Finding common ground

“I’m struck time and again by how often our political talk is about people who aren’t in the room. We almost always talk about them—“those people” in Washington, D.C., or in our state capitols—the people we hold responsible for all our political pathologies. Rarely to do we talk about us, the people who are in the room, about our nation’s problems and how we can help solve them.” – Parker Palmer, renowned author, speaker, and activist

I think Parker Palmer has hit the nail on the head. What often holds us back from working toward the common good is our inability to work collaboratively together. Whether its in politics, the communities where we live, or the organizations where we work, I’ve observed that it’s easy to fall into a trap of blaming. We talk about us vs. them, rather than working together with those whom we disagree or those who have competing interests with ours. It is so much easier and quicker to vent or complain about other people, departments, etc., rather than to take necessary leadership to reach out to others with whom you disagree and work toward collaborative solutions. I have to admit that I’m   human too and have fallen into this particular trap.

However, at various times during my career, I’ve also had the responsibility to help others work toward collaborative solutions, especially when they are polarized and stuck. One approach* that I’ve found helpful in working with leaders in higher education, is to find common ground, by identifying a group’s shared interests. This can be as simple as asking:

  1. What do we all want?
  2. What do we all fear?

While individuals may have differing beliefs and values that often hold them firmly in their position or viewpoint, establishing common ground can point the parties to a shared goal.

While it may seem overwhelming to begin solving the problem of highly polarized political parties in our nation, I challenge you to look around in your workplace or your local community. Where do you have influence to change the us vs. them dynamics and find common ground?

Anita Rios

*Approach adapted from The Center for Integrative Leadership, University of Minnesota and Polarity Management Associates.

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