Milky Way

Questing for Common Ground

January 2010

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When I lived in Santa Fe, NM in the 1980s, I worked for a short time for an organization called The Trinity Forum, whose mission it was to help people on opposite sides of a political issue to find common ground, and use it as the basis for dialogue. My job included coordinating conferences, taking care of the logistical details, and following up with program evaluation. I learned a great deal.


One of the conferences I organized was a dialogue between various factions in the Nicaraguan war between the Contras and the Sandanistas. Participants included a Sandinista representative, a Contra leader, and two US ambassadors of opposite political viewpoints. The dialogue was mediated by Dr. Merle Letkoff, Chair of The Trinity Forum Board and a professional conflict management consultant.

Despite the sharp differences between participants, they discovered a common desire for democratization of their country, and agreed on several parameters by which movement toward democracy could be measured, as well as several key issues that would first need to be addressed before a genuine democracy was possible.

Although the discussion became rather heated at times, and at the end of the dialogue, fundamental differences remained, all participants agreed that they had gained a better understanding of the interests and positions of the other parties, and that it was helpful to identify key issues, even if agreement about addressing those issues remained somewhat elusive.

Through my minor role in this process, I learned that the more common ground one can find with those on the other side of any fence, the less potential there is for violence, and in fact, the more potential there is for radical creative breakthrough and unprecedented cooperation toward positive ends.

I have seen this work in the Pacific Northwest, when environmentalists and loggers explored their shared interest in sustainable timber management practices; in negotiations between Greenpeace and Home Depot, when a market for sustainably harvested timber was created, cultivated and supplied through the cooperation of former adversaries; and here at home, when members of my own land cooperative – often at odds with each other over common-land management decisions large and small – banded together seamlessly for two days to cut our way out of a forest in chaos.

More recently, I have experienced this in my sometimes difficult relationship with the horse logger I have hired to log the salvage timber on my property. The relationship has been difficult, in part, because it is happening much more slowly than I had anticipated, and I am having to be more patient than I am used to being.

For example, one day, B___ was supposed to return for another round of work, but failed to show. I called him, and discovered that he couldn’t come because his brother-in-law’s pacemaker had failed and he needed B___’s attention at the hospital. B___, himself was sick with a bad cold, made worse by frigid weather.

Though disappointed, I felt a twinge in my own bruised ribs (see last post), and simply sighed. We all – it seems – had fallen down, fallible humans one and all. “OK, then,” I said, “I’ll see you when I see you.” B___ also sighed, then said, “Thank you. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

As I enter more deeply into my Mars-Pluto portal, I cannot help but feel that something more important than my own small interest in completing a logging operation is at stake here. It’s not about the agenda, I’m thinking now, so much as it is learning to become more fully human, and to exercise more intentional compassion toward every enemy, real or imagined. I know that tomorrow I will forget, but today, it seems the answer to my question: “How can I more effectively deal with those who feel threatened by my words, or my actions, or simply feel some need to oppose me for whatever reason?”

The last post in this series is From Violence to Compassionate Strength.

To read more blog posts, go here.