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A Little More Conversation

The next two years present Scotland and the rest of the UK with a unique opportunity. How we conduct the discussion of the constitutional question (whether or not Scotland should become an independent nation) could be as important as the outcome.

After all, the eyes of the world will be upon us.

And we all have to live together, within Scotland and within these islands, in the aftermath. Our willingness to engage constructively could be what marks us out as different – and what will make the future tolerable whatever the result of a referendum. Already, there are indications that many commentators understand the need to move from an us-and-them, black-and-white debate to a more nuanced, sophisticated process of dialogue.

Traditional negotiation is often characterised by the taking of positions. “Here is what I say and why am I am right – and here is why you are wrong.” It is based on argument – the putting up of propositions to support our conclusions and the knocking down of those with which we don’t agree. Such an approach is classically adversarial. This can be a very inefficient way of really achieving understanding of the true issues. It can tend to result in polarisation and an antagonistic culture, pushing people further apart than closer together.

Justification and self-righteousness can follow.

Almost inevitably, the arguments can become personal and personalised. This is the foundation of what is sometimes described as the blame culture. It can have a diminishing effect on those involved and on our ability to get to the heart of the matter. The zero-sum game is deeply unsatisfactory. Win/lose can so often turn out to be lose/lose.

In recent decades, many difficult and seemingly intractable differences and disputes have been resolved by using a different approach, often referred to as interest-based negotiation.

Examples abound and the South African transition to majority rule is probably one of the best. Nelson Mandela realised that, in order to achieve his chosen outcome, he needed to work with President de Klerk, to make him his friend rather than his enemy. “I never sought to undermine Mr de Klerk, as the weaker he was, the weaker the negotiation process.” Paradoxically, the more I recognise the interests of my so-called opponent, the more likely I am to secure my own interests.

The source of much of our understanding about interest-based negotiation is the seminal book, Getting to Yes by Harvard’s Roger Fisher and William Ury. This text focuses on the search for mutual gains, separating people from the problem (you can be rigorous about the issues while remaining respectful of other people, whatever you may think of them or their values or behaviour), while developing and assessing the full range of options and finding proper benchmarks to support decisions.

William Ury visited Edinburgh in 2009 and, in a seminar in the Scottish Parliament, he encouraged Scots and others to adopt this constructive approach to the constitutional question. But this is easier said than done.

Over these next two years, the challenge for us all could be to demonstrate and use well the competencies and skills required to “get to yes” in a collaborative way.

Perhaps the first issue is a linguistic one. That is to define what we mean by “getting to yes”.

Immediately we can move away from a simple win/lose, yes/no vote, recognising that this is a positional approach. Purely by way of example, the question could be framed as: “Do you wish Scotland to be (a) wholly independent; (b) remain a part of the United Kingdom; (c), (d) etc… – insert “Yes” against one of these options only”. Or “(a) I wish Scotland to be wholly independent; (b) I wish Scotland to remain a part of the United Kingdom – insert “Yes” against your preference.” Either response is a positive one.

William Ury also reminds us of the “power of a positive no”. In the context of the constitutional discussions, “No” may presently carry negative connotations. It need not do so. Ury argues that, if we take an interest-based approach, we can identify our interests – what is important to us – and use these to underscore a respectful explanation of why a proposal is not acceptable to us (the “no”). However, we also need to work hard to understand the interests of others – whether we agree with them or not – and use that knowledge to create another option or options, a “yessable” proposition, as we might describe it, that addresses mutual interests.

How do we go about doing all this? Interestbased approaches to the constitutional question require us to abstain from reaching any hurried conclusion on the answer, or perhaps even the question. We would need first to explore the underlying issues. So, we need to ask a number of preliminary questions: what are the real needs of the people of Scotland? Of the rest of the UK? What are our different – and mutual – objectives? Where do our interests coincide – now? And in the future – whatever the outcome? Where do they diverge? What are the main concerns that people have? What fears and aspirations? Why do they hold them? How can these be addressed? What topics need to be better understood? If Scotland remains a part of the UK, what will happen if…? If Scotland becomes independent, what about…?

Crucially, we also need to listen to all of the answers, with minds open to the possibility of new discoveries, rather than seeking reinforcement of our pre-conceived views of the world. Understanding human behaviour tells us that, often, we form a conclusion and then look for evidence to justify it, seeing only that which is consistent with our (always incomplete) picture of the world – and rejecting that with which we are uncomfortable. Such a limiting approach can lead to sterility and superficial arguments in what is, in reality, a complex situation in which we need continually to be prepared to challenge our assumptions and preconceptions.

