How to reach agreement when there appears to be no common ground
I recently spoke with someone who was having difficulty handling people who had opposing and seemingly entrenched views. She had to help them reach agreement where there seemed to be none.
People often suggest, “Find some common ground, before discussing the differences”. True, this is good advice, but it’s not as easy as it sounds.
My tip for handling opposing viewpoints is to first focus on the process of the communication rather than the content.
For example some years ago I was faced with one of the most challenging conflict situations I’d ever encountered. My client had asked me to get about 40 disparate people to agree on the development of a policy (for the emerging industry sector they were managing) within one day. The object was to agree a new policy for the development of grain fed beef in Australia and I had all of the stakeholders in the one room – farmers, wholesalers, retailers, government agencies, the minister, animal welfare groups, etc. etc. – they all had a different viewpoint.
My strategy was to:
- split them up into 8 tables of 5 people (comprising mixed stakeholders)
- spend the first hour developing a set of ground rules on how we would run the day
- each table had to come up with their suggestions, then I ran a plenary to draw up the final list
What was happening with the process was:
- firstly the focus was on process (ground rules) not content (the new policy) for the first hour
- secondly, each table of disparate stakeholders had to work together to achieve a result – they actually built some new relationships and developed rapport where previously there was only antagonism and suspicion – they actually got to know one another better
- thirdly, the whole room could see that by being co-operative and working together, they could achieve a result
Needless to say, we got a result at the end of the day. We had the agreement on the new policy.
This focus on process can work equally well when you only have two or three people – just needs a little bit of creativity (and pre-planning until one becomes comfortable with it). I’ve used this in so many different situations and contexts all over the world and it works.
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