What is the Common Ground Approach?
The Common Ground Approach is a means of navigating through conflict and
identifying possibilities that are not apparent from an adversarial mind
set. It is a set of principles and practices that, when utilized, causes a
fundamental shift in people's relationship with conflict - away from
adversarial approaches toward cooperative solutions. The Common Ground
Approach - whether applied in a home in New York City, on the streets of
inner city Cincinnati, or between ethnic groups in the Balkans or Burundi -
creates new possibilities of peaceful coexistence, drawing upon the
strengths of diversity and interconnectedness.
What makes the Common Ground Approach effective is that is derived from over
two decades of practical experience - it has been created from what works.
We have found that people who become aware of the approach can begin to
apply the principles and key practices immediately in their lives.
There are five core principles to the Common Ground Approach:
1. Conflict is neither negative nor positive
Conflict isn't a bad thing in and of itself. It is the natural result
of differences between people - religious, political, ethnic, or whatever
they might be. Those differences can enrich us and can be as much at the
root of peaceful progress as at the root of violence. Dealing with these
differences constructively is a skill that can be developed.
2. Conflict can be transformed
Conflict transformation is not about ending conflict or even solving
specific disputes - the goal is to shift the way individuals, communities
and societies view and deal with their differences. What is important is how
conflict is approached, to shift away from an adversarial stance toward a
cooperative, problem-solving one. An essential step in transforming conflict
is enabling people to communicate and have accurate information about each
3. Finding common ground
Finding common ground is not the same as settling for the lowest
common denominator - it's generating a new "highest common denominator."
It's not about having two sides meet in the middle, but having them identify
something together they can aspire to and work toward. When people who
really care about an issue come together and bring their best thinking from
their various perspectives, there is the potential for new options to be
4. Peace is a process
There isn't a method for causing conflicts to transform
instantaneously - it is not something you can achieve in a single event or
by signing a peace accord - it is an on-going process of developing
relationships of mutual respect and trust. Every peace process has its ups
and downs. Making long-term commitments allows us to keep working on the
underlying causes of a conflict even during periods of increased intensity.
5. Humankind is interdependent
We are witnessing the impact of globalization on an unprecedented
scale. Current problems - whether ethnic, environmental, or economic - are
simply too complex and interconnected to be settled on an adversarial basis.
The earth is running out of the space, resources and recuperative capacity
to deal with wasteful conflict.
Although there are many practices that are useful in dealing with
conflict constructively, we have identified four that we feel are essential:
1. Distinguish between positions and interests
People naturally tend to take positions about issues, especially when
in a conflict. Underlying these positions are generally broader interests,
such as security and the well being of one's family. Interests usually
relate to basic needs, while positions are opinions about how to achieve
those needs. Positions may appear mutually exclusive, while interests tend
2. Respect each other; face problems together
By making the distinction between problems and the people involved in
a conflict, it is possible to help people shift their energies to focus on
common concerns rather than seeing each other as the problem.
3. Listen to understand
When we focus our full attention on someone with the intention of
improving understanding rather than winning an argument, it helps to create
a relationship conducive to mutual problem solving.
4. Choose your approach
While we may not always have a choice about the conflicts we find
ourselves in, it is possible to choose our response to them. Peace is
generated by the moment-by-moment choices we make in how we deal with
conflict in our relationships and community.
How do we apply the Common Ground Approach to societal problems?
The Common Ground Approach was developed while addressing societal
challenges in the 17 different countries where Search for Common Ground
works. Through this experience we developed the following operating
Make long-term commitments
Avoid parachuting - dropping into a conflict for a short visit. Use a
continuing presence to develop a knowledge base and to build networks of
relationships on all sides of the conflict.
Use an integrated approach
Work simultaneously on multiple levels and on multiple fronts while striving
for societal conflict transformation.
Become engaged in order to see the possibilities
Conflicts are extraordinarily complex, and it takes profound engagement to
start to understand them. Although we conduct assessment missions before
undertaking any new programme, we strive to remain flexible to adapt to the
changing environments in which we operate.
Be social entrepreneurs
Look for problem solvers and creative thinkers who, from a shared vision,
can develop finite and achievable projects. Continuously develop new tools
Become immersed in local cultures
Work with and build on individuals' and communities' knowledge, wisdom and
creativity. Partner with local peace builders to strengthen their ability to
transform their own conflicts.
Practice cooperative action
Dialogue is a necessary but insufficient means to change attitudes and
behaviours. Wherever possible, work with parties in conflict to help them
not only understand their differences but also to act on their
What have we accomplished?
We are committed to measuring and increasing the impact our interventions
have in the communities where we work. With this in mind, we created an
Institutional Learning and Research Division (ILR) that serves as the focal
point for coordinating program evaluations and knowledge management. To
learn more about ILR and to see evaluations of our programs, click here.
