I’m a big proponent of finding common ground. I think collaboration and cooperation are the only paths forward. I was part of the team that organized One20. I’m on board with the Common Grounder philosophy.
I’m all in.
Well, I’m all in in theory.
In practice, however, finding common ground is complicated. And, truth be told, I’ve struggled actually achieving it — under certain conditions.
I find that I’m able to give grace to and have patience with people I don’t know. I can listen, empathize, and easily hold my tongue in conversations with strangers. So the idea of finding common ground with them seems doable.
Roadblocks to Common Ground
The struggle comes, for me, when attempting to find common ground with people I know — people I’ve known for years, people I’ve worked with, people I’m related to. That’s where my problems usually start.
That same patience, empathy, and ability to hold my tongue is much more difficult.
First, there’s not a neutral playing field. We have a history. As a charged conversation begins, all the demons of the past come dancing around reminding me of everything that’s ever gone wrong in our relationship before. Also very often, one of us has power or the upper hand in the situation. This is particularly true with colleagues and family members — before the conversation even begins, the existing power structure influences it. Most importantly though, the conversations/disagreements/compromises feel much heavier within a relationship. There’s something to lose, and so there’s more pressure.
When I’m in a situation that calls for finding common ground with someone I know, I often find it difficult to listen well. As they share their side, it feels like I’ve heard it before, because often I have. I see the holes in their arguments and question their interpretation of their stories because it feels like I’m already familiar with their stories. What’s worse, is as they talk, often I’m too busy formulating my response to digest what they’re saying.
The biggest roadblock to common ground with people I know is that often I’m angry or hurt. I don’t want to be in conflict with friends, colleagues, or family members. And when I am it hurts. It’s disappointing to know that someone I’m in a relationship with is on a different page than I am. It’s embarrassing to admit this, but it’s usually surprising to me to realize how “wrong” they are.
You’ve noticed, I’m sure, that much of this is my stuff. Much of this is happening in my head. And much of this can be overcome by healthy, effective communication. So, I’ve been thinking about a strategy to make common ground conversations with people I know and love, less intimidating and more productive.
How to Prepare for a Common Ground Conversation
Prepare by addressing you own biases. Before you ever begin the conversation take stock of your preconceived notions. It’s important to accept that you don’t “know” their story — no matter how much you believe you do. Be open to being surprised and learning something new about someone you think you know.
Remember you can’t find common ground unless both parties are looking for it. It takes two people to compromise. If one of you is just looking argue, you’re off to a bad start and doomed to failure. Make sure you’re setting realistic expectations based on a common goal of common ground.
Before you get too deep, acknowledge the inequity and history of your relationship. Depending on the setting, depending on the situation, this might be something that you need to do privately and throughout the conversation to keep from getting sidetracked. However, if it’s safe and comfortable to bring it up during the conversation, perhaps that kind of transparency would be helpful.
In case things get heated, lay out a few ground rules in the beginning. Pick “escape words” you can use to signal that it’s time for a break. Take opportunities to de-escalate whenever possible.
Listen like you’re talking to a stranger. Pretend that you’ve never heard his/her position before. If you feel the need to address inconsistencies (as you see them), do so respectfully. This gives him/her an opportunity to clarify and explain.
Thoughtful conversations are the most productive route to finding common ground, but they’re never simple. They take effort, patience, and respect from both parties. I’m finding though, just like everything in life, the more I practice, the easier these hard conversations get.