The Negotiator Magazine

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Negotiation: Common Ground

Sebastian Herweg (South Africa)

Contract law holds that the positions of two parties prior to the existence of an actual contract, is one of zero interest for all participants. At some point two or more parties entering into a contract will find something of interest in the offerings that the other party has; be it money in return for a set number of work hours a week, or, two items of a perceived value being traded. When parties overcoming zero interest positions begin to pursue interests, they need to bed down exactly what it is that will be discussed and what will not. This is commonly referred to as establishing common ground, shared interest or shaping and framing. Without establishing common ground, negotiations are difficult and unfocused. The likelihood of the parties invoking their BATNA's is very high.

Some writers on the subject note that the establishment of common ground is some of the most crucial time spent in any negotiation. Establishing common ground aids in the creation of focus in the exercise and similarly evokes a climate of certainty. To highlight this, one has but to cast one's mind to conditions of uncertainty. People generally experience anxiety and fear in these circumstances. It's clear enough.

Additional benefit accruing from the formulation of common ground is that it is far simpler to maintain focus on real issues. In the contrasting condition, one tends to concentrate on a plethora 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 adverse productivity implications and hence implications on the bottom line, whatever that may constitute.

Common ground is, however, not just for 'negotiators'. Given that forms of negotiation can be identified in many life situations and disciplines it stands to reason that the concept of common ground is, at least in theory, as pervasive. It would seem that in some form or other everybody seeks common ground. Terms often used in conjunction with common ground are framing and shaping. And it's not just 'negotiators' who frame, shape and seek common ground. One has but to look at project management, multidisciplinary academia and any number of other environments. Accept it, common ground is common. Mastering the art of common ground is of course more difficult.

Common ground is sought typically at the opening phases of a negotiation. Two or more parties will allocate time to flesh out what needs to be discussed, where it will be discussed and even where parties ought to be seated. Simply put, if you find yourself seeking answers to questions similar to "Why are we here", "What do we agree on", "What is keeping us apart", or, "When shall we deal with this" you are probably dealing with common ground in some form or other. Don't let the opportunity to shape its form slip away!

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January 2005