We all know that something really interesting happened in British politics with the agreement of the Conservatives and Lib-Dems 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 and in discussion about politics. So, the questions and observations now tend to focus on the differences and potential areas of disagreement.
But it does not need to be that way. For those of us who are engaged in the field of managing disputes and differences at all sorts of levels, whether as mediators or behind the scenes facilitators, the really interesting development will be the extent to which the leaders and the parties can change the language of dialogue and move towards a genuinely collaborative way of discussing the issues and addressing inevitable tensions. This will depend hugely on their ability, in the really pressured situations, to think in terms of mutual interest rather than narrow 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 the realities of 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 the inevitable provocative questions about differences.
The potential is to move from the zero-sum game of win/lose in politics and in public discourse about important matters to a much more constructive and open engagement with the issues, acknowledging shades of grey and the value of exploring the underlying causes, hopes, fears, concerns and aspirations of people. This could lead to a much more inclusive approach to the generation and analysis of various 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 in argumentation, we should look to build creatively on ideas whatever their source, 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". Avoiding making assumptions and passing judgments about one another will assist Government ministers and others to prolong the benefits of coalition. It will not be easy but it is essential.
There is a really interesting challenge for the rest of us. The literature these days is full of talk of partnering, cooperation and collaboration and there is no doubt that those of us who serve as mediators can report that remarkable results are being achieved by those who buy into these ideas and utilise them effectively in business and organisations, especially utilising mediation as a powerful process to unlock difficult situations. Mediation is often a hidden component in problem-solving but one whose 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 hopefulness and 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, whether 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 and to support its aspirations to do things differently, it is much more likely to be a success. Do we want it to succeed – or to fail? Can we bring ourselves to be fellow collaborators in the national interest? Maybe our future depends on it.