Dr Keen Mhlanga
Finding common ground within business negotiations does not imply complete agreement.
Common ground is a shareable space whose boundaries are defined by a set of actions that everyone can live with. Negotiating is a logical process for resolving disagreements and discovering common ground. When negotiations are done well, they can bring people together rather than separate them. They can lead to solutions that are smarter and more equitable than either side originally proposed.
Win/win is a concept that exists in books, but is rarely, if ever, encountered in the hurly burly of real-world negotiations, but identifying, developing, and skilfully utilising common ground can go a long way towards both parties walking away with a sense that they got a good deal.
Even so, this is not always the case. When negotiations fail (or are never attempted), it leads to conflict; people become defensive, emotional, and, in extreme cases, violent in their words and actions.
Focusing on common ground early in the negotiation will ensure a positive negotiation climate. Starting with areas of contention is almost always a bad idea because it colours the rest of the negotiation. If the negotiation becomes difficult later on, the skilled negotiator will frequently use common ground to re-focus both parties on their ultimate goal to reach an agreement.
Many negotiations, and almost all conflicts, are icebergs, the most dangerous part of an iceberg is not the visible part, but the part you cannot see. The tip of the iceberg is the part of a negotiation or conflict that is openly discussed. But there is also plenty below the surface.
Language, power and ownership, scale and timeframes, and economics are identified as four issues that have proven particularly contentious in negotiations to build collaborative initiatives. Across these tensions, there are examples of both successes and ongoing problematic practices. However, there is a growing sense of mutual ownership of the issues.
To find common ground, a skilled negotiator will ask; “What is my objective and what is theirs?”
In other words, what do we truly desire, and what do they truly desire? What are the challenges that each of us faces when doing business? Do we have the same problems? What are their long-term goals? What are ours?
There is a better chance of finding common ground if both parties are in it for the long haul. In other words, a skilled negotiator attempts to see things from the other side’s perspective. Being able to see things as the other side sees them allows us to identify common ground.
A further concern the skilled negotiator will ask is; “What alternatives do each of us have if we can’t reach agreement?”
Is it simple to walk away from a negotiation if things go wrong? This will tell us how interdependent we are, and the greater our interconnectedness, the more likely there will be common ground.
There is also the issue of unspoken common ground. What happens when, despite careful planning, probing questions, and active listening, the other side requests something we know we can easily provide?
Most of us will say; “Of course you can have that,” potentially handing over something very valuable to the opposing party. This may benefit the relationship, but it overlooks the fact that if the other side values it, surely there is something they will trade for it? The most inventive trade is one in which we exchange something of low value to us but high value to them for something of high value to us, but not much to them.
Agreeing with someone you’re arguing with may feel counter-intuitive; as if you’re giving up ground. Effective negotiators typically highlight points of agreement three times more frequently than ineffective negotiators. It is obvious that common ground is an important foundation for reaching an agreement, but how can it be discovered if no one looks for it?
When people are arguing, the areas where they agree can easily become hidden. Instead, as each person tries to persuade, outdo, and challenge the other, positions may become exaggerated.
Negative people will ignore areas of mutual interest, passing up the opportunity to recognise, learn from, and then build on them. Simply acknowledging that a discussion is stuck, without assigning blame, is a helpful way to refocus on shared principles and goals.
To create a common ground, pay attention to and acknowledge progress in a conversation. As you discuss the issues, refer to small and large areas of agreement. Be positive, rather than viewing disagreements as a predictor of failure, express optimism about making progress and reaching a reasonable resolution.
Determine common objectives, shared goals and principles are common, even when neither party approves of the other’s strategy for achieving them. When that happens, keep mentioning how much you want the same things. Listen to and acknowledge the opposing viewpoint. Even if you disagree with what they’re saying, you should always listen to them out and thank them for their point of view.
A common ground standpoint confronts us to transcend a desire to “prove our position” or “be proper”. It aids in the development of comprehension as well as acceptance that a collaborative effort is required for a successful negotiation. Common ground helps us remember and focus on our own behaviour, rather than just the attitude of others. Any agreement reached early in a negotiation can serve as a useful reference point to return to if and when you reach an impasse. It’s also a foundation that can be constantly expanded upon as you work toward a solution.
Negative thoughts are easy to form and even more difficult to break. However, for this to occur, it is sufficient for one person to begin emphasising agreement – this will give your negotiating partner the space and social cue to do the same. You will still disagree, which is fine; the key is that finding common ground allows you to reorient the conversation on the best possible outcome, rather than a stalemate or an unfulfilling victory.
Dr Keen Mhlanga is an Investment Advisor with high skills in Finance. He is the Executive Chairman of FinKing Financial Advisory. Send your feedback to [email protected], contact him on 0777597526.