Viewpoint: Surely we can handle conflict better? Part two

In a second blog on handling conflict Perry Walker looks at how we might do things differently.

In my last blog, I gave a couple of examples of conflicts in communities that were handled badly. In one case there was a public meeting, which made things worse, while in the other there wasn’t any sort of meeting at all. In this blog, I’m going to suggest better ways to handle such conflicts.

Meetings of any sort only work if you can get people into the room. When there is conflict, some people, expecting a shouting match, are reluctant to come. That’s what we found when we were organising discussions around the country on immigration in 2017. This feeling is summed up by a young farmer called James Pedley, talking about the annual meeting of the citizens in his New England town: “I kinda dread going, because I know that when I come home I’m going to have the worst headache I ever had, a splitting headache”.

An alternative to starting with a big meeting is to start with small group conversations in people’s homes. Anyone who wants to start the conversation finds someone from across the divide who also wants to talk. Each invites two other like-minded people. The six of them meet in the home of the organiser. I wrote about this approach in relation to Brexit in this blog.

The first essential for any meeting in public is that people feel safe. We find that agreeing guidelines is really helpful. In our events on immigration, one of them was, “Don’t try to persuade other people that you are right.” We sometimes give everyone a yellow card. That way, if they feel the guidelines are being broken, they can call attention to their worry without having to make the effort to speak up.

Next, help people to find common ground with each other. In a few places around the UK, I have run a process called a Future Search Conference, which involves 64 stakeholders over two or three days. People enter the meeting room to see up on the wall three timelines, 10 metres long, divided into decades. One timeline is personal, one is local and one is global. People write in their key events for each.

The timelines remind people that they share with many others key personal events such as having children or moving to the area. They also find out that what is important for them in the wider world is important for others. One participant at an event in Farnborough, Surrey, remarked:

“I really enjoyed that because it made you feel part of the group. You know, how we all like feeling part of a group? We all came as individuals. And we went through it and you thought, ‘gosh, I thought I was the only one’.”

Once that common ground is in place, seek win-win solutions that work for everybody. One striking example comes from America and relates to child custody in divorce cases. In 2012, the Minnesota Senate passed a com­promise bill that had a default split of 35/65 for the proportion of their time that a child spent with the father and the mother. The governor refused to sign the legislation, noting that there were compelling arguments on both sides: those for a 50/50 split and those against. He called on the warring factions to break the impasse.

When the different factions did meet, most people were going through the motions. One of them, Rep. Tim Mahoney, later said: “I really had no interest nor any belief that it would actually do anything. One of my opening statements was that I didn’t trust anybody in the room.” Yet the group found common ground and a solution that worked for everyone. In 2015, a package of bills, developed by the group, passed the Minnesota House of Representatives 121-0 and the Senate 61-3.

If this sort of approach interests you, drop us a line.

Perry Walker is a co-founder of Talk Shop. He can be reached at perryw@talkshopuk.org or 07858 750936