Common interest appeals are almost like magic. Imagine a magic wand that allows you to quickly turn division into unity, wariness to trust, and competition into collaboration. There’s something you can do that works almost that effectively: appeal to common interests. That ability is a particularly precious thing in downturns when any group can feel especially divided and suspicious in the face of scarcity and fear. Appealing to a common interest means showing other(s) that you and they have a shared goal you can achieve together if you collaborate. The appeal works because it gives each of you a clear reassurance you have reason not to hurt each other, and a clear motivation to help each other.
They’re everywhere in crises. Once you look you can find Common interest appeals being deployed everywhere in crises. Think of a buddy picture: the two leads are impossibly incompatible, but they both want to save the girl, so they both get in the car and drive the coast to rescue her. Along the way, they grudgingly begin to realize each other’s strengths until by the end of the picture, they’re…buddies. Of course, Hollywood isn’t real, but the buddy picture genre works because it taps into our deep sense that common interests work, especially in crises. History confirms it: since the Pelopennesian wars, nations have formed alliances in the face of shared threat- “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Thus the alliances of World War I and II. Skilled negotiators know the power of Common interests too: research shows they plan and discuss common interests twice as often as mediocre negotiators do. So do my former students: over 150 rated Common interests as one of the most powerful tools they learn in a negotiation course.
They work especially in downturns. Common interest appeals are especially powerful in downturns because they act as an antidote to myopic, zero-sum, combative thinking that’s widespread when fear is rising and the reptile brain seems to be in control. Small wonder then in times of crisis leaders appeal to Common interests habitually, from Churchill and Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Barak Obama. Students have reported being at meetings where everyone is so tense and argumentive that it felt as if the lights and AC were off- until my students spoke about a common interests, at which point the feeling shifted so much it felt as if the lights were back on and the air was flowing again.
How to use them. To be effective, a common interest must be (1) specific, (2) compelling, and (3) not self serving. That is, you want to avoid saying, “look, we both want to agree” (vague) or “we both want to cut postage stamp spending” (trivial) or “we both want me to be happy” (self-serving). Better: ‘Join the revolution or we all die,’ to paraphrase Ben Franklin, and “If we work together we can get approval for a bigger budget that can fend off layoffs.” To spot and deploy an effective common interest, finish this sentence: “look, we’re not enemies here- we’re on the same side. If we work together we can….” Another way is to spot and talk about a common enemy, like the IRS, or the competition, or a sales downturn, or layoffs.