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On Finding Uncommon Ground

Common ground is often overrated.

For many new and even relatively experienced mediators there’s a kind of ‘holy grail’ quality attached to finding common ground. From the outset, each utterance of the disputing parties is scrutinised to reveal the potential for overlapping meaning. Statements are reframed to best display their patina of agreement.

Neighbour disputes provide one of the clearest examples. Ask the parties what they want and inevitably both will reply they want a peaceful life, to be able to relax in the comfort of their own homes. There’s no need to dig for this mutual message, it will emerge within the first five minutes. And heaven help the mediator who believes that the acknowledgement of a joint goal signals an easy journey. More often it is the prelude to a full-scale launch of blame, accusation and mutual recriminations.

The problem with hastening towards common ground is that it’s predicated on similarities – and parties arrive in dispute focused on differences. Not giving time for those differences to make themselves fully present is one of the biggest mistakes mediators can make. A mistake often compounded by our insisting that the gap between the parties isn’t as big as they imagine.

This behaviour on the part of the mediator is understandable. Increasing differentiation can feel counterintuitive. There is the underlying fear that parties will respond by becoming ever more polarised – to the extent that they are unable or unwilling to shift their positions. It’s not difficult to see why mediators might seek to reduce the gap.

The gap, however, is what people in conflict know best. The gap between parties is a precise measurement of how much closer they are to the ‘truth’. To discount the gap’s importance is to undermine claims of being in the right, of justifying positions. After all, believing that ‘truth’ is on their side is what allows most parties to say yes to mediation in the first place.

As mediators, we know the provisionality of such ‘truth’. We also know that mediation can help people move from fixed positions to more mutual interests and needs. It is not, however, a journey that can be rushed. And this is the prime danger with the tantalizing territory of ‘common ground’.

The paradox here is that common ground is often best attained through articulating differences. Doing so means drilling down below the level of abstract notions of truth and rightness. Parties must own their particularity. What must be made manifest are the unique thoughts and feelings generated by the current situation. Into the room come anger, hurt, shame, surprise, misunderstanding, recognition, confusion and relief – the full panoply of our faults and gifts. Extending an invitation to our differences, what shows up is our shared humanity. And this is the only real common ground. As mediators we know something of this roundabout route. We know that parties need to move away from the apparent simplicity of right/wrong into the far messier terrain of perhaps and maybe. Strangely enough, this is a journey best undertaken by unpacking – exposing their assumptions and preconceptions, making public their private worlds. In the process, they become more visible – both to themselves and to the other party.

While mediators might wish it, there are no shortcuts. To reach across the gap between parties requires the fullest possible extension of the imagination. The imaginative reach stands in direct contrast to the literalness that dominates the initial stages of mediation. Only an active and empathic imagination can see how actions that once seemed vindictive and unreasonable were based on a world-view in which they made perfect sense. Conflict would neutralise the imagination, replacing it with generalities and abstractions. Only in particularising that imagination is it possible to dissolve the dispute.

So by all means we should seek common ground, but the route must be via difference. The job of the mediator is to ensure that these differences emerge as fully and fruitfully as possible. To encourage parties to move towards themselves, even if it seems that in the process they are moving away from the other. As mediators we need to trust that our humanity is circular – move far enough in any direction and we cannot help but meet ourselves coming back round again.


Michael Jacobs

Michael Jacobs has been mediating for the past 23 years across a range of disputes, including family, community, workplace and civil/commercial. He appreciates the fact that even after all this time, he is still quite capable of making mistakes and getting things wrong – it means that he has more… MORE >

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