Because every one of us has a unique life experience we will have a unique view of life. Our personal experiences create the source of truth lens which we look through to evaluate, judge, and define what the world around us should look like. 

I have used this example in other posts, I say, “I’m sitting in a meeting and the presenter tells a joke. The person to my left is laughing their head off, the person to my right is grimacing, and I think the joke was downright bad taste. Which one of us is wrong and which one is right?” People usually take a few seconds and someone quietly says, no one. I ask them why. They usually say that’s because everyone sees the world differently. Exactly. 

In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Dr. Daniel Kahneman explains the dynamics of how our brain processes and evaluates information. Our primary brain is responsible for our basic self-preservation and survival as well as being accountable for our emotions. This part of our brain runs automatically 24/7. This means you can’t control your emotions and reactions happen suddenly. 

When you have an immediate reaction to something your source of truth lens has automatically judged something that falls outside of your belief system and you react to that statement, action, comment, or joke.  

What we believe deeply in is usually tied to a personal experience, an observation of injustice, an act of incivility, or any number of events or situations that have left an indelible mark etched deeply into our consciousness. What has the most effect on us, is negative experiences

What if we are all correct in how we see things?

In their book, The Elephant In The Brain, Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, Kevin Simler and Dr. Robin Hanson explore what we are sometimes reluctant to talk about: the selfish parts of our psyches. These are our thoughts and beliefs on social and sexual status, politics, religion, money, personal rights, fairness, and justice, all the topics that are guaranteed to trigger an argument. Simler, Hanson, and Kahneman link these behaviors, actions, and reactions to our primitive brains’ prime directive of self-preservation of not only our physical world but our belief system as well.

 So if we are all right, then who’s wrong? Why does anyone have to be wrong? Can’t we be different and get along? 

Finding common ground, 2 stories

I shared this story in the post titled, Flip the View of Ourselves – One more resolution and it bears repeating.

A friend of mine, we will call her Mary, shared an experience she had with her neighbor who we will call Adam. During the presidential elections her neighbor Adam, who lived across the street, was an avid supporter of a candidate who Mary despised. Adam had a huge sign in his front yard supporting his candidate, so Mary put signs in her yard for anyone who was running against Adam’s candidate. The very cold war began.

 One day Adam was in his front yard watering plants so Mary decided she was going to confront Adam on his choice of candidates. In the time it took her to march across the street to Adam’s house something happened. Mary told me, that instead of confronting Adam about his choice of candidate, she decided to find out what she didn’t know about Adam.

As she approached Adam, she slowed her pace, smiled, and asked Adam how things were going. Adam was guarded and responded only with “Fine.” Mary told him that she couldn’t help but notice his choice of candidate for president and was curious as to why he supported him, being very careful of her tone and nonverbal language.

Adam kept his answer very general until he said that he had a son overseas in the military and liked the way his candidate supported the military. There it was, common ground. Mary had a brother overseas in the military and shared the same concerns that Adam had. Mary said she and Adam stood there for a while sharing their thoughts and fears about that whole situation. 

They still voted for opposing candidates while developing a common ground friendship because Mary decided to ask the question, “What don’t I know?” 

Common ground story 2

When I was younger I used to shy away from asking people why they believed the way they did. I was operating from a false self-imposed assumption that if I asked why they believed in something different from me, I then would have to change how I believed. In other words, I had to agree with them no matter how I felt to avoid an uncomfortable situation. 

Years ago, my wife Lisa and I were working at the same university and an opportunity came up to go to Germany for a year or two to teach for the university on the military bases in the European theater. 

My boss Randy, picked us up at the Frankfurt airport welcomed us to Germany, and said that we needed to be ready for a culture shock. I told him not to worry, I understand that living in a different country comes with changing how we do things. True, he said, but here your beliefs will be tested and challenged every day, you are no longer an American living in America, you are living in Germany associated with the military. 

It didn’t take long to figure out what Randy was talking about. Lisa and I chose to live in the small German village of Schoop about 25 minutes from Ramstein Air Force Base. The German people were very cautious about us because we were foreigners in their small village and military personnel would cycle in and out about every two years so it was hard to form relationships. They assumed we were military because most Americans living in the villages around military bases were.  

The people of the village kept to themselves, and for the most part, we understood what it meant to be an outsider. We would walk to the market or the local restaurant and people would stop conversing and stare at us for a minute or two. 

