By Shamil Idriss, CEO of Search for Common Ground
There has never been a more promising, or more challenging, time to run an organization called Search for Common Ground.
In the past year, a chorus of voices has urged Americans to get over their differences and get along. President Biden struck this tone last night in his first nationally-televised address to Congress, ending with the words: “We can do whatever we set our mind to if we do it together. So let’s begin to get together.”
At Search for Common Ground, our ears perk up whenever we hear these calls. As the largest non-profit dedicated to peacebuilding, with offices in 32 countries and nearly 40 years of experience, we know the power of community.
We also know that “common ground” sounds like a dirty word to many people. Perhaps you feel this way: that common ground is impossible to find in today’s America.
But common ground is always possible. It was possible in the mid-1990s, when we helped to avert an ethnic genocide in Burundi. It was possible in the mid-2000s, when we supported the transition of Sri Lanka from a 26-year civil war into peace. And it is possible today, in the divided states of America.
In all these cases, common ground was worth it because it enabled communities, once divided by anger, to confront challenges affecting people’s daily lives.
So how do you find common ground? Here are five steps:
Conflict arises when people are aggrieved, when they feel their basic needs — perhaps even their identities — are threatened. Like a dashboard light, conflict signals that something is broken. Our job, as car owners or community members, is to heed the signal and confront the problem.
One reason that people avoid conflict is the difficulty of confronting anger. By recognizing that aggression is often a sign of insecurity, you can check this impulse in yourself and avoid overreacting to it in others.
Forget about “meeting in the middle”
At Search for Common Ground, we believe that “the middle” is a painful, unnatural place. Seeking “the middle” suggests that you are abandoning your core values, replacing something that you value with something that you merely tolerate.
Common ground feels quite different. Searching for common ground requires you to define the values that matter to you and build on that basis. In the process, you learn not only what your opponent needs but also, at a deeper level, what you need.
Look past labels
People are too complex to fit into a single box. A Trump supporter whose views on immigration boil your blood may also be a loving mother and community volunteer. A Biden supporter whose stances on Civil War monuments drive you up a wall may also be a devout Christian and proud military veteran.
When you look past the first label, you discover what really motivates people. Finding common ground begins with understanding the person beneath the slogans.
Find a shared problem and do something about it
Common ground is a starting point, not a final destination, that enables people to shift from seeing each other as the problem to sitting on the same side, facing a shared problem.
In divided communities, nothing lowers tensions more than shared success. And in 2021, challenges from COVID-19 to racial injustice offer powerful chances to forge trust. You can start in your local community, where many people share hopes about neighborhood safety and well-being.
Realize the power of your respect and wield it generously
Tough-guy movies and swaggering politicians leave the impression that stubbornness is the best way to get things done. This way of thinking mistakes vulnerability for weakness.
A firefighter who runs into a burning apartment is vulnerable but not weak. A student who raises her hand to voice an unpopular opinion is vulnerable but not weak. And a peacebuilder who pledges respect for his enemies — because humans inherently deserve respect — is vulnerable but not weak. Acknowledging the dignity of our adversaries yields relationships where we can disagree vehemently but work together.
Together, these steps can help you to find common ground in almost every situation. You don’t have to give up anything essential to who you are.
In return, you gain rich relationships that are rooted in mutual respect and strengthened, not weakened, by differences of opinions. Healthy communities start here.