Conflict Truths: an interview with Shamil Idriss on NPR

This article by Carrie Kaufman originally appeared on knpr.org on 5/8/2017.

UNLV Saltman Center Searches For Common Ground

Listen to the interview here!


Watch, read or listen to the news every day and you hear a lot about conflict. But you don’t hear much about conflict resolution.

How do we get past the divides in our country, in our state and city so that people are working together on the advancement of society?

That is the topic of a talk tonight by Shamil Idriss, president, and CEO of the global peacebuilding organization, Search for Common Ground.

“Sometimes I think we put a lot more into the differences that we have than are actually there,” Idriss told KNPR’s State of Nevada.

He said that the very best can come out of conflict like creative solutions to problems and the very worst as well like violence. Idriss believes the ending of the conflict depends on how the effort to resolve it starts.

“The first thing is always listening. And listening not to convince but listening to understand,” he said.

Whether it is negotiating a family argument or establishing peace between to warring countries, he said listening to understand sets up a dynamic between the parties that gets past their stated position and gets to the ‘why’ they have that position.

Idriss feels that when all sides of a disagreement ask questions about ‘why’ they will find common ground and get past positions like pro-life, pro-choice, gun control, and gun violence.

“Frame the conversation in a way that everyone feels like they’re welcome at that table,” he said.

Idriss said that doesn’t mean people should ignore their differences but they shouldn’t let the differences overwhelm everything else. His group motto is: “Understand the differences and act on the commonalities.”

Idriss’s group has worked in some of the most divided areas around the world, including Rwanda, the scene of a genocide in the 90s that saw thousands killed because of a long-standing conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis.

Idriss said when they started talking to people on both sides they found there was a lot less hatred and fear than many believed. He said some people in the government and businesses were using that form of ‘identity politics’ to foment fear. Search for Common Ground worked with leaders on both sides of the divide and journalists across the region to work to change social norms around identities.

Idriss believes the media in this country could help bridge the polarization it is experiencing. He said conversations about common ground instead of adversarial debates would make a difference. He also thinks the country needs to redefine what showing strength means.

“I would like to see much more aggressive challenging of the notion that these sort of adversarial approaches to difference actually work,” he said.

Idriss believes true patriotism and real strength is reaching out to the other side to find common ground. One way politicians could do that, according to Idriss, is by establishing relationships with lawmakers across the aisle.

The event is at Boyd School of Law and is being sponsored by the Saltman Center for Conflict Resolution. Jean Sternlight is the Michael and Sonja Saltman Professor of Law and director of the center. She said finding ways to resolve conflict is in line with how the court system works.

“We want to do what we can to train our law students and to train local attorneys for that matter but we also have a big interest, as I think everybody does or should, in events that are transpiring around the world,” she said.

She said the point of the Saltman Center is to find creative ways to think about conflict resolution, which lawyers can use even in the most mundane conflicts.