Common Ground Rules

The Third Way has discovered that there are four steps towards achieving long-lasting common ground - no matter what the issue.

President Obama recently delivered his much anticipated Notre Dame commencement speech. With the divide over abortion at the top of everyone’s mind, the President chose to tell the success story of the incredibly diverse six member Civil Rights Commission appointed by President Eisenhower that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  As Obama retells it:

"Years later, President Eisenhower asked [Commission participant and then-Notre Dame President] Father Ted how on Earth he was able to broker an agreement between men of such different backgrounds and beliefs.  And Father Ted simply said that during their first dinner in Wisconsin, they discovered that they were all fishermen.  And so he quickly readied a boat for a twilight trip out on the lake.  They fished, and they talked, and they changed the course of history. "

It was Father Ted’s decision to lean into the commonality of the group at the outset that fostered an atmosphere of productivity and success.

My own experience matches the lesson in this story: The key to success for a Common Ground initiative is that it identify and embellish upon the shared values in the group.

As Third Way’s Culture Program Director and architect of two common ground initiatives- one around abortion and the other about bridging the cultural divide between progressives and Evangelical Christians (the "Come Let Us Reason Together" initiative), I have been asked write a piece for the debut of Rewire’s new common ground on abortion website about how to find common ground.  Below, I share with you my own discoveries, as corroborated in many places by leading common ground voices.

There are four necessary steps, no matter what the issue on the table, to achieving long-lasting common ground:

1.    Find the right people
2.    Establish that common ground isn’t about compromising principles
3.    Focus on the commonalities but embrace the differences, and
4.    Don’t stretch it


1.  Find the Right People

The process must start with the right "guide." Although often the best guide is thought to be outside of the group, the reality is that most guides will have a take on the issue that he or she necessarily brings to the table, whether public or private. In fact, my own experience dictates that the guide may have the most trust and success when he or she is so candid about his or her position as to be a participant officially representing one of the two sides at the table. Third Way, a pro-choice and progressive organization, directed both of its common ground initiatives as an explicitly interested party. Father Ted, also a participant, led the Civil Rights Commission conversation. The guide must also have the passion of Father Ted for capitalizing on the places of commonality.

Even with the right guide, however, the project is doomed without the right participants. And though most Americans when asked like the idea of common ground (e.g. 74% of respondents in Third Way’s national abortion survey want their elected official to look for common ground on the abortion issue), you must be selective to find the right people. Above all else, the participants must be courageous, have a strong sense of self, and be confident.  Every key participant I have worked with in my initiatives has fit this bill. The group Search for Common Ground, leaders in this field for over 25 years, explain well why these traits are so important: "As human beings we have an instinctive, emotional response to conflict that is often based on fear. … A leap of faith is required to move from an adversarial response to a non-adversarial one. It takes character and courage to make that shift."  The participants must also believe that finding common ground is good in and of itself and that it will ultimately help achieve at least some of their end goals.  

2.  Establish that common ground isn’t about compromising principles 

Common ground should not and does not entail compromising principles on either side. Without this ground rule, participants simply will not be able to stay the common ground course without feeling like they are being disloyal to themselves (what I call the "ick factor") and without being devoured by those in their base. (Truth be told, they may nonetheless be devoured, but that’s another story and another reason for the "courageous" requirement above).

President Obama embraced this notion at Notre Dame, when after explaining where there is common ground on abortion, he acknowledged: "Understand-I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away." Search for Common Ground also gets at this principle when they explain that common ground is "[n]ot having two sides meet in the middle, but having them identify something together that they can aspire to and are willing to work towards." 

3.  Focus on the commonalities, but embrace the differences

You cannot achieve common ground without first identifying the shared values of the group and using them to build a foundation. For the Come Let Us Reason Together initiative, we spent a whole year identifying and writing up  the shared foundational values behind such controversial social issues as abortion, gay and lesbian issues and the role of religion in the public square before we successfully tackled what a common ground policy agenda would look like. Identifying these common values is what enables the group to think together, unencumbered by fear and false assumptions, and ultimately to succeed in locating common ground action steps.

At the same time, you wouldn’t all be at the table were it not for your differences, so you might as well embrace them. A skilled guide will actually go further and figure out how to employ some key differences to help motivate one side or another to find common ground in the hardest places. It was powerful motivation for our Evangelical Christian friends in finding common ground on gay and lesbian equality to point out to them that many gay and lesbian Americans feel that Evangelical Christians dislike them and wish them ill.  Similarly, we helped motivate some of our pro-choice friends to find common ground on abortion by pointing out that many Americans do not realize that pro-choicers agree that abortion is morally complex and would like to reduce the need for abortion.

4. Don’t stretch it

Don’t go beyond the agreement you’ve got. Shortly after the Come Let Us Reason Together group debuted its common ground governing agenda, which included an abortion policy, President Obama repealed the controversial Mexico City policy or "global gag rule."  This repeal, which freed up funds for birth control to go to poor women in developing countries, arguably fit into our agreement, which already embraced increasing access to birth control for low-income American women.  Except it didn’t.  We had never discussed the Mexico City policy repeal as a group, and this policy had always been highly politically charged and embroiled in the abortion debates.  Before we had time to raise it, reporters called Third Way to inquire whether the groups’ common ground abortion approach included the repeal. Though it was totally in our right to try to persuade the group to support the repeal, we absolutely could not presume to speak for the group about so loaded an issue.  

I have high hopes for Rewire’s On Common Ground forum, though also some undeniable trepidation, based only on how badly I want this experiment to work. My hope is that no one enters the conversation with the nagging feeling that they are the fish and that everyone instead, in the words of the President, "[r]emember[s] in the end, we are all fishermen."

End Note: I wrote this article before the murder of Dr. George Tiller.  This sad and shocking moment in history contains many lessons, including one with regard to finding common ground. Tragedies like this present an opportunity for those on opposite sides of an issue to come together around shared values, and to decry such behavior as abhorrent and anti-American. In this case, the two communities did just that. Here is the joint statement from pro-life and pro-choice religious leaders condemning George Tiller’s murder as offensive to all of them.