Connecting on Common Ground

If I was tasked with having to find the first rule to communication, the practice above all others when it comes to connecting with people; it would be to look for common ground. That rule applies whether you are teaching, negotiating, resolving conflict, or instructing. As a speaker, I have learned that when you have too much focus on yourself, connecting with others becomes too difficult if not impossible. It was not until I began to focus on others that I began to see how you can truly connect.

It can be difficult to find common ground with others if the only person that you are focused on is yourself. How do you begin to find common ground when communicating with others? You can only understand others when you take the time to understand yourself; and to truly begin to connect you have to work to understand others. As a speaker when you can understand yourself and others, as well as, put the two together. At this point, you are not connecting with your audience on common ground.

Understand that there is no one right temperament, we have to be careful to not fall into the trap of thinking that our temperament or the way we behave is superior to others will impact our ability to find common ground with the person that we are speaking to. When we communicate with others with this thinking that we are superior, the tendency is to try to convert the other person to our temperament. This is a foolish endeavor.

We have to continue to learn how others perceive the world around them. See the world through their eyes sort of speak. This doesn’t mean that in order to connect with a person we must throw all of what we believe out the window, no that would be foolish. However, it is perfectly acceptable to understand your audience first, then when you have a true understanding of where the other person is coming from; we can begin to develop some common ground.

In a book written by Terry Felber titled: Am I making myself clear? He states that people have different representational systems based on our five senses which provide the primary basis for our thoughts and feelings. For example: if several people walked down a street together their relocation of the event would be different based on their representational system. One person who admires the car may have noticed what cars were on the road, another who loves the scenery, may have noticed the blooming of the flowers in the trees.

Each of us creates a framework for the way we process information. Felber states: “If you can pinpoint how those around you experience the world and try to experience the world as they do; you would be amazed at how effective your communication would become.”

Barriers to finding common ground

People who connect are always searching to find common ground, this is obvious because all positive relationships are built on common interest. They build on the agreement, not the opposite. If that is the case why do so many people neglect to search to find common ground and more importantly build upon it?

There are many reasons for this; however, I believe that there are primarily four that prove to be barriers to finding common ground with people that you want to connect with.

The first one is making an assumption. This occurs when you begin to believe that you know what the other person knows and what they want. It has been said that all miscommunications are the result of people creating different assumptions. Subscribing to assumptions is a real hindrance to connecting. Too often we are guilty of making assumptions about people when we make generalizations instead of observations. It is easy to label people and then see them in that light.

We should work on understanding that all generalizations are false. When a person who wants to be an effective communicator begins to put people in certain boxes it becomes more difficult for us to see that person as anything different than what we perceive them to be.

To counteract the pitfalls of assumptions, try to imagine yourself as a tailor. A tailor takes different measurements when he meets a new client, he would never assume that each person is the same. He fits each client according to that person’s attributes.

The second barrier is arrogance. This occurs when a communicator believes that they do not need to know what a person needs, feels, or wants. Arrogant people seldom meet people on common ground, the reason is that they simply don’t feel that they have too. An arrogant person feels that they shouldn’t have to put the effort to establish common ground. In their estimation, they believe that they live on higher ground than others. They don’t want to lower themselves to other people’s level, expecting others to come to them.

A secret to getting along or finding a common ground is to take into consideration other people’s feelings or points of view. Most conflicts arise from a misunderstanding when one person not knowing the facts that another may seem as important, and simply not appreciating that person’s point of view.

What can really hurt you from developing common ground is arrogantly wanting to set up a case for your viewpoint when communicating while at the same time not taking the time out to learn from the other person. As a result of this arrogance, a barrier is built between the two with little hope of finding common ground. There is really no chance of building a relationship with your audience if you do not care about them.

The third barrier is indifference. This occurs when the speaker does not care to know what the audience knows, feels, or wants. A speaker may not feel that they are superior to their listeners, but they don’t go out of their way to learn about them. They begin to be apathetic. I have found that an indifferent speaker is a lazy person. They simply do not want to put in the effort to learn about their listeners.

Finding common ground requires energy, laziness simply can not be allowed. If you want to connect with your audience, put in the effort. Ask questions about your audience, learn what they want to hear, and form dialogue based on what appeals to them. Indifference is really a form of selfishness. Communicators that are indifferent focus on themselves and their own comfort, instead of the people that they are trying to reach.

If you are having a hard time trying to connect with people because you have not made the effort to get to know them, try to care more about them, and it will become easier to find common ground.

Our fourth barrier to developing common ground is Control. This occurs when the speaker does not want others to know what they know. Finding common ground is a two-way street, yes it is important to focus on others to get to understand them. It is also vital to be open and authentic so that others can understand you.

Of course, not all leaders and communicators are willing to do this. Some leaders feel that if they keep their people in the dark they keep a measure of control, but that is not true. Secrecy spawns isolation, not a success. I find as a leader that the more that my people know what the goals are the better buy-in I can expect. This leads to getting better results if you explain the reason why and for something your audience will be able to connect with you and be able to establish common ground.

Anytime a person senses that information is being kept from them and that they do not have a part in the discussion they begin to feel like outsiders, they will begin to feel alienated. In Jim Lundy’s book Lead, Follow, or Get out of the way he includes the response of workers where leaders withheld information from them. He writes about the lamentations of these works which states: “We the uninformed working for the inaccessible are doing the impossible for the ungrateful”

Good leaders and communicators do not isolate themselves and they don’t keep people in the dark. They work on informing people, make them a part of what's going on and include them whenever possible. You can not establish common ground if you refuse to let anyone know who you are or what you believe.

How do you cultivate a common ground mindset?

Most people believe that finding common ground with others is a matter of talent. This idea that some people are just good connecters while others aren't simply isn’t true. It may be true that not all people start out with the ability to connect it is most definitely true that anyone has the ability to connect. The reason why this is true is that connecting is a choice. It is a mindset. If you want to increase your odds with connecting you have to make the following choices every day of your life.

Availability--Choose to spend time with others. Common ground must be discovered and that takes time. The typical business executive has a short attention span (about six minutes or so). Frankly, this is not enough time to create common ground; availability also requires intentionality. As a leader and communicator, you must be available to others.

Listening--Listen to your people, it's a way to common ground. Communication requires that we listen. In fact, there really is no way to establish common ground without listening to your people. The truth of the matter is that people are seeking success but really don’t know where to look. They are looking for others to find common values but don’t know how to find them. As a communicator, you have an opportunity to help them. To be successful in doing this we have to listen, really there is no way to find out what others need if we do not listen.

Question--Be interested in others to ask questions. Make it a practice in your efforts to communicate with others’ to ask questions. When you are asked to speak to a group a best practice is to ask questions about the people you will be speaking to. You can also open your discussion by asking questions. This will aid you in understanding the group's point of view. By far, the best question that you can ask is why. This question not only helps you understand people but it is an open-ended question that requires the person to give more information than a yes or no.

It can be a challenge to be outgoing or figuring out what topics to ask questions about remember the word FORM:

  • Family

  • Occupation

  • Recreation

  • Message

When we ask questions centered on these topics it is amazing how much we can learn and how quickly we can learn about a person.

Thoughtfulness--think of others and ways to thank them. When we show that we are thoughtful, it opens up ways that we can find common ground with others. To be successful in this area it takes us actively seeking for opportunities to help others. This will help others to see that you truly care and that you care about their needs. If you want to find common ground, seek to help the other person first.

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