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Creating Common Ground

Have you ever listened to a new friend telling you snippets of his or her life story, and after sharing portions of yours, maybe after every third sentence or so, one or both of you exclaim, “Oh wow! That happened to me too!” Did you notice that each time either of you echoed this refrain, you felt as though you were coming a few inches closer to sitting in each other’s lap? By the end of the conversation, the two of you feel as if you’ve known one another forever… best friends forever!

Having a large overlap of similar life experiences with another person creates an instant sense of connection, camaraderie, mutual understanding, trust, and the roots of a lifelong friendship. This phenomenon is also known as finding “common ground.” Common ground is more than just identifying shared experiences. When we find common ground with one another, the differences between us seem to evaporate into thin air.

As an adult who stands only 3’8″ tall, I walk through life carrying a significant physical difference. Early on, I learned that in order to overcome the separation created by my stature, and the cultural stigma that goes with this very visible diversity, I had a choice. I could sink into the chasm of differences or develop the skill of bridging differences over that chasm. I discovered very quickly that when I found common ground with others, the seemingly insurmountable chasm of physical differences disappear quite effortlessly. 

Throughout my life, I’ve been blessed with many true and dear friends who frequently say to me, “You know, Peggy, I don’t even realize that you’re a little person.” So I can testify: finding common ground works!

When you’re interacting with someone who is very different from yourself – perhaps they’re a different race, have a different sexual orientation, are a significantly different age or level of cognitive ability than you, or maybe they have mobility issues, or hearing impairments – any of these differences from you might create a feeling of uneasiness. The other person might be feeling uneasy as well.

What a great opportunity to practice building bridges and to find common ground!

Building Bridges

This is easily accomplished in the first few moments of your encounter. You can start by opening your heart, and then opening a conversation. Within moments of just beginning a friendly chat, and inquiring into the other person’s life, both of you can discover common life experiences. Then the differences between you seem to just fade away. Magically! Poof! Gone!

Finding common ground with others is one of the most effective ways to build any community, not just a workforce community, based in mutual respect and friendliness.

The Power of Empathy

Going one step further, another poignant aspect of common ground is acknowledging that you relate to another’s pain. This is called empathy, and it’s the most extraordinary vehicle for erasing prejudices, biases, judgments, and all other forms of separation between human beings.

To practice empathy, one need only do the proverbial “walk in another’s shoes.” Simply listening to another’s story, even if it’s a grievance or an attack, you can ask yourself, “What might it feel like to be them right now? What difficulties may they have been through?”

When we try to answer these questions to ourselves, accurately or not, we begin opening the door of compassion, and creating a sense of connection. Boundaries, differences, separation – gone!

Keep in mind, however, that empathy doesn’t mean we need to feel what others feel. We don’t need to sit down and cry when they’re crying. But we can listen and relate to them from our own life experience, remembering when we may have felt similarly. This similarity is our common ground, what creates the bridge – the bridge between one separate life and another.

The bridging of differences, finding common ground, extending empathy and compassion to others – these occur only through interactions with others. If we avoid interaction with others because we feel uneasy, or because we fear the unknown, if we isolate, exhibit qualities of shyness, or even stay within the same “comfort-zone” social group we’ve always been in— the less likely we’ll be able to develop the skills needed to bridge differences. It is even less likely we will enjoy the creativity experienced when we encounter new friends, new places, new thoughts, and even new confidence in our ability to share love and kindness with the “other.”

Creating common ground is the natural outcome of expressing genuine curiosity towards another. Ask people questions! Find out what you have in common. This will open the heart organically, create connection, and decrease any tension around seen or unseen differences. Then, revel in feeling connected!