During and since the brutal presidential campaign and election, it has been very clear that America is a divided country.
With that fact in mind, I am reminded of profound words from Buddhist monk, friend and spiritual teacher Prah David.
“We are all brothers and sisters… (here is the punch line) … like it or not!”
The nation’s political divide has strained many relationships in America. How do we begin to restore those fractured relationships within our families, our circle of friends, our communities, our workplace, and yes, even our world?
The election and its aftermath have brought out a level of toxicity that is difficult to reel in. Judgment of the other took over, and self-righteousness has been elevated to new levels.
In the end, half of us celebrate the results while the other half mourns.
Before we can begin to “reach across the aisle” we must take an honest look at our own spirit and intention. There is a wonderful Cherokee legend, “The Wolves Within,” that may help us to assess where we are with ourselves:
An old grandfather said to his grandson, who came to him with anger at a friend who had done him an injustice, “Let me tell you a story.”
“I too, at times, have felt a great hate for those who have taken so much, with no sorrow for what they do.
“But hate wears you down, and does not hurt your enemy. It is like taking poison and wishing your enemy would die. I have struggled with these feelings many times.” He continued, “It is as if there are two wolves inside me. One is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him, and does not take offense when no offense was intended. He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way.
“But the other wolf, ah! He is full of anger. The littlest thing will set him into a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all the time, for no reason. He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great. It is helpless anger, for his anger will change nothing.
“Sometimes, it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit.”
The boy looked intently into his grandfather’s eyes and asked, “Which one wins, Grandfather?”
The grandfather smiled and quietly said, “The one I feed.”
Before we consider where we might begin to find common ground, we need to know which wolf we will feed. It is only the good wolf, the one who chooses to “do no harm” who can participate in creating common ground.
In the book “Everyone Communicates, Few Connect,” John Maxwell writes, “It is difficult to find common ground with others when the only person you are focused on is yourself!”
In order to find common ground, we’ve got to see things from the other’s point of view.
If you are standing a foot away from an elephant and are asked to describe what you see, you may provide a vivid description of the elephant’s trunk. Another may describe the strength of its back, while another will offer great detail about the size of its leg. The point is that unless we take a step back (and perhaps around) we only see what is right in front of us, believing that what we see is the truth. A starting point in creating common ground is to see what the other sees, and to seek to understand what that may mean to him/her. It will require that you are feeding your good wolf!
Maxwell suggests there are reasons we fail to find common ground. He offers the following:
Assumption: “I already know what others know, feel and want.” When we make this assumption, we don’t create the space for the other to change his/her viewpoint. Even with people we love, we keep them trapped inside our assumptions. Judgment undermines possibility.
Arrogance: “I don’t need to know what others know, feel or want.” I am reminded of a favorite quote of my father’s: “Don’t confuse me with the facts; I have already made up my mind.”
Indifference: “I don’t care to know what others know, feel or want.” I feed the wolf of anger, mistrust and self-righteousness.
Control: “I don’t want others to know what I know, feel or want.” In order to find common ground, I need to reveal who I am. I need to risk being vulnerable with the other. I need to share what I know in order to find common ground.
These barriers keep us stuck. If we want to find common ground, we must be willing to seek new viewpoints; to see the elephant from the other side of the room. We’ve got to be willing to ask more and tell less; to listen with open hearts and minds; and to recognize and suspend judgment in order to really know the other.
We must ask ourselves, do we believe that we are “all brothers and sisters…like it or not?” We must ask ourselves: “Which wolf am I feeding today?” Will I let go of assumptions, arrogance, indifference and control in order to create common ground that will take us into our future?
I remain hopeful. I’m in.
-Karen Vernal is the president of Vernal Management Consultants LLC, a Milwaukee-based leadership and organizational firm dedicated to “igniting the spirits and skills of leaders.” The company is one of two firms in the nation to be certified in Emotional Intelligence through the Institute for Health and Human Potential. For more information, visit www.vernalmgmt.com.