Making Shifts Happen: From Political Drama to Finding Common Ground

October 14, 2013

By Donna Zajonc

Donna Zajonc will serve as a presenter for the interactive seminar, “Making Shifts Happen: From Political Drama to Finding Common Ground,” at the Congress of Cities conference on Wednesday, November 13, 2013 in Seattle, Washington.

In this era of political drama and breakdown, the need to find common ground is a frequently heard cliché.  To reveal common ground means we must give up some of our strongly held views. Why is this so challenging? 

The very nature of our human operating system is based upon our desire for survival.  In order to survive, our neurological system immediately signals to us when danger is near. Consequently, our ancient ancestors, who experienced danger around every corner, had to learn to make proactive snap judgments in order to avoid being eaten for lunch. Given that built-in survival trait, human beings developed a natural tendency to trust our instincts and the way we see the world.  Not only do we prefer our own opinions, we go to great lengths to let others know that our opinions are right. This brings up an interesting impasse.  If every leader wants to be right, how will common ground ever be discovered and/or created?

Finding common ground requires us to relinquish a basic human trait - the need to be right – as well as our tendency to see the world through only our own eyes.  This self-reflection requires courage and is often challenging personal work.

In the last few decades, leadership has evolved based upon an entirely new premise: how do we transcend our differences and create practical solutions that meet the needs of the many rather than the few?  This leadership model places us squarely in conflict with our innate desire to be an independent individual.  Hence, each day in our organizations, communities and the news, there is continuous conflict. Recent Congressional battles have become so extreme that fewer and fewer issues are being addressed.  The public is wondering, “Will we ever have leaders who can work together to address our country’s challenges?”

In addition to this struggle, public leaders work in a citizen culture that can be quite confusing.  On one hand, citizens often say they want common ground yet polls say they want a strong, even heroic leader who knows the answers and how to fix our problems. If a public leader speaks about common ground, some citizens label them as weak or ineffective on the basis that they are not sticking to firm positions.

We are in a transformative era that demands a skillful approach to leadership and problem solving.  The stakes are high and the challenges are growing. 

Come to the "Making Shifts Happen" seminar at the Congress of Cities and learn how to balance the delicate relationship between holding firm on one’s point of view and knowing when and how to find common ground. It is one of the most perplexing questions of our time.  Confronting this dilemma and being open to practicing the art of finding common ground will serve us all well.  I know I am right about that!

Donna Zajonc is co-founder of the Bainbridge Leadership Center and Director of the Center's public leadership domain. She is the author of The Politics of Hope: Reviving the Dream of Democracy, a primer for transforming our political system.