Build From Common Ground
The idea for this Pattern comes from long personal experience trying in many contexts to get to solutions quickly without first bothering to try to find common ground. In addition, I am working on a project to provide a platform to support civil discussion, debate, Dialogue, and deliberations. One of the other founders has a long history with The Interactivity Foundation which also uses various methods to build from common ground.
Author, reviewer and revision dates:
Created by John C. Thomas on February 20-25, 2018
Human beings share a large majority of their genes. Life on earth began 4.75 billion years ago. Only around 100,000 years ago people began migrating out of Africa, going to different places and evolving different cultures, religions, and languages. In addition to our long common history, people across the globe want many of the same things: freedom, food, water, safety, love, friendship, a space to be themselves, a life with some pleasure and a sense of meaning or higher purpose.
In the so-called developed world, there is an emphasis on doing things as quickly and efficiently as possible. To accomplish that, many people are extremely specialized in their education and profession in addition to whatever differences they have in culture and family background. Often, in a highly populated, highly interconnected world, people must collaborate and cooperate at a very large scale. Since some of the problems we face (e.g., preventing atomic war; preventing plagues; reducing global climate change) are vital, people are passionate about getting to solutions. They want to do this quickly. There is often a natural tendency to focus immediately on the problem as initially defined, and then to focus on differences and to resolve those differences as quickly and efficiently as possible. This does not generally work. People are invested in their own solutions which depend on their own background and experiences in their various cultures, families, education and training. Focusing from the onset on differences sets up a competitive mindset which then has everyone thinking how to “win” against their competitors. Unlike athletic competitions, people are unlikely even to agree initially on the “rules” for deliberations and debate, and often have pre-existing “positions” to sell to everyone else or force on everyone else.
Therefore, for any group trying to solve a problem collaboratively, it works better to first identify and build on common ground. Later, after some degree of trust is established, people may (or may not) find it useful to examine as well their differences as a source of ideas for how to solve the larger problem. They may choose from a variety of methods to make progress. Starting with common ground can help everyone involved to see that they are all part of one big and quite similar “in-group” with a problem to solve rather than focusing on everyone else as being in an “out-group” that needs to be defended against.
Groups function better under a wide variety of circumstances if there is a high degree of internal mutual trust. If people work together over a long period of time, trust will usually develop if warranted. This is what happens in most (but not all) work groups, teams, standing committees, etc. However, it often happens that other problems need to be understood and solved by groups that span pre-existing organizations. For example, a town needs to collectively decide whether to sell a beautiful community park to a mall developer who promises tax revenue and convenient shopping for the town. A state needs to decide whether to legalize marijuana or to ban assault weapons. A nation needs to decide whether or not to work with other nations to reduce air and water pollution. People addressing such issues will often have to address them in combination with others that they do not already know well and may not trust.
Often such decisions as those mentioned above must be made under some time pressure. Some people will have vested interests in a “solution” that is particularly favorable to them regardless of how much it hurts others. When people begin by stating their own position and trying to “sell it” to others, an adversarial atmosphere is created so that “winning” rather than “solving” becomes the dominant tone of subsequent conversations and actions. This almost always results in sub-optimal solutions and, in addition, almost always results in reducing trust and social capital among the people deciding.
Even under the best of circumstances, with everyone committed to finding a “good” solution for all, people will tend to misunderstand each other simply because language is ambiguous and vague. People have different assumptions based on their experiences, culture, and training what process to follow as well as what constitutes acceptable rules and boundaries. If we add to these inherent difficulties the further (and avoidable) difficulty that people are focused on the ways people are different, it will tend to prevent mutual trust and prevent the emergence of new ways to find, formulate and solve the problems at hand.
Complex problems can often only be solved by groups. Even when the nature of the problem is simple enough for one person to solve, people want to feel that they or their representatives are engaged in the process if the outcome will impact them. For the group to work well together to solve problems, it is useful for them to understand each other’s situations and motivations. When in a hurry or under stress, people often perceive others and their motivations, not on the basis of inquiry into what those are but on group membership and the way that group differentiates itself from other groups.
Our nervous systems (and those of other animals) are constructed to be particularly sensitive to differences and changes. Our education and society teach us to differentiate as much as possible. We celebrate the wine connoisseur who can tell you the year and vineyard and scoff at the person who simply says, “I like all wine.” Sometimes, of course, fine differentiation is critical, particularly for an omnivore. We need, for instance, to be able to differentiate the three leaves of a wild strawberry from the three leaves of poison ivy. In biology class, we get high grades for correctly labeling 100 different parts of the earthworm and get no credit for simply saying, “Look! These are all parts of an earthworm! How cool! I had no idea it was that complex inside or that it has so many of the same parts we do!” In many contexts, being able to further differentiate things is a good thing. Even in group problem solving, there are situations where this is true. However, we typically do not ask ourselves whether this is one of those situations. We tend to dive unthinkingly into exploring differences.
