I am at my desk, an hour after the conclusion of a really fascinating event here in Edinburgh, in which my colleague, Charlie Woods, and I acted as mediators in a simulation of a mediated process involving 10 delegations representing different interests in the current Brexit negotiations. With over 50 participants, allocated randomly to one of 10 stakeholders (the Scottish Government, the UK Government, the Welsh Government, the Northern Ireland Government, the Republic of Ireland Government, EU Heads of Government, American Congress, regions of England outside London and the South East, the islands of Orkney and Shetland and young people of Scotland), we had three and a half hours of engaging conversations, negotiation, diplomacy, plenary feedback and process reflections.

There was the additional backdrop that, on the day, the Scottish Parliament had voted in favour of a second independence referendum and the Prime Minister of the UK Government has signed the Article 50 letter announcing Britain’s withdrawal from the EU – a situation emphatically rejected by the majority of Scots.

We worked within the framework of a prepared structure with a sequence of questions and exercises, featuring both process and substance. We encouraged written commitment to respectful dialogue. We explored guidelines for effective working within delegations, common interests and real concerns about process. We asked each group to appoint a facilitator, a rapporteur, an observer and a representative to attend plenary sessions. After a while, we encouraged delegations to approach other delegations with a view to working together. This resulted in intriguing manoeuvrings and setbacks, rejections and shifts in allegiance. We ate together, promoting informal contacts among delegates. People kept a record of what they were learning.

As participants experienced being in the shoes of those with whom they may not naturally have had sympathy, familiar themes arose: the need to be heard, fear of being excluded, power plays, the need for and absence of trust, the value of a structure, misunderstandings about language, conflict within groups, management of diversity, gender roles, finding a voice for the marginalised, and so on.

There is a thirst for this sort of thing. Everyone participated and gained something from it. We had no talking heads, simply a few insightful reflections from seasoned observers about process. We mediators had cause to reflect on our role, not least when matters seemed to be getting out of control as delegations sought and refused to merge. When should we intervene? How far should we let things go and wait to see what happened? How should we deal with apparently abusive conduct (simulated of course). When do we improvise? How do we manage limited time?

A heartfelt reflection at the end: why can’t we see this kind of process being used in the real negotiations? It might actually make a difference – for the better – at the margins.


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  1. Fascinating, John – and Charlie – thank you for this great example. Chance are, you’ll find more occasions for these conversations as Scotland moves towards a referendum and the UK edges towards Brexit.

    All the best


  2. Hello John,My goodness what a cocktail. Plenty of cognitive barriers to play with. Fascinating to read. Thank you.

    It reminds me of another fascinating process and something which Amanda Bucklow carried out at the launch event for the Centre for Mediation and Dispute Resolution just a few hundred miles south at Nottingham Law School on 4th November 2016.

    It was called Open Space Discussion Forum… the full process of which I am sure she would share with you.

    You start with the whole group in this case 80 or so in this case students debating the question: Mediation: A Fresh Perspective, and you have a neutral knowledge bank present that knows all about it to make contributions when called upon.

    You ask each person present of the 80 or so to think of a burning issue if they have one. Its then formulated by the facilitator into a topic and its stuck on the wall on a large sheet of paper.

    When all the issues are out, the facilitator, in this case Amanda, groups similar ones together to formulate a “lead question.”

    Each lead issue gets put on the wall with its origins.

    The people who asked questions form a discussion group led by the person who asked the “lead question”.

    They then discuss for 30 minutes .

    A note taker and timekeeper is allocated to each group so as to identify the topics addressed and what was established / discovered.

    If during the conversation the group need some input from the “knowledge bank” Amanda would direct them to the person present within the group the most knowledge on the issue to provide their input.

    At the end of the afternoon the results of what happened is reported and those issues are taken forward for further detailed consideration.

    The rules for the process were based on 4 principles and the Law of two feet ( not fingers!)

    It has 4 principles

    1.whoever are present are the right people2whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened3when it starts it starts4 when its over its over….. AND

    The law of 2 Feet which means that everybody takes responsibility for what they care about. If you are not learning or contributing in a group conversation, then you use your “two feet” to go somewhere else and find a conversation where you can contribute and enhance your learning.

    Its great work…. if you can get it.

    Best wishes,

    Chris Cox.

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