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Moving Towards Better Dialogue?

Much has been written about the need for better dialogue in Scotland and the world as we seek to find effective ways to address some of the seemingly intractable issues we face in the twenty first century.  There is a strong sense that the conventional antagonism of the blame culture and adversarial politics, which attaches to so much decision-making, is not what most people want.

There is little doubt that the win-lose, black-white paradigm is costly, in money, time, opportunity and dignity. It denies the obvious fact that life is complex, that most people are trying their best in difficult circumstances and that creativity, imagination, and compassion are more likely to achieve better outcomes than zero-sum games where there are often only losers.

Sadly, many of us seem hard-wired to be defensive, critical, and judgmental. Them and us. Our instinct is towards self-preservation and self-justification. It seems hard to really listen to another point of view, to acknowledge different perspectives, to work with others to find new approaches to problem-solving, and to recognize difference and diversity as resources rather than threats.

We tend to personalize the issues and to confuse the problems with the individuals who are trying to deal with them or who are perceived to have caused them. Instinctively, we look for confirmation of our beliefs, perceptions, and prejudices, not appreciating that these are often wrong and based on assumptions which we make about the world and our fellow travellers and which are often ill-founded.  Our minds are frequently closed to other points of view.

This partisan and rather unsophisticated approach to public debate, decision-making, problem-solving, and conflict resolution deserves our understanding as a facet of our vulnerability and fearfulness as humans. It reflects our strong need to save face and not to seem to be losing status or whatever it is that gives us a sense of importance in the world. But such a way of doing things may no longer be acceptable to many of us.  The problems and challenges we face individually and collectively are too great and multi-dimensional. The need for a different means to engage, consult, decide and resolve is too pressing.  We do need to change.

The aspiration to find a more civilised way to conduct discourse in the public square is easy to state.  The more fundamental question is ‘how’? Diagnostically, we are probably relatively unskilled in holding effective conversations. We lack the process and the techniques to engage properly with the difficult issues and to work our way through to fully developed solutions.

Arguably we need to learn a new way of conversing, moving from debate to dialogue.  This would give us the ability to hold more effective public consultations, conduct difficult meetings with confidence, reach more productive decisions, and resolve disputes and conflict in a more collaborative way. What might this new learning involve?

Undoubtedly, there is a process to follow which will enhance dialogue. Firstly, we need to understand what our objectives are, the underlying purpose – or the overarching big picture.  Failure to identify this at the outset of a project, or losing sight of it later, condemns many an initiative to failure.  We need to ask ourselves what our real needs are – and ponder the real needs of others. Where might these converge? What do we have in common? What is worrying others? Why? What has worked in the past – or not? What can we learn from this? All of these questions, and much more, are essentially preparation for meaningful conversations – for which, in our busy world, we find less and less time. Paradoxically of course, the more we prepare, the less time we will take overall.

We need to be prepared to build relationships – and to work with people in our communities across boundaries, whatever we think of them or of their behaviour or values.  If we can communicate with others with respect and courtesy, we can scrutinise and assess the issues with rigour. To do that, we need to understand, really understand, what is going on. That can only be done by suspending our desire to fix or solve the problem immediately, or according to our own view of the world.  And, with that, we might just begin to build – or rebuild – trust. After all, in most cases, we will need to be able to live together afterwards, whatever the outcome.

We must therefore spend time exploring the real issues, concerns, hopes, fears, objectives and underlying needs of all parties with an interest – the stake-holders.  We can only do so by asking questions, lots of them, and by really listening. That will often entail allowing people to let off steam, acknowledging the emotion of the situation. Giving them space to be heard. Often, just being recognised and acknowledged is half the battle, whatever the ultimate decision. But, for most of us, our tendency to assert our position, to justify our claims, precludes this and simply drives people further apart.  However, we cannot fulfil the aspirations and maximise the gains all round without a true understanding of what motivates others. And we’ll need to find mechanisms and techniques for large-scale discussion in sizeable groups as well as more intimate conversations with small numbers. We’ll want to use appropriately supportive and creative venues and technologies, all of which we will find exist already.

Once we have explored and focused the issues in full, we can identify and assess the options open to us. Here, creativity can be encouraged. What gems might we find among the apparent dross?  What are the pros and cons of each? Can we prioritise the possibilities? What criteria would we apply? What costs and gains might there be? What are the best and worst alternatives? What will work in practice? And so on, until we begin to see the preferable solution emerging, perhaps something unimaginable when we started and which might never have come to light had we adopted our right/wrong, let’s just “solve the problem” standard method.

Then, how do we help others to recognise the possible way forward? What about other constituencies?  Is there a way of presenting a message that will work for them? How do we build bridges to those who are disaffected, without whose support a project may founder?  How can we find a way to ensure that our interests are recognised and acknowledged, while finding ways to converge or align with the interests of others?  Can we find ways to test proposals without feeling threatened, protective or defensive? Do we need to build in an element of confidentiality to the deliberations and, if so, how to balance with transparency? How can we help people to make informed choices – and to exercise appropriate responsibility? Then, can we behave with graciousness and understanding towards those who may not have achieved what they sought?

Is this all too difficult? No it’s not, but it will be hard work. And it is skilful work. Our benchmark is not whether we can create a panacea but whether the outcome is at least marginally better than the alternative – the present way of doing things?

Thankfully, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. In other places, really good work has been done on how to enhance public and policy dialogue. We can bring the best of this to Scotland and develop our own indigenous methods. We can experiment. We only need one or two institutions, businesses, local communities and authorities, health trusts or policy-makers to take up the challenge. Walk before we run.

In fact, it is already happening in Scotland.  There are experiments with more structured public engagement on planning issues. In a pilot project, one community held a day –long discussion with developers and planners about the future of their village, using a mediator. Among the conclusions reached was that participants “overcame a range of problems in 8 hours which could have taken more than 2 years”.  One Scottish-wide company has invested in two days of skills-based mutual gains bargaining training for management and trades union representatives, together, as a prelude to wage negotiations – which were then reduced from the customary several months of acrimony to a few days of mutually beneficial dialogue. A public sector regulator has spent time with facilitators assessing how it might engage more meaningfully with its many stakeholders and partners. The Church of Scotland has trained over 40 ministers and senior managers in mediation skills with a view to approaching conflict in the church in a new way. Marine Scotland has held a series of facilitated public meetings to discuss proposals – and concerns – about offshore wind farms. Another public sector agency recently held a consultation, on the topic of allocation of working space in two buildings, with 50 stakeholders split up into mixed-interest groups sitting at round tables with flip charts  – and were inundated with ideas.

In the sporting world, managers, coaches and athletes are training in how to handle difficult situations in selection, teamwork and performance. Hundreds of members of the legal profession – and many businesses and public and private sector organisations – have trained or participated in mediation as a process to bring seemingly intractable disputes to a speedy conclusion – and the Edinburgh trams logjam was broken in this way. There are experiments with more structured public engagement on planning issues. HR managers are deploying more creative conflict resolution programmes which seek to find collaborative solutions early and to nip things in the bud, before they get out of hand.  There will be many other examples of genuine attempts at involving those affected in shaping key decisions which affect their futures.

So, can we take this thinking into the world of seemingly intractable conundrums in local communities, of major projects, of big political issues, of allocation of scarce resources, of partnering and joint venturing in a complicated world? Could we examine the big questions of the day, such as our constitutional future, with a fresh set of tools? Can we deal with economic crises, and get more with less, using collaboration as a means and an end? Reflecting on all of this, can we afford not to? And if we cannot afford not to, what do we do next?


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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