Rather than trying to resolve an argument or negotiation by debating, look for, then build upon areas of common ground and potential agreement.
Agreeing with someone with whom you’re arguing may feel counterintuitive; like you’re losing ground. However, in one study, effective negotiators were found to point out areas of agreement three times more often than ineffective negotiators. It’s clear that common ground is an important foundation for reaching a consensus but if no one looks for it, how can it be discovered?
When people are in a heated negotiation, the areas where they agree can easily slip from view. Instead, positions may become exaggerated as each person aims to convince, outdo and challenge the other. Not surprisingly, people will overlook areas of common interest, missing the opportunity to acknowledge, learn from and then build on them. To simply acknowledge that a discussion is stuck – if done without blame – is a helpful way to re-focus on shared principles and goals.
Recall a disagreement in your own life (even if it was just online) where you and the other person wanted to sort things out, yet the more you discussed it the worse it became. On reflection, ask yourself: where was the common ground between the two of you?
Tips for building common ground
- Pay attention to and acknowledge steps of progress in a discussion. Refer to areas of agreement – small and large – as you talk through the issues.
- Be optimistic. Rather than seeing differences of opinion as a predictor of failure, express optimism about being able to make progress and reach a reasonable resolution.
- Identify common goals. Shared goals (and principles) are often present, even when neither party thinks much of the other’s plan for achieving them. When that’s the case, keep mentioning that you want the same things.
- Listen to and acknowledge the other view. You should always hear someone out – even if you don’t like what they’re saying – and thank them for their perspective. If that attitude is reciprocated, it can be the launching point for mutual respect and understanding.
The view from common ground
A common ground perspective challenges us to go beyond a desire to “prove our point” or “be right”. It helps to build understanding, as well as an acceptance that joint effort is required for a successful negotiation. Common ground encourages us to remember and focus on our own behaviour, and not just the behaviour of others.
Any understanding you reach early in a negotiation can become a helpful reference point to return to if and when you reach an impasse. It is also a foundation that can be continuously expanded upon as you build toward a resolution.
Bad patterns are easy to fall into and harder to break out of. For the latter to happen though, it’s enough for one person to start highlighting agreement – this will give your negotiating partner the space and social cue to do the same. You will still disagree – and that’s ok – the key is that common ground offers a way of re-focusing the discussion towards the best outcome, instead of a quagmire or an unsatisfying victory.