Negotiating Common Ground

by Sebastian Herweg

Learn how negotiating parties can find and create common ground in any negotiation.

Contract law stipulates that prior to any agreement, the positions of the negotiating parties is one of zero interest for all participants. There will be a stage when the parties chose to enter into a agreement because they have discovered that the other party has something of interest to offer - whether it be money in return for a set number of work hours a week or, two or more concessions to be traded. As the negotiating parties overcome their zero interest positions and begin to pursue their interests, they need to determine exactly what will be discussed and what will not be discussed. This is frequently referred to as establishing common ground, finding a shared interest or shaping and framing. If common ground is not established, negotiations will be difficult and unfocused. The likelihood of the parties invoking their BATNA's becomes a very real possibility.

Various authors on the subject have observed that the establishment of common ground is some of the most critical time spent in any negotiation. The establishment of common ground assists in developing a focus, and at the same time develops an atmosphere of certainty. To emphasize this point, one simply has to consider the conditions of uncertainty. Most people normally experience anxiety and fear in these circumstances. It's quite obvious.

Another benefit that arises from finding common ground is that it is much easier to maintain a focus on the real issues. On the opposite side of the coin, there is a tendency to concentrate on an array of issues which might help in translating the lay of the land - the one thing that has not been firmly bedded down. This may have lead to negative productivity that has repercussions on the bottom line, whatever that may constitute.

Finding common ground is not just for 'negotiators'. Many features and types of negotiation can be found in many life situations and disciplines. It is reasonable that the concept of common ground is, at least in theory, as pervasive. It would appear that in some manner or other everybody strives to find common ground.

Some of the terms which are often used in conjunction with common ground are framing and shaping. It is not just 'negotiators' who frame, shape and seek common ground. Just look at any project management, multidisciplinary academia and any number of other related scenarios. The seeking of common ground is a basic normal practice. However, mastering the art of common ground is more difficult.

Finding common ground normally occurs at the opening phases of a negotiation. The negotiating parties will devote time to flesh out what needs to be discussed, the location where it will be discussed and even where the parties will be seated. Simply put, if you are trying to find answers to questions such as"Why are we here?", "What do we agree on?", "What is keeping us apart?", or, "When shall we deal with this?", then you are likely dealing with common ground in some form or other. Don't let this opportunity to find common ground slip away from you!

Common Ground in Other Disciplines

Project management theory advocates that any work that is to be conducted must entail the creation of a shape and a frame of reference. Where you to ask any project manager about the biggest headaches in their field they will invariably reply - 'scope creep'.

Scope creep is, as the name suggests, a change or expansion of focus. It frequently occurs because work has not been sufficiently described or the client believes that certain aspects of the planned work are misaligned or fail to address any new concerns have risen. If any project is to be managed effectively, there has to be a tight reign kept on any changes, or else the project will soon veer off course. Even by adding a single days' length to any activity noted on the Gantt chart can have significant cost and delivery ramifications.

Academia contains a host of fields of knowledge, research and practice. In every field there are usually several sets of functions that concentrate primarily on a number of particular specialisations. Geography, for example, has geomorphologists, climatologists, meteorologists, human settlement geographers, environmental geographers, cartographers, social geographers and the list expands everyday. Contained within these disciplines there may exist a variety of prevailing views or theories that describe particular spatial and temporal interactions.

Academics in many fields have spontaneously designed common ground for the areas of study under consideration. This is performed through the development of a common language or a vocabulary that relates to particular ideas that are dissimilar from one another e.g. alluvium - the sediments deposited through time by a riverine environment and colluvium - the sediment that slowly through time develops at the base of a hill or mountain having been expose to weather and erosion on site.

The language used relates to ideas or interactions that are known and for which consensus exists. Having reached a common consensus the various parties can move forward to create a new language and solve and describe an ever greater scope of interactions.

Many academics understand numerous vocabularies. A cartographer for example, might be asked to create a map for a geomorphologist or a settlement geographer. The cartographer must be familiar with both vocabularies as this would have to be consistent with their understanding of the vocabulary in their own field. It is equally possible that the cartographer and the geomorphologist might have to create a new vocabulary to suit their problems and solutions. By achieving this, they have created an 'opportunity of becoming' together. A common vocabulary keeps the various parties involved on the same page or to create, find and model solutions.

As a further illustration, imagine the challenge faced by academics and project managers involved in the goal of the Manhattan project, the creation of the atomic bomb. A variety of skills in a large number of fields had to be aligned over a period of time until the perceived fruits of that horrific project had been brought to bear.

It was through the creation of critical terms of reference and vocabularies that common ground was realized. It is vital to note that none of the skill sets involved in this project had the wherewithal to pull it off successfully alone. The negotiating parties involved did not claim value but created it together through a strictly managed and agreed upon set of principles.

There are many techniques which help create shared aspirations and the management of difficult parties and interests through the process of basic framing and shaping. More importantly than the techniques is the realisation of the spirit and the existence of the process within most fields of human endeavour, without which many human efforts would not have succeeded.

To earn is not to receive
To earn is not to take
To earn is to become.

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