Image for Finding a Third Space Easier Than Common Ground
Dolly Parton concerts exemplify third space by attracting a diverse audience that holds hands when she sings but otherwise would lock horns. Her third space has room for all forms of humanity and points of view.

Third Space Moves Past Disagreement to Shared Interest, Collaboration

Deep divisions makes finding common ground nearly impossible. It may be more fruitful to look for a third space, that equally elusive, but more productive place where disagreement and sociability can coexist.

The third space isn’t an actual physical place. It’s a frame of mind that allows a person to compartmentalize the world around them. It’s a contentment derived apart from work, home or social media. It’s a space you create intentionally.

A Dolly Parton concert is a perfect example of a third space. Her audience ranges from buckaroos to feminists. She is idolized by hill folk and viewed as a hero by the transgender community. Yet when she performs, her diverse audience is on the same page where political, religious and social differences are put aside, at least for 90 minutes in a third space.

Parton is the daughter of the Smoky Mountains who sings songs of praise for working class people. She also is a humanitarian who dresses in gaudy outfits, openly talks about her breast implants and advocates for workplace equality. Her songs and causes could light a match on any number of divisive fronts. Her willingness to express in music views that appeal to vastly different points of view doesn’t ignite those matches. By accepting people for who they are and what they believe without judgment has created a third space for entertainment and reflection.

A third space and common ground differ fundamentally. A third space doesn’t try to find a middling place. A third space is a workaround that creates a space where people with divergent views can engage at a personal level, not on a political stage.

Families often create third spaces around holiday get-togethers where the focus is on giving thanks not trading gibes. Fierce competitors in business or sports can achieve a third space by participating in recreational activity like a round of golf. Parents can find a third space with their children at the movies.

Individuals facing deep conflicts at work or in a relationship can reach a third space through a hobby, a good book or personal reflection. Taking stock at the end of the day of what went right can boost the spirit and lead to an optimistic mindset that allows a person to be at ease with themselves.

It may seem unlikely for bitter political foes to seek and find a third space. Unlikely or not, it’s possible and a positive outcome. In a past era, politicians of different parties routinely socialized, putting their differences aside to talk about their families or personal interests. They created bonds of trust that allowed them to disagree agreeably and to find compromise.

Agreeable disagreement is rarer these days. Social media makes it easy to snipe at opponents. Social media algorithms ensure there is a steady feed of posts worthy of sniping. But social media also provides an opportunity to discover a third space. Online snipers post personal items about key milestones in their lives, achievements by their children and interesting books they’ve read. These can be openings for rival snipers to seek a third space where differences aren’t forgotten, just put aside in service of friendly engagement or perhaps collaboration on a common cause.

The Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California analyzed what it called “Third Space Competencies”. The analysis was based on extensive interviews with business leaders on the skills required for digital-age workers. The key finding was a need to develop “leaders who are collaborative, creative, communicative and flexible, and who can help propel an organization forward with projects that are both more innovative and effective than what they have previously undertaken.” The research referred to “Third Space Talents” and “Third Space Thinking”. In this context, the third space embodies 360-degree thinking, cultural competency, intellectual curiosity, adaptability and empathy. “We began our research looking for specific talent competencies; by the end we recognized the talent gap was also about a new way of thinking and acting.”

The third space is best characterized as a place where humanity hangs out. Dolly Parton is hailed as a humanitarian and widely revered because she embraces everyone and anyone. Her shadow is a third space. “I think everybody should be treated with respect. I don’t judge and I try not to get too caught up in the controversy of things. I hope everybody gets a chance to be who they are. I just know, if I have to pee, I’m gon’ pee, wherever it’s got to be.” You can’t get much more human than that.

Instead of waiting for a chance to “like” something a rival sniper posts, initiate contact to locate a potential third space. Be curious and flexible. Do you share a cause, have the same favorite book or a common hobby? You may discover less explosive differences – you like baseball, he likes football; she prefers white wine and you like red wine – that can be jumping-off points for conversations that humanize each other.

Dolly Parton’s third space is characterized by full-throated advocacy without a whiff of condemnation. She doesn’t hide her strong beliefs or dismiss others for theirs. Her third space isn’t common ground as much as it is common decency. It’s a empathetic place where you can hold the hand of someone you otherwise would despise or mock because you both love the humanity-filled third space Dolly Parton inhabits.