Q&A: Common Ground and Peace-building

shamil idriss conciliators guild

Shamil Idriss is the President and CEO of Search for Common Ground, an international non-profit whose mission is to transform the way the world deals with conflict: away from adversarial approaches toward cooperative solutions.

The philosophy of his organization is that owing to our human differences conflict is unavoidable, but also represents a chance to work towards new and mutually beneficial perspectives. On that basis, Search for Common Ground works to generate new visions of the future for conflicted parties that meet their deepest needs, concerns and values.

Shamil Idriss is also on the advisory board of The Conciliators Guild. We spoke with him recently to find out more about his unique approach to mediation.


You’ve been President of Search for Common Ground for a few years now. Can you tell us about your main priorities in peace-building, and where you think you can make a difference?

We have three priorities. The first, which is the vast majority of our work, is holistic, on the ground, top-down, bottom-up, peace-building. All of that is locally-led with long term engagement (ten to twenty years or more). We’ve determined that we want to apply that approach to the most consequential conflicts. These are the ones destabilizing entire regions, or the world at large and that, if transformed, could have a far-reaching stabilizing effect well beyond any one country’s boundaries. We’ve identified 11 priority conflicts that we’re working to position ourselves in to make a difference.

The second area for us is to popularize the common ground approach beyond where we have a physical presence. There are three tracks we are pursuing in this regard: First, working to elevate public awareness and build a public constituency for citizen-led peace-building through campaigns in coalition with other organizations. Second, we are experimenting at the intersection of interactive technologies and peace-building, beginning with the field of virtual exchange. Third, we are pursuing strategic partnerships with institutions outside the peace-building sector, such as leading business schools, with which to incorporate the common ground approach methodology.

The third and final priority is advocacy and policy influence – identifying those areas where on the ground experiences from a diverse set of conflict settings could be relevant for influencing policies and providing policy-makers a broader array of options to deal with conflict beyond sanctions, military engagement, and after-the-fact humanitarian aid.

Search for Common Ground’s very name is powerful because it describes the mission clearly. What is your understanding of ‘Common Ground’ and your experience of how it is achieved?

Part of why I like the name of the organization is because the word ‘search’ represents an ongoing and continual process.

There are two elements to the term ‘common ground.’ One is static, the other is dynamic. The static aspect conveys that common ground always exists – it is there waiting to be found and built upon. One of the things that we’ve found in every conflict setting, especially the most violent and dire ones, is that traditional conflict assessments can oftentimes lead to hopelessness and cynicism. We take more of an appreciative inquiry approach where we don’t ignore what’s going wrong – because you can’t anyway, it’s so overwhelming in places like Syria and Yemen today – but we also look for signs of hope and efforts of individuals in different walks of life that make a difference. And where we find those we try to elevate and invest in those.

So, common ground always exists even in the most dire situations. But oftentimes you won’t see it unless you’re looking for it. That requires choosing to be hopeful from the very beginning – which is different from being naïve.

The dynamic element of common ground is that it gets generated. It gets built upon and expanded based on a process. And that process begins with choosing to hope.

We try and base all change on the individual transformation of relationships through the building of trust. One of the ways we build that trust is to always be seeking opportunities for practical cooperation – not just discourse – even if the only way to get cooperation in a conflict setting is through seemingly irrelevant pursuits like soccer tournaments – because trust has been too eroded to enable dialogue and cooperation on more substantive matters. But over time if you can build those relationships, and the trust and cooperation can deepen, you can begin tackling some of the root drivers of the conflict.

All of that has to be locally driven which is why we build and invest heavily in local teams that themselves – collectively – represent the stakeholders across the dividing lines of the conflict.

The last element of building common ground is always seeking to do it in a way that creates enduring change where an element of it becomes either institutionalized – so reflected in the policies and practices of institutions; commercialized – so reflected in local market dynamics; or popularized  – so reflected by a shift in social norms.  These are the key catalytic thresholds that enable sustainably scale-able change.

At The Conciliators Guild, we put an emphasis on the role of the human factor in politics. It is not often that we use the term ‘human’ in relation to the political field. What is your understanding of that factor, and how has it played out at Search and in peace-building there?

