Originally published in The Scotsman newspaper.
‘You’re the first group of people who have come here that I’ve spoken to in 40-50 years to talk about matters based purely and simply on having a conversation”. These remarkable observations were made by a local community councillor in a remote part of the north-west Highlands as we hosted one of our 13 events in the six-day Better Conversations Bus Tour in October this year.
The Tour was organised by Collaborative Scotland with support from several local bodies. The idea was to engage local communities in conversations about what was important to them in their area and explore how effective dialogue can aid problem-solving, help resolve contentious issues and reduce conflict.
The tour was an experiment which encouraged some remarkable discussions and opened up new possibilities, not least in how local people can take responsibility for their future. Finding a voice and being really listened to were recurring themes, especially for those in very rural and peripheral parts who feel disconnected from decision-making in more central areas. To that extent, exploring ways to restore autonomy to those who are most affected by choices made elsewhere, and encouraging taking responsibility in uncertain times, is reminiscent of mediation at its best. And, in a sense, that is also what the tour was about. We were demonstrating that mediation skills and techniques can be translated into broader decision-making. The fact that we were, with Collaborative Scotland, completely unaligned and impartial (and acting pro bono) also brought credibility and authority to the project, as good mediators seek to do.
We grounded the project in the Commitment to Respectful Dialogue, Collaborative Scotland’s eight-point protocol for handling difficult conversations which we had been privileged to promote at an earlier event in the Scottish Parliament, addressed by our first Patron, Ken Cloke. A number of MSPs and leaders of civic Scotland signed the Commitment that evening (see it at www.collaborativescotland.org). This theme of thoughtful collaboration is reflected in an Afterword to the recent historic joint agreement between the Scottish Government and BMA on the delivery of GP services, which describes a new “Scottish Negotiating Approach” and the collaborative relationship which the parties created to agree the contract. They anticipate it will set the tone for the future of primary healthcare in Scotland. There is a new direction of travel here.
I have been reflecting on these experiences as we observe the Brexit negotiations. It is hard not to feel that the approach to these lacks the discipline and basic tenets of effective negotiation. How well prepared are the negotiators? How clear and specific are the objectives? What thought has been given to strategy? Relationships are critical to good negotiations. How much effort has gone into building respectful relationships? To what extent has thought been given to language, messaging, finding common ground, really understanding and acknowledging underlying issues and the needs on all sides? Are the negotiators listening as well as asserting? What is the range of options available and capable of being developed? What criteria need to be applied to assess various possibilities? Crucially, how much time has been spent on analysing the alternatives to reaching agreement, objectively and with real data? Without such information, it is surely impossible to measure the acceptability of proposals made.
In a mediation not long ago, one party chose to prepare and circulate, at the last minute, a summary of its position which the other party felt was provocative and antagonistic. The consequence was an adverse reaction by the other party, manifested in a hostile presentation in the early stages of the mediation day. In turn, the first party was shocked by this response, seemingly having not considered the potential effect of their written paper. The upshot was reinforcement of preconceptions and prejudices. A lot of work was required to restore a working relationship. This cost significant time which could otherwise have been used creatively. The Brexit negotiations appear, at least on their face, sometimes to replicate this sort of unhelpful behaviour. Commitment to respectful dialogue and to finding underlying interests, especially in tough moments, seems vital. Courage in managing outside constituencies would be a real sign of leadership. What applies in rural Scotland, in public sector negotiations, and in commercial dispute resolution, is just as applicable in international political diplomacy.