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Our Core Principles

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Over the past 25 years, we've come to recognize underlying principles for dealing with conflict constructively. These are not principles that we've invented. Rather, they've been revealed in the process of doing our work, and their truth and validity have been tested. They are not unique to us - in fact some of them are widely used in the conflict resolution field as a whole.

We have identified five core principles, and our intention is to share them as widely as possible, in the hope that they might help to shift how people think about and deal with their differences.

Conflict is both normal and resolvable

One way to look at it is that we live in a world of differences - of ideology, belief systems, ethnicity, social and cultural values, whatever it might be. These differences are completely natural. They're not something that we're going to be able to banish or get rid of, nor would we want to - in fact; it is these differences that enrich our lives.

What is important is how we deal with these differences.

One fundamental distinction we make is that conflict and violence are not synonymous. Violence is not an inevitable consequence of conflict. As human beings we have an instinctive, emotional response to conflict that is often based on fear. When this reaction consumes our reason it can lead to violence. On the other hand, when differences are acknowledged and approached in non-adversarial ways, such as by looking for common interests, they can lead to progress.

A leader of the South African liberation struggle put it best: "Understand the differences; act on the commonalities."

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.

One of our basic beliefs is that dealing with conflict constructively is a skill that can be developed. This is where we focus our work. We are constantly developing ways to empower people to make that shift for themselves. Much of what we strive for is to create an environment in which people feel sufficiently safe and empowered to make positive choices about how they deal with conflict.

Common Ground is not about compromise

Finding common ground does not mean settling for the lowest common denominator. It's about generating the highest. Often when people disagree, eventually they have to meet in the middle and everyone has to compromise. What we're talking about is creating a new, "highest common denominator." Not having two sides meet in the middle, but having them identify something together that they can aspire to and are willing to work towards.

When people care passionately about two sides of an issue, there is usually something of value in each point of view. People's underlying interests, concerns and values tend to be much broader and less polarising than their negotiating positions. When we look from this perspective, the truth of each competing point of view can be appreciated and creative options can be generated that benefit all.

We believe that finding common ground and taking a non-adversarial approach to social change leads to the most sustainable and most effective solutions, and brings along the largest sectors of society.

Conflict can be transformed

We are working to transform the way people deal with conflict - so that it is no longer a source of violence and discord, but is instead used as a catalyst for progress.

At Search for Common Ground, we are not trying to end conflict, to prevent it, to mediate, manage or even resolve it. We are not a conventional conflict resolution organization that tries to resolve conflict in discrete pieces. We do include those things in our work as appropriate - there are times when mediation or negotiation is needed and useful - but these are usually applied to very specific problems. Our goal is much broader: to transform the way communities and societies view and deal with their differences.

Transforming conflict can be as simple as reframing a situation - creating a new context in which people attack problems, rather than each other. The perception of a situation can be shifted so that both sides are working together on a common problem, rather than seeing each other as the problem.

Conflict is commonly dealt with as though the outcome has to produce clear winners and losers. Such a you-or-me approach is usually short sighted; it doesn't take into account that the people involved still have to co-exist after the conflict is ended, no matter how unhappy and unsatisfied they are.

A more practical and constructive response to conflict is to approach it with the goal of engaging as many of the people involved as possible in creating cooperative, mutually beneficial solutions. This you-and-me approach takes into account the long-term needs and well-being of all those with a stake in the outcome.

Peace is a process

There is no instant method for causing conflict transformation - it is a process, not an event. It must be created over time.

To really shift a conflict situation it is necessary to make a long-term commitment to working in partnership with local people from various sectors of their society. It requires a process, and that process holds great power. Once people show up and participate in a process that has integrity, they tend to find each other's humanity and break down the stereotypes that divide them.

Some practices for successful peacebuilding are:

  • Understanding where people's perceptions are coming from - their fears, hopes and concerns - rather than trying to change their perceptions to fit your sense of reality.

  • Actively listening for what everyone's deeper interests are, and actively speaking to people's highest place, whatever that may be.

  • Demonstrating with one's actions the values of the process - values such as inclusiveness, tolerance, mutual understanding and respect.

  • Supporting processes that improve the quality of life and support just and sustainable peace for communities as a whole.

Humankind is interdependent

The world has changed radically in the past 100 years. We are witnessing the impact of globalisation on an unprecedented scale. Increasingly we are becoming enmeshed in global systems of economy, security, environmental protection and health.

We can either be paralyzed by the threats that many perceive in this globalization, or we can approach it as an opportunity. We view it as the latter, and a key determinant of our ability to maximize this opportunity will be how constructively we are able to deal with our differences. Whether we like it or not, we are all in our own way members of minority groups that need to be able to get along with the majority of the people in the rest of the world.

One of the most pressing issues currently facing us all is - how do we go about creating a safer, saner, more secure world? In an increasingly interdependent reality, the way we resolve this question is becoming more and more central to our shared future.