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Finding Common Ground When Opinions Differ

Copyright CC Nina Paley - common ground when opinions differ

Finding common ground or agreeing?

The question of common ground surfaces when a group of individuals is discussing something where many perspectives, opinions, or views surface. In such moments, should we seek agreement, or should we seek alignment? Is there a difference?

Let’s use an example: a regulatory body is seeking stakeholder feedback on a proposed requirement or standard. They have published a document that explains the proposed requirements, and considerations and illustrates how they would apply in practice (in other words presents them in a way that public stakeholders can understand the topic they are being asked to comment on). You’ve been asked to chair a task force charged with preparing a response to the recent public consultation on international sustainability standards. Exciting days! 

You chair the kick-off meeting where it becomes clear very quickly that the group holds strong, and sometimes opposing views on the subject and the best way forward. Listening to the group interactions, you realize that it will be challenging to find common ground in the short time you have. You wonder where you should start…

For context, this phenomenon is commonly experienced when individuals get together to discuss proposed new accounting standards, ethical practices, tax regulations, and more recently sustainability reporting matters. It can, however, surface in many business and personal aspects of life.

Being clear about the goal

As simple as this sounds, it is surprisingly challenging for many meeting leaders to do. I believe the challenge stems in large part from being unclear or confused with the outcome needed. What I mean by this is being clear from the outset on whether we are seeking agreement or alignment – these outcomes are quite different. Let me explain a little more. An agreement occurs when all the parties actively agree with the specific decision made (for instance). Whereas alignment is when we support the decision of the leader/manager, but we don’t necessarily agree with it ourselves. So, it becomes easier to understand why obtaining alignment is easier (and more important) than obtaining agreement. Alignment is critical to move something forward in the face of differing views and opinions. 

Steps to gaining alignment 

There are some simple questions that can quickly spur a dialogue toward alignment:

  1. What is the direction of travel we are taking together?
  2. What changes can help us get to the destination easier and faster?
  3. How can you help in this process?
  4. How can I help us through this journey?

Direction of travel

This starts with the discussion leader or chair sharing their perspective on the key objective and priorities for the wider organization (be it an alliance, a coalition, or an organization). However, it doesn’t stop there! We must also ask for the views of the individuals themselves and do so with an open mind (meaning we listen and don’t become defensive). This dialogue helps the chair gain alignment between their views and the perspectives of team participants on what really matters.

Changes for the better

Ideally an open question on how breakthrough progress could be made sparks dialogue with the group. This might be “What could we do to jump-start this change? How would you approach it?” However, if the group is initially reluctant to open up then share one or two of your own ideas first. It is very important for the leader or chair to be open to the real possibility that ideas from others are more useful than their own.

Helping you and us through the journey

Alignment is sped up with we ask for feedback, ideas, or input on what team members need to be successful. This also allows the chair to lead by example. We can become a coach or mentor to participants that need it, and it empowers the team to provide honest feedback. This allows the chair/leader to focus on continuous improvement themselves! Very little bonds a team faster than a shared experience. This approach is a helpful one to choose during times of breakthrough change. 

Final thoughts on finding common ground

It goes without saying that eventually we all naturally run across a decision that we disagree with. That said, there is also a time and place for discussion and debate – it too must end. When it does if we cannot support the direction, then we must reconcile that within ourselves. The alternative is that we may well need to move into a different assignment or organization. It may sound harsh, and it is. However, an organization must find common ground and align if it is to remain viable. Otherwise, it will pull itself apart as individuals pull in different directions. 

Your turn

Sign in to the Community Member Area or comment below to share your views on the best ways you’ve experienced, or seen, for teams to gain alignment.  

Give it a try!

Cartoon credit: Nina Paley

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