Negotiation: Common Ground

by Sebastian Herweg

At some point parties entering into a contract will find something of interest in the offerings that the other party has.When parties overcoming zero interest positions begin to pursue interests it is commonly referred to as establishing common ground,without which negotiations are difficult and unfocused.

Contract law holds that the positions of two parties prior to the existence of a negotiated 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!

Common Ground in Other Disciplines

Project management theory espouses the creation of a shape and a frame of reference to particular pieces of work to be conducted. Ask any project manager about the biggest headaches in their field and invariably there can be only one response - 'scope creep'.

Scope creep is, as the name suggests, a shift or expansion of focus. It often occurs because work has not been described adequately or the customer feels that certain portions of work laid out within the plan are misaligned or do not address whatever new concerns have come to the fore. For any project to be managed effectively, tight reigns need to be kept on any changes, or the cart may soon careen off the path into the forest. The addition of even a single days' length to any activity noted on the Gantt chart can have significant cost and delivery implications.

Within academia there are a host of fields of knowledge, research and practice. Within each field there are more often than not a set of functions that concentrate exclusively on a number of particular specialisations. For instance within the field of Geography there are geomorphologists, climatologists, meteorologists, human settlement geographers, environmental geographers, cartographers, socialgeographers and the list grows everyday. Within each of these disciplines there may exist a number of prevailing views or theories that describe particular spatial and temporal interactions.

Quite intuitively academics in many fields have designed common ground for the areas of study under consideration. This is done through the creation of a language or a vocabulary pertaining to particular contract ideas that are distinct from one another e.g. alluvium - the sediments deposited through time by a riverine environment and colluvium - the sediment that slowly through time develops at the base of a hill or mountain having weathered from exposed formations in situ.

The terms refer to ideas or interactions that are known and for which consensus exists. From that consensual position the various parties can move forward to create a new language of consensus and solve and describe an ever greater ambit of interactions.

Most academics are familiar with numerous vocabularies, for example if a cartographer would be asked to create a map for a geomorphologist or a settlement geographer it is clear that her familiarity with both vocabularies would have to be consistent with her understanding of the vocabulary of her own field. Indeed the cartographer and the geomorphologist may well create a new vocabulary to suite their problems and solutions. In doing so they have created an 'opportunity of becoming' together. The purpose of the vocabulary is to keep the various parties involved on the same page or to create a common ground through which solutions are found and modelled.

To take this one step further one can imagine the challenge faced by academics and project managers involved in the Manhattan project, the project which had as its goal the creation of the atomic bomb. A host of skills in a large number of fields would have had to be aligned and kept on the same page for a period of time until the perceived fruits of that terrible project had been brought to bear.

The creation of common ground through terms of reference and vocabularies was absolutely vital. As important in that endeavour is the fact that none of the skill sets involved in that project had the wherewithal to pull it off successfully alone. The parties involved did not claim value but created it together according to a strictly managed and agreed upon set of principles - verbal contracts through interpersonal negotiation.

There are, as a matter of course, a large number of techniques which aid in the creation of shared aspirations and the management of difficult parties and interests towards basic framing and shaping. But perhaps more important than discussing the techniques, is the realisation of the spirit and the existence of the process within many, if not all fields of human endeavour, without which many human efforts would have come to nought.

To earn is not to receive
To earn is not to take
To earn is to become.

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