One day I walked into the local market and stumbled through my attempt at speaking German to the shop owner’s wife. I guess she had enough of me and started to speak in broken English, I guess to get me out of the store quicker. During our brief encounter, she bluntly asked me which military was I. I told her that my wife and I weren’t military, we were teachers with a university here to work on the military bases. That one question she asked changed everything.

Her eyes widened and she said excitedly, “You are professors?”, “Well, yes, I guess you could call us that.”, I said. We stood there for quite some time talking about education. During that conversation, I realized how important education was to the people of that village and Germany in general. I asked her if she would teach me, German I would teach her English, and she was delighted and never spoke English to me again and made me speak German every time I went to her market.

Word got around the village quickly, attitudes changed toward us because we were known as the professors. Nothing else changed, all we did was discover common ground through one simple question.

Exercise | Deliberate practice 

In a perfect world, we could accept each other for who we are and how we see things without conflict or misunderstandings. How close can we get to that? 

We could start with having a dialogue about how to practice that with our staff or teams. Let’s look at five common ground assumptions.

  • Common Ground assumption number 1 – We all see the world differently.
  • Common Ground assumption number 2 – We can agree to disagree, professionally.
  • Common Ground assumption number 3 – When we disagree, we need to listen to the other person with the intent to understand their opinion or viewpoint. No interruptions, no eye rolling or sighs, let them speak. If we feel an emotional response building up, we will take 10 – 15 seconds to manage that emotion before it becomes something else.
  • Common Ground assumption number 4 – There is no expectation for us to change our viewpoints, beliefs, and opinions. 
  • Common Ground assumption number 5 – We pledge to remain curious about the people we come in contact with and ideas, opinions, or viewpoints outside of our own. This is a learning opportunity, not a personal attack.

When we find ourselves facing a personal reaction, we agree to use these clarifying questions. These questions and an inquisitive tone help to open the dialogue door to share ideas.

  • What don’t I know? You can ask this one inside your head to help you remain curious and give you 10-15 seconds to manage your reaction.
  • Can you share more about that with me?
  • What does that look like from your perspective?
  • What does that mean to you?
  • In what way do you see that differently?
  • In what ways could you apply that idea?

Try to stay away from using questions that start with how. When emotions are involved, the word how and the tone can evoke a defensive position.

  • How do you see that working? (In what ways could that work?)
  • How does that look from your perspective? (What does that look like from your perspective?)
  • How would you apply that idea? (In what ways could you apply that idea?)
  • How do you see things differently? (In what way do you see that differently?)

Also, try to stop using the word but. When you use it can nullify and contradict the previous statement.

  • I understand where you are coming from, but here is how I see it.
  • You make a great point, but here is what I found that works as well.
  • I agree with you, but when I try it I don’t get the same response.

Instead, use the word and. The word and can make a statement more inclusive or open the door to shared experiences with different outcomes. 

  • I understand where you are coming from and here is how I see it.
  • You make a great point and here is what I found that works well for me.
  • I agree with you and here is what happens when I try it, am I missing something?

As the leader, you model the way so start practicing not using the words but and how. There is no way you can erase the usage of these words, the question is can you reduce how often you use them? 

Sit down with your team and talk with them about creating a space where you can engage in dialogue when talking about topics that can cause conflict. Use the five common ground assumptions as a starting point. As a team create your own assumptions that your staff or team can practice and live by. 

There is no silver bullet, there’s not one way that works in every situation. Start somewhere and don’t do it without your team or staff, if you do, they will not feel included in the decision. When you include the people you work with, you help to build trust, and your staff members hold each other accountable if they come up with the answers, rules, or assumptions. Model the behavior you want to see your team or staff practice every day.

Does this really work?

I experienced firsthand a team of vice presidents working with their CEO to discuss how to maintain a positive culture within the organization. They created the space to have radical candor, discussed the challenges and concerns, and came up with an approach that they all agreed on. The group identified three behaviors (behaviors that were specific, observable, and repeatable) that they could do as a team to maintain a positive culture. Independent of that decision they also agreed to hold each other accountable to practice those behaviors with the entire organization. 

As a leader, finding common ground is healthy. Just because a staff member does something differently than you and gets the same or similar outcome, doesn’t mean their approach is wrong, just different. When you try to make everyone do things the same way as you, that’s micromanaging or being a dictator. Now, you may have a more effective approach to reach an outcome so be a coach leader. Ask them why they are approaching the project a certain way, give them room to explain, and then share your idea as another way to approach the project. Work together to create new and better ways to work. 

Don’t wait for tomorrow, tomorrow never comes. What you have is today and this is the best time to begin anything.