What is common ground when it comes to communicating? It seems to me that common ground is as much an act of “seeking” as it is an established thing two people or parties might possess. It also seems to me that common ground is fairly essential to good communication, but that’s debatable — more on that in a bit. Knowing strategies and tactics to build common ground — assuming you want to — are essential.
Common ground is one of those things about communicating that we sort of take for granted. Though we don’t really think about it all that much, it warrants some attention. What is common ground? Better yet, what might it be?
Common ground isn’t necessarily only “agreement” or things we “agree” upon. It’s counterintuitive like that. This sounds strange, I realize. Common ground, or not-common ground, isn’t something that’s only important when we’re in certain contexts either. Common ground isn’t only important, for example, when we’re negotiating or solving problems. It’s also a trap, I believe, to see common ground only as something of an “established basic truth” of common facts and the like. Common ground is more than that. Common ground is more than that. It’s ongoing, ever-evolving, and always changing. It’s something we’re always seeking and doing as we communicate.
Common ground looks more like points of connection, things to talk about, stories we tell, experiences to identify or sympathize with, or things to do together. In other words, meaning-experiences where personal significance is drawn. Good communication doesn’t have to be about much of anything of substance at all. Common ground can be many things and goes far deeper than most people give credit for.
A quick etymological detour — our word “communication” derives from the Latin communiactionem, “a making common, imparting, communicating” which itself is a noun of action from the part-participle stem communicare (pronounced kuh-MEW-nih-KAH-ray) which means “to share; divide out; inform, impart; to join, unite or participate in,” literally “to make common.” Related is the word communis “common, public, general.”
There is a close relationship between the ideas of communicating and literally making things common, it’s how ideas spread. But deeper questions persist, so let’s get beyond the dictionary.
What does common ground look like? A legit question, as absurd as it sounds and trickier than one might think. Is “common ground” only what we agree on? No, as I said above. Is it similar or shared experiences? Does it assume we have nothing in common at the outset and common ground must be created? What assumptions underpin your idea of common ground?
I’m unconvinced that we could even collectively agree on what exactly common ground is, as basic as it might sound. Sort of ironic, don’t you think?
Common ground — whatever it is — isn’t even always good. Sometimes, common ground is just, well, things that we have in common. That doesn’t make them good. Family, for example, can be something that we have “in common” with some subset of other people but that sure doesn’t make it good. Many people are quite indifferent or even actively dislike their family or certain members of it. Common ground isn’t necessarily what you think and it’s not always a good thing.
This makes things both more complex and simplifies them, strangely enough. While we can seek common ground that is mutually good, we don’t have enslave ourselves to things we have in common with people we might not like.
Despite my reservations, I think common ground is an essentially good basis for communicating well — that is, a good goal to have — and that there’s nearly always room to establish common ground with another person.
Finding common ground with strangers — people you don’t know — is one thing. Finding common ground with people you already have a relationship with is another. With people you know, common ground can be easy and already established or it can feel like an insurmountable challenges. Plus, the consequences and parameters are much different. It can be difficult to push relationships to deeper levels. Strangers are easier, so let’s start with them.
When it comes to new people and new relationships, common ground can be straightforward and basic: What do they like? What are their interests? What do they care about? In short, what could the two of you talk about? Maybe you’re a fan of the same sports team or enjoy similar music. Maybe you grew up near one another or know some of the same people. There’s always a potential starting point and there’s no point in listing things off. Literally anything can be a basic footing of common ground when you barely know someone.
Heck, sometimes all you have in common is that you’re both co-occupying some weird space together and trying process what’s going on. For example, I once felt strangely close to this stranger from the train after we talked on the Damen Avenue I-290 overpass in Chicago after fleeing a train due to a man with a gun on the platform. We talked on the bridge and for the rest of the train ride home after the all clear was given. That’s all we had or ever will have in common. Common ground can be quick and intense. I wonder if she remembers me as I remember her.
Certainly, there are billions of other types of encounters where strangers forge common ground in much less intense and fearful circumstances. When you’re not concerned with imminent violence, it’s much easier to find nicer things to talk about and bond over. Asking questions would be my strategy recommendation. Express an interest in someone and they’re likely to reciprocate.
Interestingly, common ground with people you know well can be more of a challenge. There’s more history — more previous interactions which all went their own way.
With people you know, things are often more personal. There are rawer emotions, personal identity, and even politics of all sorts that can be exposed or at the heart of matters. Certain things may, or may not, be open for conversation.
This isn’t to say these things aren’t a consideration with strangers, but with those we’re close to, well, things are different.
After many interactions over time, we often come to know what to expect. Relationships form patterns and repeat over time; patterns of doing things and repetitions of behavior make it challenging to forge new territory. Certain interactions tend to go the same. Think again how things often go with family as an example. Patterns repeat. It can be hard to find common ground with people you know. Hopefully you have it and it’s easy, but this is not always the case. Some conversations don’t change.
Every once in a while something major can jolt any relationship in a new direction where it becomes possible for new common ground to be established.
Despite my predisposition against easy lists of communication tips and tricks, here are 4 things you can do to make common common ground.
Be curious. Ask more questions and assert your opinion less. Questions are the expression of curiosity.
Have goodwill. Common ground starts with interest in, and care for, the other person.
Listen. Listen more intently to find places to latch on and build bridges and connections.
Look for common or shared interests. The tiniest scrap of kindling can start a big fire.
Could I add more here? Sure, probably. But this is plenty to get you started.
Down this common ground rabbit hole, deeper and more confusing that most people realize, there are true some oddities about how humans communicate. Communication can be weird.
Common ground does not necessitate “agreement.” You can have some thing in common AND have differing opinions about that thing. For example, if there is someone that you’re in constant conflict at work for example, you probably don’t think you have much in common with them, but what you actually have as your “common ground” is the rocky relationship and whatever terrain you’re fighting over. Makes for confounding solutions to problems.
Commonality can come from non-commonality. Healthy disagreements can, and do, form bonds. Emphasis on healthy. Going through the fire with someone can forge strong relationships just as the right fire makes strong metal. Healthy disagreement can result in stronger bonds.
Common ground involves trying to see something from another person’s point of view which is far harder and less frequently achieved than we think. People tend to only see things from our own point of view — we’re selfish like that. But to forge something meaningful in common, you have to try to see the world how the person might see it. This is not not easy. You could even say it’s impossible, but if you want real common ground, you have to try. It’s particularly essential if connections are sought over difficult topics.
Forgiveness. If someone in a relationship needs or requires forgiveness or needs to atone for something…and that can’t be achieved, then there is little chance of common ground, I’m afraid to say. If forgiveness or atonement is required and someone won’t apologize, you’re better off cutting your losses and moving on if you can.
Last, realize that not everyone wants common ground and common ground in and of itself isn’t necessarily a desirable goal. For example, I desire no common ground with Nazis other than I would probably enjoy punching one in the face. Sometimes people don’t want common ground. Sometimes they want to win. And winning without common ground can be just fine too.
Common ground is more than you think and can be a strange path to get there. Weird, eh? Common ground, whatever it is, is certainly central to communicating well though our path to it may be rough and bumpy. And common ground, while often a good thing, isn’t necessarily. It’s probably worth working on and trying for, but certainly isn’t all you need for communication success.