I think the human element is the all-important building block. All of the change that we try and drive is based on the premise that change is made by individuals. What motivates individuals to become either champions for change, or to begin modeling a different way of doing things, is entirely about understanding human emotion and motivation. It is a really critical factor. We’ve seen beyond-the-pale characters, or people assumed to have nothing but rapacious or evil instincts, take a genuinely constructive pathway or new approach when offered it. Intransigent, adversarial or even violent approaches are often the result of a lack of creativity and imagination or even the feeling that seemingly powerful actors have of being trapped without other options.

I was very excited when John Bell told me about what you’re doing in this regard because it’s not a stretch at all. It’s pretty fundamental. From our perspective, from the work that we’ve done for almost 40 years now, it’s obvious. But it doesn’t necessarily translate in an obvious way in policy circles. We can see this today with regards to violent extremism. There’s very little conversation in policy settings, for instance, about the emotional lives and needs of young men. There are all kinds of exploration about what drives extremism at the political and economic levels. Oftentimes the social factors get ignored but increasingly people are getting to recognize the social and cultural factors – and not just the political and economic.

On this particular question of extremism, one area that really gets less attention than it should is a certain dimension of gender. When gender is taken into account it’s almost always about how women can be effective or helpful in preventing men from perpetrating violence. There’s very little exploration and understanding of men’s emotional needs that are present and often quite powerful across a wide diversity of cultures and contexts and which too often manifest in highly adversarial, violent, destructive, or misogynist attitudes and behaviors. Or what that means for policy interventions that could, for instance, offer pathways for young men other than violence.

The Conciliators Guild is working to shine a light on hidden motivations behind political actions – ones that can be spoilers if they are not identified and mastered. Our view is that this very process can help in the prevention of conflict, or in finding resolution. Search also has a history of working on “conflict transformation” (as opposed to conflict resolution). Do you see a link between these approaches?

Our basic understanding of conflict is that it’s not something to be avoided, eliminated or even prevented. If we divorce conflict from the connotation of violence, we understand that conflict is a very natural thing. It’s the natural existence of difference and the friction that gets caused when those differences come into contact with one another in communities. We see that conflict is at the source of a lot of great breakthroughs. The best ideas and solutions tend to come from differing perspectives being integrated.

So, our perspective on conflict is not so much that you bring divided parties together so that they might come to a compromised solution or a watered-down lowest common denominator. Instead, through the right kind of process, differing perspectives can generate a highest common denominator that didn’t exist before. It’s one that they would have not been able to discover, or even think imaginable, until they actually engaged one another across the dividing lines of perspective or lived experience.

For us, it’s about transforming conflict from a negative and even destructive force to embracing it and being able to channel it for its positive potential, which we see as vital to human progress.
We often talk about building up a ‘lingua franca’ in conflict resolution and peace-building, a common understanding of how human beings work, and the effect of that on politics. How do you think that that might relate to the search for common ground?

It is very difficult to get people to agree on terms in a lot of fields. As valuable as it would be to have agreed-upon terms, what would be more valuable is to say: whatever one wants to call it, and however consistent we may, or may not, become with our terminology, there should be an understanding and a capacity to talk about the human element – including the emotional factors that are so influential in driving how conflict plays out.
Will we be able to get terminology that everyone agrees to that describes this or that factor? Perhaps. And that would be great. What the lingua franca would be that would allow that? I don’t know.

Some of the political bureaucracies that had been traditionally so uncomfortable with religion, like the UN and EU, have really just started to develop a capacity to think and talk about religion, the role of religion, and how one engages religious communities. They haven’t necessarily forged any common terminology, but there is a growing literacy about religion and religious communities and smaller pockets of resistance within them that fight back every time someone wants to discuss religion. People increasingly see that this is an important, mobilizing, force in society that needs to be understood – and not avoided like it’s not there.

I’d love to see a similar shift around the human factor, generally, and the emotional elements especially, even if we fall short of agreed upon terminology.

Have you seen how emotional motivations affect conflict either positively or negatively? How does Search address these issues today?

