Common Ground Rules

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 RH Reality Check’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 RH Reality Check’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.

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  • paul-bradford



    All four of your ‘necessary steps’ are steps I would agree with.  Your suggestions about how find the right people is particularly good: "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."  


    You describe Third Way as a ‘pro-choice and progressive organization.’  PLCC is decidedly Pro-Life but has, as one of its two goals, the mission of "promoting respectful and productive dialogue betweenpeople with different perspectives on the abortion issue".  Whenever I discuss the abortion issue I encounter the ‘instinctive emotional response to conflict’.  I notice it in myself and I realize that I provoke it others.


    I don’t always succeed, but I’m learning to try to speak respectfully and listen attentively whenever I get involved in a discourse about abortion.  I’d love to change people’s minds about some things, but I realize how unlikely that is.  Right now I consider it a success if I can get people to consider the possibility that I’m not motivated by a desire to hurt women.  I certainly realize that Pro-Choicers aren’t interested in killing babies, making money or persuading women to make choices they’ll regret later.


    You can read more of my thoughts at my website


    Paul Bradford

    Pro-Life Catholics for Choice

  • invalid-0

    Abortion: It is a Christian abuse problem all over again

    Pro-Lifers should look at abortion the way Catholics look at symptoms of sexual abuse. Symptoms are not the problem, but a sign of deeper issue. Symptoms of priest sexual abuse include: suicide, alcohol, drug abuse, etc. Abused women, exhibit similar behaviors and often turn to abortion.

    Pro-Lifers ignore abuse of women the way Catholics ignored abuse of children. Pro-Lifers need to admit something is wrong in society the way Catholics admitted something was wrong in their church.

    Catholics blamed children for symptoms of abuse. It was double abuse. Pro-Lifers do the same.

    Christians turned their back on abuse and created an environment in which healthy children turned to suicide. Pro-Lifers turn their back on abuse toward women and healthy women turn to abortion.

    Making abortion illegal won’t solve the problem. Women will only turn to back-street abortion providers the same way abused Christian children found ways to commit suicide.

  • invalid-0

    The commonality here is simple: love of women.

    Maybe that’s obvious from the perspective of pro-choice groups who fight on the basis of women’s rights, but it’s also the fundamental basis for pro-life groups as well. As much as pro-life groups focus on the life of the child they see lost to abortion, the flip side of that concern is one of reconciliation and redemption for women who choose abortion. That’s the basis of all Christian love. It may not be clearly expressed by many pro-life groups, which I think is a critical flaw in the movement’s approach, but it’s there.

    From a policy perspective, the debate is all about the supply-side of the abortion equation, whether choices should be restricted or freely available. The common ground here is on the demand side: Why do women feel compelled to make this difficult choice? How do we love women better as a society to provide them with more choices and with a greater sense of hope about the future of their children and their family?

  • invalid-0

    The commonality here is simple: love of women. Maybe that’s obvious from the perspective of pro-choice groups who fight on the basis of women’s rights, but it’s also the fundamental basis for pro-life groups as well.

    Yes, when “pro-life” groups oppose abortion even to save the mother’s life, or in cases of rape, or tell the woman that “she should have kept her legs closed,” or hold that a nine-year-old pregnant with twins must carry them to term even though her body can’t possibly handle it—women really do feel the love.

  • invalid-0

    When I read the posts on this site, not just this post, I’m amazed at the anger that’s displayed. It’s extraordinarily juvenile and counter-productive. As if the point was not to try to create common ground, but to tear this effort down bit by bit.

    If anger is the basis of your political activism–and you need to create extreme hypotheticals to sustain it–then you’re in the company of every right wing extremist I can think of.

    You go girl!

  • colleen



    Please count me in as someone who would rather be taken out and shot than be forced to submit to what you’re calling ‘love’ in that pretentious and paternalistic post.


    The only difference between the American anti-abortion movement and the Taliban is about 8,000 miles.

