felt and believed.

So I changed. I started listening. I started looking for common ground. I began asking: "Where do we agree?" and "What are we both concerned about?"

It was hard work. I found it much easier to argue than to listen. Many times I wanted to change the topic, avoid, dodge, or debate. I forced myself to listen and look for areas of agreement. I often stumbled. But in the process I discovered a few helpful guidelines:

1. Stay out of a box. As soon as I associated with a party or advocated a controversial idea, my views were suspect. I became "one of those people." But if I avoided labels and focused on specifics, I found many shared interests and even agreement. Rather than arguing about global warming, we agreed pollution was a concern. Instead of debating gun control, we agreed on the need for greater safety. Avoiding labels helped.

2. Ask questions. Be curious. Genuinely curious. Ask: "What kind of world do you want to live in?" and "What goals do you have for your family, community, country?" Amazingly, we often wanted the same things: safe streets, effective education, a working government, ethical leaders, etc. Questions helped us get to the heart of what mattered.

3. Don't go down the rabbit hole. It's easy to react. You might be offended by what you hear. It might make your hair stand on end. But don't take offense. Do share your views. But just for a moment, let go of the need to be right. Make room for differences. Be respectful. Keep talking. It's so easy to take offense. Don't go down that rabbit hole. It doesn't help.

4. Stick with it. This is some of the toughest work you'll ever do. Our brains crave the dopamine that comes with a good fight. When we hear bad news about the other side, or read an article that validates our point of view, we cheer. Save it for the football field. That's where it belongs.

Today, there's too much at stake to join the fray. When regular folks like you and me start talking, showing respect, listening past our differences and finding common ground, we find solutions. And there is less bickering, less wasted time, fewer walled off fortresses.

What we're doing now isn't working. Let's try a different way.

The opportunities to listen and find common ground are everywhere. Don't wait for anyone else. Be the first. Start with your family, church, community and in every conversation. You won't win every battle; you may not change anyone's mind. But you'll learn what matters and have a fighting chance of bringing about positive change and making a difference.

Be the one. Show the way. Start today.

Faith Ralston, of North Oaks, is an author and leadership consultant.