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Leading Adult Learners


24 Apr

Building common ground: essential to important conversations

Posted by Joan Dalton

When you look at the lines in this image, what do you notice first?


Chances are that your eyes were first drawn to the line that was different, demonstrating that your primitive brain is still alive and well deep within you. Noticing what was different or ‘out of order’ back in hunter-gatherer days was essential to one’s survival because that difference often represented threat, such as the approach of a sabre-toothed tiger!

Although times and contexts have changed, our brain is still (thankfully) geared to noticing threat. What we need to be careful of is that we don’t confuse difference and diversity with threat.

This is why, during important professional conversations, we can tend to notice and go straight to where there is disagreement, particularly when strong emotion is involved. Working to establish common ground first focuses emotions positively, increases relational trust and fosters mutual understanding and purpose. This is what keeps people working together to resolve disagreement.

As you can see from this overview, ‘Build common ground’ is one of nine key Learning Talk capabilities.

Learning Talk Capabilities: an overview

In building common ground, deep listening occurs so that all perspectives are surfaced and acknowledged to uncover what is held in common. This provides the foundation from which to further explore agreement, identify disagreement through respectful inquiry and dialogue, and work for resolution.

The common language built during this time is particularly important to shared understandings and the successful navigation of important conversations. If common understandings are simply assumed rather than explicitly clarified and unpacked, the conversation proceeds on faulty ground.

A practical example in context

Of the several ways to build common ground, finding a shared goal can be particularly powerful when people have differing views. *Robinson (2009) in Dalton (2016) suggests asking:

‘What do we both want as an outcome and what do we both want to avoid?’

Let’s put this question into a concrete and practical context, where a teacher has thought about this question ahead of time and is meeting with a parent to talk about her son’s behaviour in class.

Establishing common ground for working together
Dalton, Joan 2016, p37

By establishing what they both want as an outcome and what they both want to avoid, Tanya and Benita identify important common ground and understandings to work from.

Notice Tanya’s careful use of paraphrasing to uncover and make these explicit. Importantly, Tanya doesn’t use either-or ‘but’ thinking, that is, she doesn’t say ‘I want us to help Jack but I want to avoid…’ Rather her use of ‘and’ builds connections in a subtle way.

Some additional scaffolds to use

As you reflect on instances where building common ground might be important in your own professional conversation setting, here are some additional scaffolds to consider using:

It sounds like we see the issue the same way…

We see the problem differently, and we both want to do something about it…

We’re interpreting the cause of this differently and we both believe the issue needs to be addressed…

We both agree that we want… and we want to avoid…

We both want a positive result, and we have different ideas of how to get there…

Learning Talk: important conversations at work
…see Learning Talk: important conversations at work (2016, pp30-40)

To learn more…

For additional strategies that show you how to:

  • scaffold connection-making of ideas
  • construct and name common understandings
  • build capabilities to summarise and synthesize
  • establish mutual purpose, and
  • co-construct team charters based on common understandings of a team’s core purpose and guidelines for working together


This is a great read! So important to connect and come back to what matters by sharing a common goal. I’ll have to check out your book.

Posted by Jenny Hill on April 28, 2021

As always you have highlighted a vital reflection in our mahi (work) today with your usual insight. Greetings Joan & David & Neill O"Reilly.

Posted by Murray Edlin on April 26, 2021

Love this! As always so practical! The most important foundational stuff. Happy ANZAC Day Joan and David :)

Posted by Pauline Mundie on April 25, 2021

So relevant in so many aspects of the educational leaders role. These prompts and strategies are a timely reminder of the importance and benefit of seeking to work with staff and parents for a win win outcome.
Thanks Joan!

Posted by Neill O'Reilly on April 25, 2021

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