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4 Communication Barriers that Keep Us From Finding Common Ground

By Maxwell Leadership | March 7, 2023
4 Communication Barriers that Keep Us From Finding Common Ground

This blog post has been adapted from Dr. John Maxwell’s communication resource, Everyone Communicates, Few Connect. John Maxwell has been one of the world’s foremost communication experts for more than 40 years, and this guidebook for relational and presentational connection contains invaluable insights. You can pick up a copy here.

People who connect are always searching for common ground. That probably seems obvious because all positive relationships are built on common ground. People make lifelong friends when they share experiences like high school or college; sparks fly when we meet someone with the same niche interests as us.

But if common ground is so central to connection, why do so many people struggle to find it?

You Cannot Find What You Won’t Look For

There are many reasons why communicators fail to find common ground – chief among them, some communicators never look for it in the first place. Something holds them back from seeking out a point of connection with others. These four are the most common…


A traveler on a layover buys a small package of cookies and then sits down to read the newspaper. As she reads, she hears a rustling noise – when she looks up, a neatly dressed man is helping himself to the cookies. Not wanting to cause a scene, she learns over, takes a cookie, and glares at the man, hoping he would get the message. But after a few minutes, the man leans down to take another cookie. She couldn’t believe it!

She then watched in disbelief as he took the last cookie from the pouch, broke it in two, popped one half in his mouth, and offered her the other half. She stewed over it for her whole layover, until the moment her flight began boarding and she reached into her purse – only to find her unopened pouch of cookies.

How quick we are to make assumptions about others – and how toxic a habit this is, given how committed we remain to these assumptions. Too often, we make generalizations when we should be making observations.

But all generalizations are false. Once a person has been placed neatly inside a box, it becomes more difficult for us to think of them as being anything different. Instead, we need to be like a good tailor. Every time he sees a client, he takes new measurements. He never assumes people are the same as the last time he saw them.

When we stop seeing people and start seeing just their background, their profession, their race, gender, age, politics, faith – we may assume we know the whole story and close our minds to learning more about them. We can miss clues that would otherwise help us find and reach common ground with them.


Arrogant people seldom meet others on common ground. Why? Because they don’t make the effort – they believe they shouldn’t have to. They don’t want to expend the effort; they believe others should come to them.

But you can’t build a relationship with someone if you don’t care about them.

One of the secrets of getting along with others is taking into consideration other people’s views. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis once observed, “Nine-tenths of the serious controversies that arise in life result from misunderstanding, from one man not knowing the facts which to the other man seem important, or otherwise failing to appreciate his point of view.”

Consider that life is like a puzzle, and everyone is born with their own piece. Only when we all come together to offer our input do we see the whole picture. When we see the value that others have to offer, we make more of an effort to meet them where they are.


Comedian George Carlin joked, “Scientists announced today that they had found a cure for apathy. However, they claim no one has shown the slightest bit of interest in it.” That can be said of some people when they communicate. They may not feel superior to their listeners, but they don’t go out of their way to learn about them, either.

Indifferent, really, is a kind of selfishness. Communicators who are indifferent are focused on themselves and their own comfort instead of extending themselves and finding the best way to relate to others.

These communicators should hear the words of English novelist George Eliot: “Try to care about something in this vast world besides the gratification of small selfish desires. Try to care for what is best in thought and action – something that is good apart from the accidents of your own lot. Look on other lives besides your own. See what their troubles are, and how they are borne.” Most people appreciate any effort you make, no matter how small, to see things from their point of view.


Finding common ground is a two-way street. While it’s important to focus on others to understand them, it’s also critical to be open and authentic so that others understand you. Of course, not all leaders and communicators are willing to do this.

As author and former U.S. Navy captain Mike Abrashoff observes, “Some leaders feel that by keeping people in the dark, they maintain a measure of control. But that is a leader’s folly and an organization’s failure. Secrecy spawns isolation, not success.”

Good leaders and communicators don’t isolate themselves, and they don’t deliberately keep people in the dark. They inform people, make them a part of what’s going on, and include them in decision making whenever possible. You cannot establish common ground if you refuse to let anyone know who you are or what you believe.

Looking for other insights on communication and connection?

Leadership expert Dr. John Maxwell has been writing, speaking, and teaching internationally for more than 40 years – and for the first time ever, he has condensed his lifetime of insight into one communication facilitation handbook. Your communication skills impact your personal relationships, your professional results, and your overall influence. If you’d like to take each of these to the next level, preorder The 16 Undeniable Laws of Communication today.

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