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How to build common ground with your counterpart

Mary Horgan, MSF specialist psychologist, and Kumbulani Kaliwo, MSF social worker, in the corridors of the Queens Elizabeth Hospital in Blantyre where MSF runs the cervical cancer project.

In your humanitarian work, you likely negotiate with people who seem to have nothing in common with you.

But negotiating is not about proving your position, culture or ideas are right or better than others’. It’s about finding a compromise.

So, how do you build common ground with your counterpart?

This blog will help you find a mutual understanding even when your position, reasoning and values seem in complete opposition to your interlocutor’s.

Finding a mutual understanding

There’s no denying you will have points of agreement and disagreement with your interlocutor – some may be explicit; others may be more implicit.

The goal is to avoid starting the conversation by focusing on your differences.

Instead, try to understand your counterpart’s inner reasoning and motives. These elements are the drivers behind their position (as unreasonable as it may seem).

Start by asking yourself:

1. What is my counterpart’s position?

  • What do they want?
  • Under what terms?

2. How did my counterpart get to that position?

  • What is the logical reasoning behind their position?
  • Is there a consensus around this reasoning?

3. Why does my counterpart take such a position?

  • What are the values, motives, or identity issues underpinning my counterpart’s position?
  • What social norms are at stake?
  • What emotions are raised by such issues (e.g., hope, anger, fear, frustration, etc.)?
  • Are the deep-rooted needs of my counterpart covered (e.g., security, recognition, sovereignty, etc.)?

Building your counterpart’s iceberg

When analysing a counterpart’s position, reasoning and motives, the CCHN uses the analogy of an iceberg.

For an observer on a boat, the size and shape of an iceberg can be deduced only from the visible portion of the ice emerging above the water.

The deeper an iceberg goes, the more speculative the interpretation will be from the information gathered above water.

However, the greater your understanding of the iceberg’s shape and dynamics, the more precisely you will predict its movement.

The same goes for analysing your counterpart’s position in a negotiation process.

The more complex your counterpart’s rationale and the deeper their motives, the more complicated the interpretation will become and the harder it will be to predict the negotiation’s evolution.

To have a more accurate picture, you will need to consult people who are familiar with your counterpart’s rationale and values. They can help you explain the reasoning behind their position and identify the motives and emotions involved.

Ultimately, as with navigating around icebergs, there will always be some uncertainty.

So, let’s build your counterpart’s iceberg.

Your counterpart's iceberg helps you find common ground with them.


Step 1: Gather information about your counterpart’s position

The first step is to determine your counterpart’s position. Where do they stand on your humanitarian intervention?

Do they have a positive outlook? Do they mistrust humanitarians?

It’s possible that their position might not be clear at first. To mitigate this, find authoritative and trustful sources of information.

Read reports on your counterpart, talk with your local colleagues, or find out more information from your counterpart’s focal point.


Step 2: Dig into your counterpart’s rationale

Now that you have established where your counterpart stands, ask yourself: “How did my counterpart reach this position?”

A counterpart’s reasoning explains the logic and interest behind their position. What goal are they trying to achieve?

Though rarely communicated explicitly by your counterpart, a member of your negotiation support team, a local staff person, or an acquaintance may help determine your counterpart’s reasoning.


Step 3: Deduce your counterpart’s motives and values

We have reached the bottom of the iceberg and it’s time to wonder: “Why has my counterpart taken this position?”

You can deduce your counterpart’s motives and values by observing their emotional reaction to certain topics. What makes them angry or frustrated? What are they afraid of? What gives them hope?

Inner motives and values are more sensitive than tactical reasoning; they frame your counterpart’s position in a strict view that significantly limits their ability to look beyond and find a solution.

Identifying your counterpart’s values and motives is essential. You’re unlikely to reach an agreement without paying respect – explicitly or implicitly – to some of these norms.

☝️ At this point, avoid trying to “reason” or rationalise inner motives and values, which remain more emotional than logical. Rather, observe and try to understand how these values may impact your counterpart’s negotiation strategies.

Now that you’ve spent some time thinking about your counterpart’s position, reasoning and values, it’s time to do some self-reflection.

What would your organisation’s iceberg look like?

Your organisation’s iceberg

The logic of building one’s iceberg is the reverse of your counterpart’s. You can only interpret your counterpart’s tactical reasoning and motives based on their position.

But to formulate your own, you have the advantage of knowing the values that inform your organisation’s mandate as well as its methods, professional standards, and objectives.

The questions you should ask yourself are:

1. Why does my organisation act in a certain way?

  • As a humanitarian, you are bound by basic humanitarian principles: neutrality, impartiality, humanity and independence. Besides these, are there any other values particular to your organisation?

2. How does my organisation intend to put these values into practice?

  • What problems are we trying to address?
  • What professional tools and methods do we plan to use and implement?
  • What is the reasoning behind our operational plan?

3. As a result, what is my (our) position?

  • What services do we offer?
  • What are the terms under which the organisation is ready to operate? What is the best-case scenario of an agreement?
Your organisation's iceberg helps you find common ground with your counterpart.

Bringing it all together

Humanitarian negotiation essentially involves exploring a shared space where you and your counterpart can safely review the values, methods, and parameters of a proposed operation.

To succeed, a negotiation must be more than a competition between two narratives.

It involves an ability to distance yourself from your position—distancing yourself from your iceberg—and meet your counterpart halfway to explore opportunities of agreements.

Identifying the area of the negotiation – also known as the ‘common shared space’ – involves:

  1. Communicating your respective positions.
  2. Discussing your tactical reasoning and connecting it to your counterpart’s reasoning.
  3. Being open to talk about your values and norms in a way that is relatable to your counterpart.
  4. Recognising that the distance between the two positions is an opportunity for dialogue and improved understanding.

A productive negotiation will allow you and your counterpart to explore ways to reconcile your positions, reasoning and values.

Ideally, it’s in this ‘common shared space’ that you’ll be able to find a compromise.

Good luck!

The common shared space is where you can find potential agreements.

Want more negotiation tips? Explore our other posts.

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