- Our brains are not infinite but finite. We, along with other animals, generally focus on foreground while ignoring or presuming the background. Our nervous system is especially tuned to differences and changes, not to similarities and constancies.
- Our educational systems typically focuses on teaching people to make even finer and further differentiations beyond what our senses immediately show.
- Societies typically celebrate finding additional differences rather than finding additional similarities. Experts are typically defined by their ability to detect differences rather than their ability to see similarities.
- People are quintessentially social animals. Therefore we tend to join groups. Each group coheres around a group identity which tends to define itself in terms of differences from other groups and seldom mentions similarities.
- Each person only knows a small proportion of another person’s situation and individuality. Often, we treat each person according to their differentiating group membership(s) rather than their similarities to ourselves or according to the complexity of their individual selves.
When a group begins to address a situation that impacts many people in various ways, and especially if people already have opinions and positions on the situation, begin by stressing, creating, or fostering their common ground before even starting any other problem solving activity.
1. At IBM Research, for several years, I managed a research project on the “business uses of stories and storytelling.” I worked with a small team of researchers & consultants to develop tools and techniques. One patent (Story-based organizational assessment and effect system) was originally inspired by trying to help companies involved in mergers and acquisitions deal with cultural differences between companies. The suggested technique essentially involved collecting stories from the two original companies, analyzing them for the underlying values that were expressed in the stories, finding common values in the stories from both original companies, creating new stories using the values and situations from the originals but making sure the new stories were constructed to be memorable and motivating; and finally re-introducing these stories to the people from both companies. The reason for this whole process was to stress common ground so that people from two companies could work better together.
2. At a workshop at the 1992 ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’92), I co-organized and co-led a workshop on “Cross-cultural issues in HCI.” At the beginning of the workshop, the participants entered the assigned workshop room to find that it had been set up in a “classroom style” with one small table and two chairs at the front of the room and all the other chairs and desks set up for the “listeners.” We wanted the room set up as a large circle. Everyone pitched in to re-arrange the room into this large circle. This physical activity provided additional common ground for the team. One outcome of the Pattern “Small Successes Early” is to provide common ground. Having people work together to perform a physical task is one way to establish common ground.
We also played a game called “Barnga.” In my introduction to the game, I explained that it was much like Bridge, Whist, or Euchre. To my surprise, none of the participants attending from Asia had any idea how to play such games or what I meant by “tricks” or “following suit.” That experience illustrates how easy it is (at least for me!) to over-estimate how much common ground exists in a group. (http://www.acadiau.ca/~dreid/games/Game_descriptions/Barnga1.htm)
In a later workshop (2008) on “Human Computer Interaction for International Development,” at the suggestion of Andy Dearden, we began by cooperatively building a map of the world from materials at hand (illustrated above) before delving into the details of the workshop. Starting with this as “common ground” we then explored some of our differences by standing on the representation of where we were from, a favorite place we had visited, a place we wanted to visit, etc.
3. Religions regularly practice rites and rituals. For practitioners of the religion, this provides common ground regardless of a host of differences among the adherents. Of course, it is a double-edged sword because differences among these rites and rituals can also separate people. One of the more brilliant scenes from West Wing cuts among scenes of people attending religions services that are variously Jewish, Muslim, and Christian while the viewer knows that there is an unsuccessful peace effort underway. In this case, the uncommented footage helps to illustrate the common ground among these three religions.
4. The Family of Man was both an ambitious photography exhibit and a book (definitely worth buying) that portrays people across the world to illustrate precisely that we do have common ground.
5. In an earlier blog post, I showed with back of the envelope calculations just how “related” humanity is in terms of genetics, experience, ideas, and matter. In fact, all of life on earth is highly inter-related and it has been for its entire 4.75 billion years.
6. In a recent episode of the TV series, Madam Secretary, the Secretary of State is trying to resolve a conflict between two nations A and B. The diplomats from A say they cannot trust B and the diplomats from B say that they cannot trust A. She suggests that they start from their mutual distrust as part of common ground. In other words, rather than treating the mistrust of A and B as two separate issues, she begins by suggesting that A and B both share two things in common: not only a desire for peace but also a difficulty in trusting the other side. Even mutual distrust can be framed as a basis for common ground. This is more than a linguistic trick. It is an important reframing. It may well turn out that a single event such as a soccer game with teams that have members from both nations may help reduce mistrust on both sides at the same time.
