Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised by the whole Brexit affair. I’m not talking about the result of the vote itself, but about the referendum process, the behaviour it engendered, and its aftermath.

All the classic features were present. Classic features of what? Well, of binary processes. Those that offer a win/lose, yes/no, remain/leave outcome, and nothing else. Rather like courts, as it happens.

Of course, I realise that decisions do need to be taken, and referenda are intended to produce a clear picture of the will of the people (only just, on this occasion, but I suppose it’s clear at least). Nothing wrong with that.

But the problem is that for all the desire for clarity and decisiveness, binary processes come with some fairly hefty downsides. And these have been laid bare for all to see in the referendum process. I will mention three.

The first is the swift descent into simplicity and caricature. Like so many political campaigns, the referendum arguments were marked by ridiculous, almost banal, simplicity. “Remainers” and “leavers” alike argued, in effect, that their desired outcome had all the pros and none of the cons. A cursory glance at the complexity of the situation, and the number of possible ways in which it would impact, will tell you that that cannot possibly be the case. Simplicity is one of the few descriptions which could never be applied to the situation. Indeed the post-referendum complexity which now confronts us makes that abundantly obvious – but too late. Conflicts do that, of course – engender a descent into simplicity and caricature – but binary processes exacerbate it. When I mediate, I am often struck by how those involved appear to have reduced the sheer complexity of the situation to a simple series of (apparently certain) propositions. Nowhere is this more true than with the history of events, with stories. However complex, multi-layered and nuanced they may have been at the time, however much “six of one and half a dozen of the other”, however much there may in fact be some shared accountability for what went on, both the conflict itself and the processes by which we address often it (usually violence or litigation) drive parties towards simplicity and caricature.

Life is complex. Conflicts even more so. Do we not want conflict resolution processes that can handle complexity? Perhaps one of the great contributions mediators can make is to re-complexify (if that word exists), to re-introduce nuance. Indeed, at a human level the mere fact that we can form constructive relationships with all parties can be a challenge to the belief that each may hold that the “other” is so wrong – legally, morally, in every way – that no constructive relationship with them is even possible.

The second downside of binary processes is that they make no space for a range of options. By definition, only two outcomes are possible. Win or lose. Sink or swim. Remain or leave. Being close (eg 48.1% to 51.9% in this referendum) is not enough. As I said at the start, I realise that decisions need to be made, and the referendum was part of that. Votes happen in many, presumably all, parliamentary systems. But they can also be deeply damaging. A few years ago, it was my great privilege to mediate the long-running conflict in the Church of England about whether women could become bishops (they couldn’t then, they can now). Like many institutions, the Church of England has a governance system which is quite “parliamentary” in style. Because of that, the preceding decades had been marked by a “campaign” to permit women to become bishops, building up a head of steam towards a vote in the General Synod (the Church of England’s “parliament”). Several times, the matter come up for a vote. In the usual way, votes were preceded by speeches. These took the inevitable form of people speaking either for or against the motion. Each time, a vote was then taken. Each time, it was defeated. On the final occasion before mediated talks began, the vote was extremely close, but the proposal was still defeated. The body was profoundly divided. The pain was great.

Some 18 months of mediated talks followed. What emerged was a series of options, far removed from the binary simplicity which had gone before. The options themselves were complex, but essentially made space for differing views, to differing degrees. Eventually the designated group involved in the talks (about 40 representatives of all “sides”, in total) arrived at near (though not quite complete) unanimity on one of the options. They took that back to General Synod and jointly proposed it as the way forward. It passed comfortably. I was very moved to be in the public gallery at the time. Many of the speakers noted two things:
1. How the tone of the debate had radically altered from what had gone before, being now marked by a greater degree of mutual understanding and generosity of spirit, because of the extensive dialogue which had taken place; and
2. How much more appropriate it was to be voting on an option which had emerged from fulsome dialogue, and which attempted (successfully in the eyes of most) to make space for different views.

Granted, the Church of England’s experience was on a much smaller scale than the UK Parliament’s. But they are both parliamentary systems. The challenge is obvious.

The third feature of binary processes is that they often engender decisions motivated (at least in part) by fear – the fear of losing. This is hardly surprising given the limited options of win or lose. I see this so often when I mediate. And it is important for us to recognise it, because as a mediator I want people to make good decisions – whatever those may be. Decisions made out of fear are rarely sustainable or wise. The referendum campaigns majored on fear. The Remain campaign was dubbed “Project Fear”, but in truth both sides played on people’s fears – economic, social, cultural, and many more.

When I mediate, I often find myself encouraging parties – encouraging them to think hard, to take difficult decisions, to have uncomfortable conversations, to consider risks, and so on. And here I use the word “encourage” literally. To “en-courage” – in other words to engender, build up, or enable a greater degree of courage. To try to ensure that wisdom, and not fear, becomes the primary motivating force in their decisions, or at least that fear is not the only one.