Examples of what we have accomplished include:
Supporting and advancing peace processes
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) our information-dissemination
activities are reported to be one of the critical sources of public
awareness of the peace process, helping to reduce suspicion and rumours that
can lead to violence. In the Middle East anecdotal evidence and continuous
follow-up with participants indicate that our activities have helped forge
key relationships between influential decision makers in the peace process.
In Burundi and in Sierra Leone surveys indicate that our radio programming
is a trusted and credible source of information about events in the country,
including peacemaking efforts. Such information reduces preemptive violence
resulting from fear and misinformation.
Shifting attitudes and building foundations for peace
In Sierra Leone our community outreach programme is strengthening many
people's participation in the democratic process - a key to the maintenance
of a fragile peace. External evaluations in Burundi found that the radio
programmes produced by Search for Common Ground's Studio Ijambo have changed
the way people feel about and relate to other ethnic groups in their
society. Similarly, evaluations of the interethnic kindergartens we founded
in Macedonia have shown them to have significant positive influence on
children's views of other ethnic groups, particularly during periods of
Equipping communities to prevent and resolve conflicts
Informal tracking and feedback show that many of the vast numbers of people
we have trained - 10,000 internally displaced persons in Angola, for
instance - go on to implement their new skills, establishing new
organizations or personally employing the techniques learned. In Macedonia
our evaluations show that the Nashe Maalo television series provides
children with valuable skills for preventing or resolving conflict with
their peers in diverse ethnic groups.
How do you help people in my community?
Search for Common Ground is working in 17 countries around the world,
including the United States, at all levels of society.
In the United States, we are helping communities bridge their divides. For
example, through a consensus building process, we bring political, community
and business leaders together to address important policy issues such as
health care for the uninsured. To learn more about our work in the United
States, click here: (more).
In Sierra Leone, we help link communities into national-level dialogues on
important issues through our radio programming. By incorporating voices that
represent all Sierra Leoneans, including disenfranchised groups like youth,
women, and children in our radio programming, we ensure the opinions of all
stakeholders are heard in a way that searches for solutions to problems.
We also recognize that after the events of September 11, 2001 in the United
States, security in the world is dependent on the well being of people in
all nations and the quality of relationships between nations. We have
programs that directly affect how the US relates with the Islamic world:
Partners in Humanity
Partners in Humanity aims to address feelings of mutual fear and suspicion
between the West, especially the United States, and the Muslim world based
on perceived and real injustices, extreme inequalities in political and
economic opportunity, and pervasive stereotypes. (click here for more
In response to President Khatami's call for a "Dialogue of Civilizations" in
1998, Search for Common Ground launched a program aimed at transforming the
US-Iranian relationship. (click here for more information)
Search for Common Ground openly shares all of its methodologies with
organizations working in peacebuilding activities, including the US Agency
for International Development, United Nations and other agencies involved in
How can I get involved?
Search for Common Ground strongly believes that transforming the way the
world deals with conflict starts with its own staff and its partners -
meaning, people who contribute time, resources, and energy.
We invite you to help Search For Common Ground make a difference through the
Make a financial contribution By making a financial contribution, you will
join a growing network of "Common Ground Partners" - people dedicated to
transforming how the world deals with conflict. Your donation is tax
deductible. Click here to learn about the impact your contribution can make:
(Please click here for more information)
Host an Introductory Event
Many SFCG partners host "introductory events" in their homes and workplaces
where their families, friends and community can learn about the impact of
conflict in the world, the principles and practices developed by Search for
Common Ground and the inspiring work our staff are doing around the world.
(email Phillip Hellmich at phellmich@...
Serve as a Volunteer or Intern
We welcome pro bono professional services on a case-by-case basis for our
programs based in the United States. We also have internship programs for
graduate and undergraduate students in the headquarters offices in Brussels
and Washington, DC. (Please click here for more information)
Become Educated About Conflict & Common Ground Approaches
As Mahatma Gandhi said, "You must be the change you wish to see in the
world." Ultimately, it is up to each of us to transform how we deal with
conflict. If you are new to conflict transformation, we invite you to visit
our "introduction to conflict" in our resource section. The following links
will take you to components of that section.
# Basic Facts About Conflict in our World
# Commonly Used Distinctions
# Commonly Used Terms
# Suggested Reading List
# Tips for Conflict Transformation
Thank you for visiting Search for Common Ground. We hope you will join us in
transforming the way the world deals with conflict.
Please click here to download a pdf version of this section
Search for Common Ground (Washington DC)
1601 Connecticut Ave. NW, #200
Washington, DC 20009-1035
Phone: (+1 202)265-4300
Fax: (+1 202)232-6718
Search for Common Ground (Brussels)
Rue Belliard 205 bte 13
B-1040 Brussels, Belgium
Phone: (+32 2) 736 7262 Fax: (+32 2) 732 3033