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Finding Consensus

Originally published in Holyrood, Dec 3, 2012

I am not an expert in neuroscience or
neuropsychology but, as a mediator who
works extensively in conflict management, I
am aware that very significant advances have
taken place in recent years in understanding
how our brains work and the impact
of internal and external factors on our
individual and collective decision-making.
Might these have implications for how the
referendum campaign is conducted and how
we respond?

Whether or not Scotland should become
independent may be viewed as an exercise
in risk management. What are the specific
advantages and disadvantages of each
course of action? Can we assess pros and
cons objectively? One might take the
economic dimension and project forward
on a number of different assumptions,
always remembering that Black Swans lurk
where we cannot see them and of which by
definition we cannot take account. But our
view of risk is itself often subjective and we
can be inclined to over-estimation – 90 per
cent of us, apparently, consider our driving
to be above average. Some of us can be risk
averse, preferring the status quo unless the
advantages of change are demonstrable and
significant. Possible marginal gains will
not make a difference. Uncertainty will
compound our resistance to change. Others
can be over-optimistic, wired to assume
that everything will work out, even if the
odds and the evidence are obviously stacked
against us. Human survival may depend on
such optimistic attributes. But should that
extend into our constitutional future?

Our opinions are formed by our
experiences, beliefs, prejudices and assumptions. We often jump to conclusions
and then look for evidence to affirm our
view, distorting, ignoring or rejecting that
which conflicts with our perceptions. The
trouble is that, as the great lateral thinker

Edward de Bono reminds us, 90 per cent
of errors of thinking are due to errors in
our perception. There are many sides to
each story. However, those who are good
story-tellers can play to our natural tendency
to look for reinforcing evidence, and to be
influenced by what we are told, by ‘priming’
us to respond in a certain way, at certain
times and in certain circumstances. If this
sounds Machiavellian, ‘priming’ may occur
unconsciously as myths become facts. Our
seeing and hearing is necessarily selective.
We can over-simplify and see or hear only
what we want to. We may miss the gorilla in
the room…

This, of course, could apply to the posing
of a question. Thus, a question which tends
to suggest an answer is known as a leading
question. It may be argued
that the question ‘Do you
agree’ (with such and such
a proposition) is a leading
question – or at least that it
is formulated to stimulate a
certain response, to which
we may be predisposed
because of an earlier narrative.
Compare: ‘Do you agree
that Scotland should be an
independent country…’
with ‘Do you agree that
Scotland should be a part of
the United Kingdom…’. Or consider this
formulation: ‘Do you disagree that….’? A
single question might still be composed
along the following entirely open lines:

‘What future do you wish for Scotland:
(a) to be an independent country or (b) to
be a part of the United Kingdom?’ (place
a cross/‘Yes’ against your preference).

Alternatively: ‘Do you think that Scotland
should be (a) an independent country or
(b) a part of the United Kingdom?’ (place a
cross, etc). Or ‘Which would you prefer for
Scotland: (a) or (b)…..’ etc. These different
formulations could be viewed as ‘framing’,
which is a well-recognised technique to elicit particular responses. Selection of one
word rather than another may well result in
different responses: consider these options:
‘agree’/‘disagree’; ‘in’/‘out’; ‘keep’/‘lose’.

Or, from the examples of questions
suggested above, ‘remain a part of ’ might be
substituted for ‘be a part of ’. What does ‘be
a part of ’ or ‘independent country’ actually

As Sir Ian Byatt reminded us in his recent
David Hume Institute annual lecture, we
need to be aware of what Nobel laureate
Daniel Kahneman has described as ‘system
one’ and ‘system two’ thinking. The former
is our automatic, often unconscious,
instinctive, emotional response to a
situation, perhaps one of perceived danger.
System one might be recognised in some
group behaviour, where fear of appearing
different can lead to rushed, lowest commondenominator,
responses. The latter is our
more controlled, rational, logically coherent
self. It occurs when we hold our breath, pause, sit back and reflect on the evidence
and consequences before we react. Each is
essential to our survival, of course, but over
reliance on system one, like over-optimism,
may lead us to decisions that we regret in
the cold light of day. When a narrative based
more on emotion is played out to influence
us, we may need to guard against having only
a system one response.

Edward de Bono (again) proposed his
system of six thinking hats to separate out
the often conflicting and mixed-up processes
of decision-making. Perhaps we need such
discipline now? What are the real facts (white
hat)? What are the options (green hat)? What are the pros of each (yellow hat)? What are
the downsides (black hat)? What do we feel
about it all (red hat)? And to manage this
well, we need a blue hat process manager
– maybe the independent research body of
which much has been spoken recently.

All of this suggests that we may need
to adopt a more considered approach to
our analysis of future prospects, whatever
‘side’ we are on. In other words, we have
much to gain if we are able to focus on,
and indeed set out, our interests rather
than our positions. Could each campaign
do so, perhaps posing questions that they
would ask others to address? In reality, we
will all have much more in common than
that which appears to set us apart. But a
polarising campaign will reinforce prejudices
and enmity. That is unlikely to be helpful
in the long run, whatever the outcome and
frustrations about the result. We will need to
work – and live – together in the aftermath
of the referendum.

If we take a more measured, thoughtful
approach to the use of language, our behaviour
and the gathering and explanation of various
points of view, along with the arguments for
and against courses of action, we could raise
the game, be an example to others of how
serious dialogue and debate can be conducted
in the modern world, and prepare ourselves
better for the future after 2014. Mutual respect
and courtesy might yet be the key to success.
Humility rather than hubris.

This assumes that we have the competence
to conduct ourselves this way, of course, and
that is where recent discoveries in the way we
all think may be of great assistance. It also
assumes that we are prepared to drop the
masks we (and our leaders) wear to cover up
our (and their) fears and vulnerabilities. It is
a big ask – but our future may depend on it.


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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