7. Holiday celebrations, the preparation and consumption of food, listening to music, or appreciating the beauty of nature may all provide additional ways of beginning with common ground. Of course, there are cultural differences in all of these as well so one must take some care to provide something that actually is common ground and not something that tends to emphasize the differences among people in these activities.
8. One of the plenary speakers at CHI 1989 in Austin Texas was an astronaut who had been in space. I spoke with him after and during our conversation, he claimed that all astronauts, whatever country they were from, shared the same experience of seeing earth from space; viz., that the national boundaries we typically think so much about were only political; most are not physical. He said all the astronauts were struck by how thin and fragile our atmosphere is and that the earth is the only place around that is capable of sustain the breadth and depth of life. Many of them found this realization of “common ground” the most transformative of all their experiences in the space program.
Once people experience common ground, they may still disagree, debate, discuss, or hopefully dialogue in order to identify issues and problems. Experiencing common ground makes it harder to “dehumanize” the other side. It decreases the chances that people will engage in counter-productive actions such as “name calling” or using propaganda techniques to “prove” that they are right and their “opponents” are wrong.
Actions are always better based on reality than on fantasy. Reality is that people share much in common. Reality is that there are also many remaining differences. The entire problem solving process (including problem finding, problem formulation all the way through to finding issues with solutions and re-solving, re-negotiating, re-designing, or re-developing a solution) is enhanced when it is based on a balanced view that includes both real similarities and real differences. We already have a culture and an educational system that focuses on differences. Focusing on common ground is a critical factor in balancing our view so that we do not try to solve problems based on the partial truth that we are all different.
Reality Check, Check-In, Small Successes Early.
It is a windy day in San Diego as I write this. We have a set of wind chimes outside the bedroom. Whichever direction the wind blows; however windy it gets (within bounds); and even if the wind is quite chaotic, the sound that emerges is always harmonic and tuneful. This is because of the structure and relationships of the chimes. It would be nice if we could have a platform that encouraged and promoted civility. I think that could work because of the nature of the platform. One of the “chimes” could be Bohm Dialogue; another could be “Building from Common Ground.”
Another musical example is Jazz Improvisation. If a group of musicians who know each other get together, they can improvise some very nice music. If they’ve never met, they will almost certainly agree on a few boundaries before beginning such as style, time signature, key signature. They may well start by having the percussion set up a “beat” that everyone relates to.
Now, imagine instead that seven random people are thrown together from seven different cultures. Each has an instrument that none of the others has ever seen. They have completely different musical experiences and expectations. Does it not make sense that they will take more time to converge on anything good? Doesn’t it seem as though they first need to discover some kind of common ground in terms of scales, rhythms, degree of repetition before achieving a good result? Or, do you think they should argue about which kind of music is best first? Do you think any of the seven will be able to convince the other six that “their” kind of music is superior? Suppose instead of having as one mutual goal making good music, instead, they are in a contest and only one of them will “win” and go on to the next round. Surely, this will only further confound any possible teamwork. Add to this, that they only have two minutes. What kind of performance would you expect now? And, yet, we seem to expect people from very different backgrounds to get on-line and instantly “make good music together.” Whether it’s 140 characters, 280 characters or a whole paragraph, it seems unlikely you will be able to sway anyone to move from “their position” to “your position.”
International sports competitions such as the Olympics provide a setting where people from around the world get together and compete. These are not random people; they are all immensely talented and skilled; however, they are also all highly competitive. Yet, the venue provides a framework for competition that provides a structure for competing within common ground. Despite being from different cultures and using different languages, the athletes push each other to amazing performances with a minimum of rancor. Every athlete realizes as well that every other athlete has also gone through a rigorous selection and training process involving many sacrifices to get where they are — more common ground. The Olympics might be thought of as a particularly interesting example of finding common ground despite people having different backgrounds, language, and goals. Sports may also be thought of as a compelling metaphor. When politics are reported in the media, they are most often treated as a sporting event. But it is a strange kind of sporting event in that such reporting seldom stresses common ground and instead focuses on strategy, polls, winning, losing, and differences. It almost never reports on common ground in politics. In reporting on actual sporting events, however, the reporting focus often does cover the common ground that athletes face; e.g., the training, the dedication, the sacrifices that families must make, the importance of coaching, etc.
Thomas, J. C. (2017). Building Common Ground in a Wildly Webbed World: A Pattern Language Approach. PPDD Workshop, 5/25/2017, San Diego, CA.
Thomas, J.C. & Kellogg, W. (1993). Cross-cultural perspectives on human-computer interaction: report on the CHI ’92 workshop. SIGCHI Bulletin, 25 (2), 40-45.