    Dr Warren Hern, MD

  • invalid-0

    Again, with all these angry posts, I think the idea of looking for common ground is really pointless. Colleen, did you really visit this site just to shoot down its premise? Don’t be such a troll, dear.

    More productively, in the context of this forum, encouraging this love of women among pro-lifers (even when you find its expression terribly wrong-minded) opens up collaborative opportunities to further the interests of women in our society.

  • invalid-0

    “Christian love” has no role in creating public policy.

  • invalid-0

    Tell that to social justice Catholics and evangelicals.

  • colleen

    Again, with all these angry posts,

    My attempt at communication was sincere. I really would rather be taken out and shot than forced to endure what you call ‘love’.

    I have my own religion, my own belief systems and one of the real barriers to ‘common ground’ is the inability of anti-abortion extremists to recognize and respect the fact that other people have the right to their own beliefs and that we would rather not be forced to endure all that proselytizing with it’s unpleasant manifestations of bullying,  condescension, arrogance and hubris.

    FYI, I don’t find the expression of what you folks call ‘love’ wrong minded, I find it profoundly insincere in both word and deed.

    The only difference between the American anti-abortion movement and the Taliban is about 8,000 miles.

    Dr Warren Hern, MD

  • invalid-0

    Wrong again, colleen. I’m pro-choice and a big Obama supporter. Do you really think the folks you’re up in arms against frequent sites about reproductive health?!

    The point is that you won’t get anywhere without acknowledging and respecting the fact that most prolife folks (who aren’t politicians trying to twist the issue for personal gain) actually think that a concern for the state of a woman’s soul is the most profound kind of love there is. You can disagree with that if you want (I certainly think that legal coercion is a funny way of expressing that love), but if you can’t appeal to that love of women among those folks you won’t get half of what you want in terms of policies that support women and that expand their set of options throughout their lives.

    Your anger is limiting your options. And saying you’re sincerely trying to communicate isn’t the same as saying you’re sincerely trying to be productive. You’re simply venting. That’s inherently unproductive.

  • colleen

    Do you really think the folks you’re up in arms against frequent sites about reproductive health?!

    Perhaps you should spend some time reading the blog and the archives before you comment here.






    The only difference between the American anti-abortion movement and the Taliban is about 8,000 miles.

    Dr Warren Hern, MD

  • invalid-0

    And what if the ‘wrong’ people are in charge of looking for the “right” people? Or if the people (right or wrong) looking for the ‘right’ people have the ‘wrong’ criterion. Or if the ‘right’ people have the ‘wrong’ credibility or no credibility with the people they are claiming to represent.

    It’s a circular and useless standard, allowing for bias, cronyism, pre-determined results and any number of other pitfalls. You don’t even have to be the ‘right’ person to understand that.

    • invalid-0

      I repeat to myself, arrive correctly – I will try and to live. Here only, this most “correctly” also kills in our soul taste by a life, desire to make mad acts, to be favourite, are afraid of nothing, to struggle and win.

  • emma

    Frank, if you spend some time reading the comment threads here, it should be evident that a) there are quite a few people who identify as ‘pro-life’ frequenting this site; b) a number of them are extremists; and c) most of those people fail miserably at exhibiting anything resembling ‘love’ for women. Colleen and I have both encountered far too many ‘pro-life’ people who display nothing but mistrust of and contempt for women to take seriously any professions of ‘love’.


    Furthermore, if you wish to avoid appearing condescending, you might want to refrain from addressing the women on this site using terms such as ‘dear’, referring to us as ‘juvenile’ and accusing long-time commenters of being trollish. Otherwise, it will be very difficult to believe you’re here in good faith.

  • mellankelly1

    Sorry Frank, I’m with Colleen & Emma here… you could’ve "loved" me until you were blue in the face & I still would have terminated my very much unwanted pregnancy.

  • invalid-0

    You stay out of my reproductive health decisions, and I’ll stay out of yours.

    I see no reason why this couldn’t be possible.