Talent Empowerment
September 27, 2021

How to Find Common Ground in a Difficult Conversation

Most conflict resolution exercises fail because people focus on “winning” it all. But as Larry David, and many famed negotiators, have said, “a good compromise is one where both parties leave dissatisfied.” To successfully navigate difficult conversations at work, we instead need to focus on finding common ground by identifying our shared values and goals.

4 Steps Towards Finding Common Ground with Anyone

  1. Do Your Research
  2. Practice Cognitive Reframing
  3. Identify Your Biases
  4. Share an Agenda

Do Your Research

As conflict resolution and difficult conversations are often one in the same, the first step towards finding common ground is to show up prepared. Like many things in work and life, the more you know about the issue at hand, the better. How did this conflict come about? Where did it transform from constructive to problematic? Do you understand all the pieces and parts at play?

Dig in and ask questions to understand the nature of the problem, its history, and any possible solutions. Once you have all the information, it will be easier to see the issue at hand from different perspectives (which will come in handy as we move down this list).

Practice Cognitive Reframing

You know how you feel, but it’s important to remind yourself your initial conclusion is only one possible explanation. So rather than continuing to focus on all the reasons you “know”you’re right, it’s time to practice cognitive reframing. Cognitive reframing is a psychological technique helping you to shift your mindset so you can look at a person, relationship, or situation from a new perspective.You gathered all the facts in step 1— use those facts to put yourself in your colleague’s shoes.

Identify Your Biases

We’re all guilty of harboring biases towards other people, whether we are cognizant of them or not. In fact, research found hiring managers who have racial bias overestimate the number of offers to counter offers that a black job seeker will make for their salary. They believe these job seekers are arguing more than they are. As good colleagues and humans, though, we must work to uncovering and acknowledging our biases, helping us to see the other’s perspective better, grow as an individual, and become more successful at conflict resolution and overall negotiations.

Related Blog: 3 Ways to Help Your Team Become More Self-Aware

Share an Agenda

It’s east to get off track while having a conversation when you disagree with someone. The key is to have a strict agenda and follow it. If other non-relevant concerns are raised during the discussion, ask if you can make a note of this new topic for another time out of respect for everyone’s time. Mean it when you say this though; the add-on topic should not end up in your trash bin.

Problems that Hinder you from Finding Common Ground

Mental Heuristics

The two most common forms of mental heuristics, or mental shortcuts, we see in hinder difficult conversations are availability and confirmation biases. Availability bias allows you to believe the information readily available is all there is to the issue. Unfortunately, this is often the case. For example, a person working in sales is more likely to know about the issues concerning the sales department. But this doesn’t mean that the other department isn’t essential to the company’s success. The availability bias, in this case, might make the person prone to believing that their work is much more important for an organization’s success while overlooking the importance of other departments. Fortunately, if you do your research beforehand and put in the effort to see the other side's perspective, you should be better armed to avoid availability biases.

Confirmation bias, on the other hand, is when you seek out and over-value information that confirms your previous belief. A person with confirmation bias will only look for statistics and information which confirms their previously held belief about a particular subject. This doesn’t mean that they are inherently wrong, but if they continue to only look for information that supports their perspective, they will have a hard time finding common ground with the opposition.

Avoid Ad Hominem Attacks or "Us vs You" Mentality

Finding common ground is not about winning an argument, but finding a reasonable solution both parties agree to. While there are many forms of ad hominem attacks, we are generally referring to a rhetorical strategy where one person attacks the character, motive, or attitude of the person making the argument rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself. Direct attacks and pointing fingers or blame never drives a conversation forward, nor will it help you find common ground or help shift someone's perspective. To avoid this, focus on building rapport with the opposing side first, even if you know them quite well from years of working together. Make everyone feel at ease, practicing mindfulness before ramping up the debate.

When you set out to find a common ground your goal is to find overlapping areas of interest and concerns, helping to bring two or more otherwise opponents to the same team. You'll also avoid falling victim to echo chambers, where everyone around you simply agrees with all your points, hindering true growth and creativity. When you allow yourself to be open to challenging viewpoints, new, innovative ideas are much more likely to emerge.

Remember, finding common ground doesn't mean everyone walks away feeling like they won, but rather like opposing parties came to a fair compromise that better aligns personal and organizational goals of both sides. Finding common ground is an essential exercise in team building, focusing on the importance of empathy, creativity, and problem-solving. At the end of the day, you might not agree 100% with everyone, but understanding one another's perspectives and objectives will make you a better negotiator, team player, and overall well-rounded individual.

Nimra Khalid

Organizational Psychologist

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