Why do many high-stakes conversations fail? Often, they fail because at some point in the dialogue, our motives degrade. We start to care more about winning than about finding common ground and common solutions. Of course, this is especially likely when we care passionately about our position. The dialogue turns into debate or argument. And, as Dale Carnegie famously said, “You can’t win an argument.”

Today’s world contains a lot of polarizing issues, and zealots on both sides talk and listen mostly to themselves. They bolster their own positions and disparage the other side. Then, when the two sides meet, it’s to joust and score points, not to find common ground or common solutions.

Why dialogue is valuable: I personally have trouble staying in dialogue when I know I’m right—not just factually right, but morally right. I do believe there are rights and wrongs. So, isn’t it sometimes better to bypass dialogue and defeat the other side? Yes, those occasions exist. While dialogue might not always be the best solution, it is especially important in two circumstances:

  • When you care as much about the relationship as you do your position.
  • When you and the other person or group are interdependent. You may not want a relationship with the other side, but some level of cooperation is required because neither of you can succeed on your own.

So what can you do in these situations to stay in dialogue and stay out of debate?

Determine what you really want. Consider the two bullets above and ask yourself what you really want for yourself, for the other person, and for the relationship. Look beyond any single issue or conversation and focus on your long-term goals.

If your long-term goal is to defeat the other side and discredit their point of view, then be realistic about whether you can succeed without their help. Again, take a long and inclusive view. Look beyond this particular issue and conversation. For example, if you need their help to govern, then you’ll need to engage them in dialogue—no matter how distasteful that may be.

If you decide dialogue is necessary or desirable, then use the tips below to keep yourself and the other party in frank, honest, and respectful conversation.

Establish ground rules that maintain respect. We’ve all seen debaters who score points by making the other person look bad. They try to undercut the person’s credibility and eventually descend into some kind of name-calling. These tactics destroy safety and poison dialogue.

Begin the conversation by making a personal commitment to avoid hot words, loaded language, and personal attacks. Commit to listen and to take the time to understand the other person’s perspective. Ask the other person to make this same commitment and then hold each other to these ground rules.

Build on common ground rather than seek out wedge issues. Think of two circles that overlap. The overlap is our common ground; the non-overlapping areas are our differences and disagreements. Too often, we focus on our disagreements and use them as wedge issues to drive the circles further apart. If we want to make progress, we need to focus on the areas where we overlap—where we have common ground and common purpose.

Find “and” solutions, while avoiding “either/or” thinking. Look for what’s right in the other person’s position and then add to it. Notice how this is different from the assumption “If I’m right, then you must be wrong.” Often, parts of both positions are right and these constitute the common ground you can build on.

Seek ways to eliminate the other person’s worst fears. Humans are designed to be very risk averse. A side effect of this survival strategy is that we tend to catastrophize. We anticipate the worst that could happen and act as if it’s imminent—even when it’s not.

When you use these principles to guide your crucial conversations, you can reach a successful outcome—even when you know you are “right.”