Polarization and conflict seem to be everywhere these days, and the workplace is no exception. When you spend a great deal of time with colleagues and managers, chances are that some conflicts are going to arise. Whether it’s disagreement on the best course of action to solve a thorny project issue, or a bigger-picture conflict over the direction of the company, finding common ground can be a challenge.
That may be why a 2019 report from online education company Udemy found that the No. 1 soft skill workers need is conflict management skills. The report says that we spend about 2.8 hours per week resolving conflicts, so we’d better be good at doing so.
“What I see at the moment is a lot of reactive, ego-driven behavior,” says mediator Louisa Weinstein, founder of the Conflict Resolution Centre, a mediation and training company. Of course, the behavior is most obvious in politics, but it also makes its way to our interpersonal relationships, she says.
If you’re at an impasse with a colleague, there are a few ways to approach finding common ground. Try following these six steps:
Assess the obstacles
One of the first questions you must ask yourself in trying to get to a place of agreement is what’s standing in your way, says Garriy Shteynberg, PhD, an associate professor of social psychology at the University of Tennessee. Is there some hidden agenda or reason that the other party would not want to compromise or try to get to a place of agreement?
“But there are cases in which people are motivated to disagree,” he says. “It’s not like you’re looking for common ground with a person that believes something opposite of you. Many times, what you really want is to cement your part as an identity. And that requires disagreement, actually not agreeing.”
If those types of dynamics exist, you may find yourself routinely in conflict, and it may be more difficult to find shared values and agreement. If that’s the case, you may need more third-party intervention or ground rules for engaging with the other person.
Know your top and bottom lines
Finding areas of agreement is a form of negotiation, Weinberg says. So, it’s helpful to understand what you want the outcome to be. “‘Actually, what are my top and bottom lines? What are my walk-away points? What are my alternatives?’ Start to think creatively about not just, ‘How do I get my way?’ but, ‘How can I create something good out of this situation?'” she says. This kind of scenario exploration is often overlooked by people in conflict, she adds.
Choose the right time and place
When you’re working toward consensus, it’s best to be calm. So, if you’re upset or irritated by a disagreement or comment, take some time to cool off, says Gina M. Weatherup, founder of Chantilly Mediation and Facilitation, a workplace conflict resolution firm.
When you’re planning a time to discuss the matter, to the best of your ability, allow enough time so the meeting isn’t hurried. If possible, choose a neutral location or opt for a change of scenery, like a coffee shop, or even a conference room, rather than someone’s office.
Preconceived notions can be the enemy of progress when people are attempting to find common ground, says Jaime-Alexis Fowler, founder and executive director of Empower Work, a firm that provides counseling and support for workplace issues. Work on shedding what you think you know and become curious about the other person’s beliefs, values, and other motivating factors. “When we’re holding onto that perspective really strongly, we often forget to ask questions or get curious about why someone else also feels strongly,” she says.
Weinstein agrees and suggests putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. Ask each party in the disagreement what they really want, and try to listen to what they say. But also watch for visual cues or clues about what they may not be sharing. “What I say I might want to begin with may not be actually what I want. It may just be a way of showing you that I’m strong,” she says. Sometimes, people just want to feel empowered, heard, or valued.
Also, getting to know your colleague on a personal level—including interests, details about family members, hobbies, etc.—can also help interpersonal communication and collaboration, by creating a stronger connection.
Determine the type of disagreement
People typically have three types of disagreements, Shteynberg says. One is a disagreement on values, and another is a disagreement about what is good. Increasingly, the third is a disagreement on basic facts. It’s important to know the common ground you’re searching for first. Are you trying to align your values in the decision? Are you in disagreement about the actions that will create the best or most successful result? Are you even in agreement on the underlying facts in the first place?
As you ask more questions and have discussions, the type of disagreement may be clearer. For example, if you’re arguing that the best way to increase profits is to buy cheaper materials, but one of your colleague’s primary values is providing the best possible quality, you’ll likely have a different discussion than if your colleague doesn’t believe that profit margins need to be increased at all.
Bring in the right parties
If you continue to have trouble finding common ground, you may need to bring in a third party to help you navigate the situation, Weinberg says. Having an objective party in the room can help you defuse tension, get your points across, and identify areas of agreement.
“Mediators are kind of sorting boxes with a sorting box and will help you put the right thing in the right compartment so that you can then address it and prioritize it,” she says.