It plays out in very obvious ways when you’re on the ground. For instance, all change is going to be threatening to someone. Because, no matter what the status quo, someone has reached a level of comfort, or is benefiting from the status quo. And not necessarily in a rapacious way. You have to think: who loses if someone else wins? Or who will see themselves to be the loser? This comes out in every kind of engagement that seeks to drive change. If you’re supporting efforts to expand women’s role in the public square for instance, or expanding women’s political participation, there are no places that I can think of right now where Search has done that kind of work where we haven’t invested substantially in efforts that seek to popularize notions of what you might call positive masculinity – i.e. that there are ways of being an honourable and respected man in society when women are also playing a greater role than they may have traditionally. That’s all about our teams on the ground understanding that any change has to be embraced and championed in a broad way. Change comes faster and is more sustainable when people who might see themselves as losing – in this case, traditional male leaders – begin to see themselves in that future reality with their interests and dignity protected.
So, with any effort at change that our teams are driving, they’re always looking to see how this could be developed in a way that people, broadly, across various dividing lines can feel like they can all win.


“there should be an understanding and a capacity to talk about the human element – including the emotional factors that are so influential in driving how conflict plays out”

At the more tactical level we use virtual exchange programs to connect young Americans or Europeans with their peers in Muslim majority countries for small-group dialogue that lasts for several weeks. We had a partnership with a neuroscience lab at MIT, and now at the University of Pennsylvania, to gauge the impact of this programming. Some of the young participants in this dialogue come from conflict zones and/or see themselves as being on the negative side of power dynamics in dialogue. Many participants from Muslim majority countries enter these sessions anticipating that the Americans and Europeans with whom they are about to dialogue will not listen to or understand them.

One of the things that our neuroscience partners helped us to identify is that there’s a critical threshold that young people have to cross in order to become more constructive and open engagers in cross-cultural dialogue – especially those coming from disempowered communities: that the key threshold is not the experience of saying something and then having other people agree with you. That’s actually irrelevant. The key is to have the emotional experience of being heard and respected, while being disagreed with.

So, a participant may say something like, “I don’t think the September 11 attacks happened in the way portrayed. I think Israel and the US were somehow behind it.” Maybe everyone disagrees with them. But instead of shouting them down, their interlocutors will listen to them and ask them questions: “Why do you feel that way? Have you had experiences that lead you to think that? I totally disagree with you, I’m even a little bit offended, but I want to understand where you’re coming from.” And vice versa with some of the non-Muslim American and European participants, when they say, for instance, “I think your religion is violent,” and the Muslim participants disagree but maintain their respect for them and then engage in a conversation about it.
What the neuroscience tells us is that’s the critical threshold. After that happens, and they have the experience of being heard and respected, even when nobody agrees with them, they become much more willing to ask questions, more willing to engage in self-criticism, more able to acknowledge what’s happening in their own communities that feed the divisions, and more willing to seek areas of cooperation.
Our intention at The Conciliators Guild is ‘getting the word out’ as broadly as possible, but especially with policymakers regarding how these hidden motivations play out in our politics, and how we can attend to them. We do this through workshops and training courses as well as through ‘The Guild’, an association of practitioners dedicated to working more constructively on international issues. How do you think that a greater understanding of the most fundamental factor in politics, the human being, can be worked on in the future, whether at CG or at Search for Common Ground?

I think there are two hurdles to overcome.

One is just gaining the understanding that these factors are important. One can gain that through credibility enhancing testimony when you have some of the people who supported very high level negotiation work like Jonathan Powell, Billy Ury, or Lakhdar Brahimi speaking to the base level emotional human factor that ultimately became critically important to a peace agreement being reached. The credibility of the neuroscientists at MIT and UPenn was very helpful to us when we did a presentation with people from the White House and State Department. Before then-President Obama announced the first dedicated fund for virtual exchange, one of the key things we did for that audience was given these neuroscientists a platform to speak about the impact – and why this impact was had. I could have said the same thing from our own experience but coming from the scientists made it more credible.

The second hurdle for policymakers is that even when they understand that something is important, it can be challenging to see how that can be translated into policy terms. That can be very hard especially with regard to something considered “soft” like emotion that feels so situation- and person-specific. To be able to boil it down from the ‘aha moment’ is somewhat easy to accomplish because once you actually talk it through, with lots of examples, this stuff is actually pretty self-evident and obvious. People listening make it personal and see it operating in their own lives. Being then able to boil it down from that to “…and therefore from a policy perspective we need to do this…” is a lot tougher.

I think both these hurdles can be overcome and the Conciliators Guild could play a critically important role in driving this.

Shamil Idriss is the president of Search for Common Ground and is on the advisory board of The Conciliators Guild.