Respectful Conversations

Respectful conversations was the topic for discussion at the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Alternative Dispute Resolution in Westminster on 5th September.

 It’s encouraging that a group of MPs have come together to explore how some of the principles and practices of ADR could be applied in a parliamentary context, especially in the apparently destructive aftermath of the vote to leave the EU.

 Some of the UK’s leading mediators and negotiators shared their insights and ideas, starting with Andrew Acland’s observation that uncertainty is often the primary trigger for human relations to go wrong. We are biologically programmed with a ‘fight or flight’ response when we feel threatened. In a situation such as the ‘Brexit’ vote, in the absence of full information, we fall back on our instincts. For some of us that is a ‘flight’ response - to duck out of the real debate, to hope it will all go away, and to avoid confrontation in a misguided attempt to preserve the status quo. For others, the response is to ‘fight’ - to sling mud, raise our hackles or puff out our feathers, create a smoke screen of words to intimidate the other side. Neither response is helpful in bringing clarity, or creating a forum for meaningful discussion. Neither response enables us to listen to the arguments, to grow our understanding in order to dispel the uncertainty. These unhelpful behaviours create a cycle of increasing uncertainty and hostility, which must be broken before any meaningful progress can be made. In order for Parliamentarians, and specifically for those engaged in negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU, to achieve a positive outcome, this dynamic must change.

Bill Marsh, one of Europe’s most experienced international mediators, observed that dealing with conflict is more of a leadership issue than is often recognised. During the ‘Brexit’ debate, the highly complex issues at stake were distilled to their simplest form, because complexity and nuance are the first casualties when we enter into conflict. This is particularly true in the political arena where conviction is sometimes valued over insight; in a world dominated by sound bites and Tweets we assume that everything of worth can be captured and communicated in short form. Bill asserted that it is political leaders’ responsibility to declare the complexity rather than gloss over it, and to create a tone and process for debate that encourages meaningful dialogue.

The Secretary of the Civil Mediation Council, Iain Christie, shared some interesting insights based on the Imago model of dialogue. Developmental psychologists have observed that our world view is formed by the time we reach the age of 7, shaped by our early-life relationships and experiences. Our ideas about our personal identity, competence, sense of belonging and confidence in handling new experiences shape our responses to people and events. The EU Referendum vote presented many of us with a challenge to these long held views of ourselves in the world. We are ‘feeling people’ who sometimes think rather than ‘thinking people’ who sometimes feel, which means that although many of us bemoaned the lack of information and data in the build up to the EU Referendum, we were never going to be persuaded solely by facts and figures.

The Imago model of dialogue recognises that people are the way they are because of their history. It creates a safe, structured environment where the parties can explore their differences, each sharing their perspective and feelings, each listening in turn, without shaming, criticising, belittling or invalidating the other. Each party needs to be able to suspend their own perspective temporarily and be open to hearing another’s world view. They need to be willing to allow the other to have a view of the world that is different to their own. This approach may allow people in divided communities, workplaces and dare I suggest, the Brexit negotiations, to suspend their judgement of others and in doing so, ‘to hold their views more lightly,’ to be open to validating other perspectives, and even to empathising with them.

As mediators, we recognise that one of the most powerful aspects of mediation is that it offers people a chance to be heard. David Richbell, who has recently been involved in facilitating the debate about sexuality in the Church of England, observed that when people are not heard, they simply shout louder and louder, and ultimately this can escalate to hostility and violence. People need to feel heard, so they can be engaged in building solutions. Building on this, Dr Zaza Johnson Elsheikh, who is a leading light in dispute resolution in the UK, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, stressed the importance of building understanding of the ‘other.’ To be prejudiced is part of the human condition, but prejudice does not mean hate. The debate must be framed around the assumption that the parties are entering into a dialogue that is respectful, that acknowledges difference and that does not hide behind political correctness or false assumptions.

With a background as a mediator, policy advisor and coach to members of UK parliaments, John Sturrock QC was well placed to artfully bring together these useful insights, and make some practical suggestions for Parliamentarians. His experience of leading Collaborative Scotland during the independence referendum campaign included developing an 8 point protocol for respectful dialogue which focuses, as might be expected from a best practice mediator, on meeting parties’ interests rather than defending their positions. His call is for MPs to learn the principles of constructive dialogue, so that they can adopt a non-binary approach to addressing the challenges of exiting the EU.

For many organisations, the next few years will be full of uncertainty. The challenge facing leadership teams is the same one facing MPs - how to navigate through the complexity of the change, while also keeping the day to day ‘show on the road.’

The first brave step will be to admit that they don’t know all the answers, thus opening the door to constructive dialogue. By creating the time and space for considered, respectful conversations, by really listening, the best leaders will collaborate with other people, whether constituents or employees, to come up with creative, impactful, enduring solutions.