Avoiding Common Ground

John Chambers, Chairman and CEO of Cisco Systems, recently recalled advice he received from Sandy Weill, which essentially supports the prescription to always search for common ground with people:

“…when you’re interfacing with people who have dramatically different views from yours, you immediately gravitate to the areas that you share in common, and then focus on those. That’s how you build relationships, even with people who might have different views or different attitudes toward business than you.”

We would like to offer an alternate approach to collective progress.  Focus on what’s different, not on what’s common.  You likely already understand the logic and beliefs that got you to your current views.  Engaging someone with different views is an opportunity to understand the logic and beliefs driving a completely divergent position — which is where the breakthroughs in behavior are more likely to live.  Our advice is to challenge yourself with the question, how would a reasonable, intelligent, honorable person reach a diametrically opposed point of view?

It’s not an easy exercise. For it to work, you must genuinely believe that the person sitting across from you is as reasonable, intelligent, and honorable as you are.  In our observations, this is a significant stumbling block because it is tempting to conclude that someone who feels differently — particularly about an important or emotional topic — is somehow morally or intellectually flawed.  The political process is a constant reminder of how falling into this trap yields stagnation and mediocrity on both sides.  The search for consensus rather than understanding regularly produces incremental change, but rarely significant progress.  This is not good enough for many issues.  Healthcare is just one.

The insight that breaks open learning is more likely to be found in uncommon ground, in the presence of differences not similarities.  Consider the analysis of data, where learning occurs by exploring variation.  Indeed, if there is too much consistency in the data, it is difficult to produce any insights at all.  The same is true, in our experience, for human behavior.

One Response to Avoiding Common Ground

  1. Ben Weeks says:

    Awesome. Long term this is a better strategy that really does respect the other person more. Finding common ground only can actually block learning and deep connection. I will twitter this onwards now.

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