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We All Have A Part To Play In Coalition’s Success . . . Or Failure

First published by The Scotsman, 1 June 2010

We all know something really interesting happened in British politics with the agreement of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to work in coalition.

What is interesting is the reaction. People don’t quite know how to deal with it. We are accustomed to an adversarial approach in politics. So, the observations now tend to focus on the differences and potential areas of disagreement – and where it might go wrong.

It does not need to be that way. For those engaged in managing disputes and differences at all sorts of levels, the really interesting development will be the extent to which leaders and parties can move towards a genuinely collaborative way of discussing the issues and addressing inevitable tensions. This will depend hugely on their ability – in the pressured situations they are already experiencing – to think in terms of mutual interest rather than partisanship.

There is arguably a considerable amount in common between the two parties and a common objective which transcends the positions they might traditionally take, namely to guide the country’s economy through these most difficult times. And not forgetting climate change and its implications, which are far greater than most of the narrower policy differences.

Remembering this Big Picture will help when the going gets tough and when the media and others ask provocative questions about differences.

The potential is to move from the game of win/lose in politics and public discourse about important matters to a more constructive, open engagement with the issues, acknowledging shades of grey and the value of exploring underlying causes, hopes, fears, concerns and aspirations of people. This could lead to a more inclusive approach to the generation and analysis of options for consideration before reaching conclusions on the way ahead. Utopian? Not at all – just a realistic approach to addressing the complexity of modern life.

Edward de Bono speaks of co-opetition; in other words, rather than knocking each other down, we should look to build creatively on ideas, looking to enhance and improve them in the interests of all. The coalition partners will need to work hard at this and it is encouraging to see good personal relations developing at the top. Getting on with people, even if (and especially if) you don’t share all of their views, is critical if you wish to have a working relationship. Margaret Wheatley once said: “It’s not our differences that separate us, but our judgments about each other.”

There is a really interesting challenge for the rest of us. The tools of collaboration are often a hidden component in problem-solving, but their influence is being felt more and more in public and business life – and no doubt in politics, too.

There is the potential to transform how we do things. But it takes skill, training, a new way of thinking and changed attitudes. It also takes a shift from cynicism and scepticism towards a genuine belief that most people are actually trying to do their best in the situation in which they find themselves. That is not easy for some of us whose thinking has been shaped in a world of conflict and antagonism – in politics, business or the workplace.

However, these things can be self-fulfilling. If we were to decide to help to make this coalition work, even when the going gets tough, it is more likely to be a success. Do we want it to succeed – or fail? Can we bring ourselves to be fellow collaborators in the national interest?


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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