The need for courage extends beyond our role in individual disputes. The mediator’s voice needs to be heard in society, and not just in individual disputes. We need to be “prophetic” in the best sense of that word – not as in prophesying or predicting the future, but holding up a challenge to the status quo. True prophets in every age have done that. And it always takes courage. Perhaps we need to be challenging the nature of public discourse and decision-making more. After all, there will be no shortage of it over the coming years, not least on the Brexit issue.

And what about the post-Brexit future? Well if I have learned anything from 25 years of mediating, it is that complex negotiations are rarely predictable and rarely go in a straight line. These will be no different. But they will certainly be better if we can learn to disagree well. I’m not saying mediators would have made a difference to the referendum outcome (though it’s possible). I am saying that the fundamental dynamics that mediators work with played out before our eyes in the referendum, and there was a chilling inevitability about the outcome. Somehow we need to do things differently.

And this is in no small part a leadership issue. The cry in the UK at present is for good political leaders (the PM having resigned and the leader of the opposition having been on the wrong end of a no confidence vote by his MPs). I read this, in part, as a reaction against the caricatured simplicity of what we have just been through. Effective leadership does not mean the blind pursuit of what you consider right. It also requires the ability to carry people with you (at least to an extent) and the wisdom to look for solutions which enable that. Understanding conflict is integral to leadership.


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  1. Bill, I agree in all respects. The Brexit debate and the result that followed have all the earmarks of the value destruction that accompanies litigation. This has prompted some of us in the mediation community to ask, where was the UK’s leadership in mediation when all this was happening? And where is it now? Isn’t the situation crying out for a mediated solution, both within the UK and in negotiations with the EU?

    The American writer H.L. Mencken once said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” The Brexit vote and its consequences have once again proved Mencken to be correct. Mediation would seem to be an ideal means of stopping some of the value destruction and moving towards understanding the complexities of the problems and helping identify solutions are more suitable than simple.

    1. Thanks Mike. I think your criticism of the UK’s leadership in mediation is a fair one, and I include myself in that line of fire. I did begin article to submit for publication, but that was as far as it got. And the truth is, that’s probably not good enough. Perhaps my call for courage in the blog was more personally focused than I realised.

  2. Dear Bill,
    Thanks for posting this – Some sensible comments are slowly beginning to emerge from below the parapets and out of the trenches, though the hysteria between the 2 sides shows no sign of abating. Either it stops quickly or it will damage the UK far more than either decision could have done.
    Mediation is the best of any of the solutions so far suggested. What a pity, no one tried it on the two sides during the campaigns.

    1. Thanks, Richard. There is still much to do to improve the quality of the negotiations that follow from here, and the tone and content of political exchange more widely, so it is not too late.

  3. Very encouraging to hear the Shared Conversations model being held up as an example of how difficult conversations can be had in the face of the referendum. How far we have come since the Church of Scotland Place for Hope conference!

    1. Thanks David. I think that the dialogue in the Church of England over the last few years has been a giant leap forward, and at the same time acutely conscious of how much remains to be done, and not only in religious circles. I very much hope that the model of dialogue we have been using can have wider traction and impact.

  4. Very elegant analysis of the intersection between binary processes and conflict resolution. As Malcolm Muggeridge, onetime editor of Punch is reputed to have said – ‘No dispute is ever about what it’s about’. Your own experience in the toxic and bitter tussle within the Church of England provides a wonderful reminder of the power of a skilled mediator to kep parties focussed on a good outcome rather than on being right.

  5. Bill, I want to commend you for your lucid critique of litigation and other binary processes. I will cite your three consequences with attribution the next time I mediate a case where parties cannot see opportunities beyond their confining litigation disposition.

    Thanks for your cite too. I frequently cite without attribution the quote “The presenting problem is usually not the real one.” I welcome a cite for this quote.


  6. Great analysis, Bill. I think if you have done as many mediations as we have then you can see these patterns materialising. Sometimes the situation has to get really bad before people feel enough pain to want to change the trajectory.

    In a recent mediation, where one partner wanted changes to the status quo and the other partner couldn’t accept the need for change, I said to them both (individually) that their situation bore the characteristics of Brexit. “What do you mean?” “Well, one partner put their hand up and said this is not working for me anymore and the other partners refused to talk about it in a meaningful way.” And here we are.

    We do need courage and we are lacking leadership. The greatest sign of courageous leadership is the ability to change your course and to know why you are changing your course. That really is the power of mediation, conversation and shared understanding.

    I don’t think it is too late and I do believe that there is a negotiated settlement which respects the complexity of the ‘friendship’.

  7. Bill, a very thoughtful analysis, as I would expect. There is a great opportunity for mediators of your experience to assist, especially as there will be so many different voices (and interests) from both the UK and EU ‘sides’.

    A concern must be that with so much at stake and fear on both ‘sides’, the negotiators will dig in and will be unwilling to lose face by agreeing a deal which shows any sign of ‘weakness’, whereas with care both ‘sides’ can come away strengthened.

    Perhaps this point might be a suitable focus for Mediation Awareness Week.

    Hugh Elder

    1. Many thanks Hugh. I agree about the opportunities which are arising, and I like your idea of this being a focus for mediation week. Can you suggest that to those organising it?

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