To have these kinds of discussions, those involved need to have working relationships, building trust with others whatever points of view each hold (and these will be many and varied, not just “yes” or “no”). Effective communication becomes crucial. It is easy for messages to be misunderstood: “I know you believe you understand what you think I said.

…But I’m not sure you realise that what you heard is not what I meant.” It only takes a small initial miscommunication for things to grow and get out of hand. That is not useful if we really want to make the best of our dialogue.

And the danger is that our assumptions about others (often stereotyping them to make us feel more secure) become self-fulfilling, influencing how we relate to them and they to us. Describe someone as “anti-…” or “pro-…” and that is what they may become, or at least appear to be, to those who describe them as such. Indeed, the language we use can end up shaping how we see things.

Moving on, once we have fully explored the issues in a way that is designed to get under the surface and understand properly the pros and cons of various courses of action, the next stage is to develop the options. What are the possible ways for addressing the hopes, concerns, fears and aspirations of all those affected? Maybe there are more than two or three? Maybe something surprising will emerge?

By way of example only, suppose those in favour of outright independence were to come to the view, on assessing the situation, that (a) that outcome is unlikely to be achieved in a referendum and (b) it carries disproportionate risk? And suppose those in favour of the status quo came to realise that even a vote against outright independence is unlikely to lay the matter to rest – and that the constitutional issue would rumble on after such a result? Might it be in both (all?) parties’ interests to explore in full detail the range of other options, not as a default but as serious alternative options? Not just a compromise but a genuinely considered mutually acceptable solution? We speculate, of course, but this speculation reminds us of the value of generating multiple options.

We may find the words of De Tocqueville ringing in our ears: “In matters of social constitution, the field of possibilities is much more extensive than men living in their various societies are ready to imagine.” Maybe we need to engage our imaginations much more than we are accustomed to doing?

If we are prepared to work hard to generate imaginative options, we need to assess and evaluate them, being clear about strengths and weaknesses, costs and gains in each, looking for creative solutions and making sure we can back up our analysis with objective criteria.

We may need to fly a few kites, put up a straw man or two, in order to test the possibilities.

Nothing will be perfect of course but, as with all good decision-making, we should be seeking to minimise risks and maximise the prospects of choosing well. The result of this approach should be a much better-informed set of proposals and choices.

Sometimes we need to get into the other person’s shoes and build a bridge to their worldview. What can we do to allay fears?

What concessions might we make? How can we help them to save face? And could we help to write their victory speech – that explanation or reassurance that will help them to influence others in their various constituencies upon whom they depend or who depend upon them?

This will require us to see and appreciate the other side(s) of the story, of which there will be many. It will necessitate graciousness and acknowledgment, recognition and generosity, all of which will be needed in plentiful supply in the aftermath of a referendum anyway.

It may be argued that this is all too theoretical and other-worldly. But why? What if the prisoner on Robben Island had taken that view?

Why should politicians and voters not take part in a well mannered, properly constructed and thoroughly rigorous dialogue about the most important constitutional questions facing this country in 300 years? Why be satisfied with a less sophisticated, more partisan debate? What have we to fear in demonstrating to the world that we can once again be enlightened in our conversations about the most important and difficult topics? Looking at the big picture, this is about the future of these islands. We can’t afford to do it badly.

Indeed, we may need help to do this well. It takes a big person to accept that he or she does not have all the tools, skills or competencies necessary to do a job properly. We may need to call for assistance. The role of “third siders”, people with no interest in the outcome but whose role is to facilitate difficult conversations, is well recognised and often appreciated in situations where the protagonists wrestle with positions and their own inevitable partiality. For example, perhaps there would be a role for Nelson Mandela’s group of distinguished former world leaders, the Elders? People like Kofi Annan or Mary Robinson carry enormous weight and have great wisdom. Their engagement could be a game changer.

(First published in Holyrood magazine.)


John Sturrock

John Sturrock is the founder and senior mediator at Core Solutions, Scotland's pre-eminent provider of commercial mediation services. As a pioneer of mediation throughout the UK and elsewhere, his work extends to the commercial, professional, sports, public sector, policy and political fields. He is a Distinguished Fellow of the international… MORE >

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