Originally published in the Deseret News.
Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt tells a memorable story about being at an intersection in downtown Salt Lake City and seeing two contrasting bumper stickers. One said, “Earth First! We’ll mine the other planets later.” Another said, “Save the planet. Kill yourself.”
These extreme statements, as inappropriate as they are, convey a timely lesson — a lesson that is needed as the Utah Legislature meets, Utahns vote in their first Super Tuesday election and a competitive gubernatorial race heats up. The lesson? Seek common ground.
Common ground is succinctly defined as “shared interest.” People find common ground when they reject a world of polarized extremes and replace it with a world of mutual respect. Nearly every significant step of progress — locally, nationally and globally — occurs when people find common ground.
Utah’s recent history is rife with common ground success stories.
During the bid process for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games many environmentalists opposed the bid. Proponents of the bid worked with the environmental community to find common ground. They agreed that no events would be held in Utah’s majestic Cottonwood Canyons. Both sides unified behind the bid and Utah went on to host what Olympic broadcast veteran Dick Ebersol called “Far and away the most successful Olympics, summer or winter, in history.”
Other common ground success stories include the rebuild of Utah’s central interstate system in urban Utah, passage of the “Utah Compromise” that protects LGBTQ Utahns from employment and housing discrimination, progress in combatting intergenerational poverty, and passage of the Emery County land bill that conserved beautiful landscapes in rural Utah, while protecting the interests of hunters, recreationists and schoolchildren.
Utah has also had common ground disappointments — and sometimes failures. The unraveling of needed tax reform was a disappointment. The hit and miss with Medicaid expansion left something to be desired from all sides. The inability of the state to make meaningful progress in rural Utah economies during our longest sustained expansion is another disappointment. In all of these cases, not enough common ground was found.
I find it helpful when seeking common ground to remember the etymology of the word “common.” Community and communion are related concepts. The Latin word communis means, “shared by many.” The second part of the word compound (munis) comes from munia, which means “public duties and functions.” When we find common ground, we fulfill a public duty shared by many. Said another way, we share a responsibility to work together.
In the New Testament, Jesus converses with a Samaritan woman at a well. The well provides an old-world example of “the commons.” In those days, wells were shared in common because they met a basic human need. The common ground of Jacob’s Well brought people from different backgrounds together: a Jew and a Samaritan, a man and a woman, a messiah and a sinner. We need to find Jacob’s Wells in our lives.
When I seek common ground, I follow a simple formula. First, listen. Take time to understand another person’s point of view.
Second, out of respect for that person’s life experiences, take a step closer to their point of view. If you can’t do it out of agreement, do it out of respect. Different life experiences lead people to different conclusions.
Third, share your perspective. Ask the person to listen with kindness and care, just as you have. Invite the person to take a step closer to you, even if they disagree. Ask them to respect your life experiences.
With time, conversations build trust. Polarized extremes become less polarizing. Individual biases fade. Suspicion turns to understanding. Isolation turns to healing. Division turns to unity. Common ground leads to action. Communities prosper.
Finding common ground is who we are as Utahns. When we build understanding, we win. If we can find more common ground, we will not only create a better Utah, we will set an example for a country that so badly needs us right now.