As expected, the summit meeting in San Francisco on Wednesday between U.S. President Biden and China President Xi did not lead to any significant breakthroughs, but it did represent an important step forward. After a period of increasing tension and disengagement, the two sides are meeting, talking and, one can hope, listening, too.

The Page Model says that stakeholder engagement begins with building shared belief. It’s the foundation for any relationship, and requires the ability and willingness to listen, not just to build a counterargument, but with an open heart and mind and a willingness to be persuaded and to change. That doesn’t mean that you have to surrender on your basic principles, but it does mean exhibiting a willingness to be open to new ideas.

During our recent world tour, in which we visited Page members and prospects in 15 cities and 11 countries, Page VP of International Peter Debreceny and I participated, again and again, in deep discussions of how business can help to rebuild trust in a fractured and polarized world.

One place where this was particularly on the front burner was in China, where the deterioration in recent years of the relationship between China and the West was front and center in all of our conversations.

In a meeting with senior officials at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, we heard a description of the seemingly intractable differences between the U.S. and China, but also an optimistic view that dialogue has been restarted in recent months, with cabinet-level meetings and the upcoming meeting of President Biden and President Xi in San Francisco. 

We also heard, in our meetings in China with several former Chinese diplomats, a fairly aggressive assertation of the China line and the belief that the U.S. and the West are at fault for all the tensions. 

In our meetings with strategic communication leaders, however, there was a yearning for continued engagement and understanding within the business community, and Mr. Xi met with business leaders in San Francisco about the “enduring friendship between China and the United States that could not be diminished by recent turmoil,” according to The New York Times.

I don’t expect business to solve the global issues between the superpowers, but I do come away from all of that convinced that business has a key role to play in reducing tensions in the increasingly polarized global geopolitical environment. CCOs are well placed to reach out to activist stakeholders and find ways to lower the tensions and build the basis for trust – an essential, yet increasingly lacking, quality in public life these days.

When we do that well, we can reduce tension and polarization and increase understanding. Stay tuned here for an upcoming blog from Mike Fernandez, CCO at Canada’s Enbridge, on approaches he’s used successfully to build shared belief and to make progress on critical issues with key stakeholders. Also, watch for more from Page on this critical topic in our upcoming research report.