Strategies for Finding Common Ground

Written by
Jim Knight

Strategies for Finding Common Ground

January 10, 2024
Written by
Jim Knight

Finding common ground is an important habit to adopt so that we can have better conversations. When we find common ground, we move beyond our differences and we communicate that we truly see someone else. In this way, finding common ground is a way to show respect. To seek what we share in common with another person, as a point of departure for conversation, is a radical act in today's polarized world. Day after day, we see people do exactly the opposite; rather than finding common ground, people highlight and obsess over their obvious differences.

All around us we see our leaders attack each other, while television programs further heighten the anger in the rhetoric simply to get more viewers to watch their programs. All the more reason, I contend then, for us to stand against the politics of rage by striving to find common ground with others, especially those who see the world differently than we do.

Fortunately, there are four simple strategies you can employ, and that were tested by many people in our study, to find common ground.

Commit to Finding Common Ground

The core belief in this strategy is that, as Maya Angelou wrote in her poem "Human Family", "we are more alike than we are unalike". Therefore, in every interaction, we should attempt to find common ground, especially with those who are or appear to be different from us. Many of the volunteers in our study reported that the simple act of finding common ground significantly increased the likelihood that it would happen.

Seek Common Denominators, Avoid Common Dividers

Another way to find common ground is to consciously look for similarities we share with our conversation partners. I have organized those possible similarities around the acronym I-CARE (Interests, Convictions, Activities, Roles, and Experiences) so that it will be easy to remember during conversations when you wish to find common ground.

Interestingly, all of the potential common denominators listed above (interests, convictions, activities, roles, experiences) can also be dividers. In situations where we have obvious differences, we need to be especially intentional about seeking common ground. The challenge is to seek what we have in common first, before we address our differences.  Common dividers, when they become personal, can deeply separate people.

Use Words That Unite, Avoid Words That Divide

Words have the power to bring people together or push them apart. To find common ground, we should use words that unite and avoid words that divide. The most fundamental word choice is to say we instead of I, yes instead of no, and and instead of but.

Using words that unite is important, but a second part of this strategy is avoiding words that carry negative emotional implications. For example, words like careless, dishonest, lazy, and unprofessional can be very divisive when directed at others — even when they are used indirectly. We must avoid such language and continually look for language that unifies.

Avoid Toxic Connections

For most of us, the connection that comes from finding common ground generates very positive emotions. We like it, and we feel good when we connect with others. We need to be careful, however, not to assume that all connections are good connections. Some kinds of connections can be counterproductive and even toxic. Unfortunately, it is easy to unite around negative things. Simply put, there are two kinds of common ground — one is healthy; the other is not. Unhealthy or toxic connection involves any kind of common ground that diminishes others.

Finding common ground holds great promise for strengthening relationships, but it will not work if it is done in an insincere way. To find common ground is to see others clearly, and then to share how we are similar. Finding common ground is a way to respect and validate those with whom we interact — especially those who hold views that are different than our own.

Finding common ground is about what we hold in common, but it is also a mutual exploration, a mutual discovery. We do it together, not to each other, and that is part of the reason finding common ground can have such a positive impact on relationships. By finding common ground, we open authentic doors to communication, connection, and meaningful relationship; we seek out what William Orville Douglas calls "the common ground binding all mankind together".


Learn more about Finding Common Ground and the other Better Conversations habits in my book Better Conversations or in one of our virtual Better Conversations workshops. You can also have an ICG consultant come to your school and/or district (in-person or virtually) to deliver the Better Conversations workshop, customized specifically for your needs.

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