The truth about common ground and community engagement

Common ground is something that people agree about even if they disagree about other things (Merriam-Webster, 2018). It can be an important objective of community engagement where there is strong disagreement or conflict between groups.

However, reaching common ground is not always an engagement objective. Sometimes it’s an unintentional bonus when engaging with groups with obviously opposed values and agendas.

We recently facilitated a meeting of two groups (residents and landowners) where the objectives were to present a new proposed development and understand the groups’ support for and objections to this development at a deeper level.

There was no specific objective for the two groups to reach consensus or find common ground, and in fact, given the history of the two groups this outcome seemed unlikely.

However, during the course of the meeting, something amazing happened. One of the residents shared a personal story of the negative impacts the unfinished development was having on their health and wellbeing. It was a truly courageous moment to witness and there were a few tears from those in the room with similar experiences.

One of the other group members responded by acknowledging that although they didn’t agree with all aspects of the new proposed development they understood the groups’ struggles and also wanted the new development to deliver solutions to improve the lives of this group.

The two groups had reached a sense of common ground. They had a shared level of understanding and awareness of the needs and perceptions of both sides. This outcome created an environment where there was more willingness to listen, communicate and be supportive.

When people understand each other, there can be unexpected and beneficial outcomes. In this case the contribution made by the groups provided greater insights and the client was able to move forward with their engagement in a more positive light.