In a period of a little over 72 hours, everything I have learned in the past twenty years and all the roles I have aspired to play converged in a remarkable series of events.
It started with a meeting in a small town in the far north west highlands of Scotland. There, I was invited to facilitate a public gathering of people from the local community to discuss questions posed by the Scottish Government as part of its “Democracy Matters” consultation. This was a special moment for me as, one year earlier, I had facilitated a meeting in that same hall during Collaborative Scotland’s Better Conversations Bus Tour to the north and west Highlands. That meeting had been a highlight of the week of meetings. It was good to be back as we mixed the Government’s questions with a fairly deep discussion about what this community needed to do in order to flourish at a time of reducing public sector financial assistance. Those in the hall worked in small groups and reported back regularly to the plenary session. My colleague Charlie Woods recorded it all on flip sheets which were taken away afterwards for distillation and action. There was a palpable sense of progress and purpose. We need our rural communities and the rural economy to flourish. Finding innovative ways to do so is critical. Having meaningful – and respectful - conversations is one of the keys.
The following day I was in a larger northern town, hosting day two of a mediation. The issues were complex and I admired the two lawyers’ grasp of the detail. This was really an exploration to discover whether there was enough common ground to avoid the matter going to arbitration. As it turned out, and very unusually for mediation in my experience, there wasn’t. But the parties were accepting of the fact that they had tried to find a solution. They had a much better understanding of the issues between them and, who knows, after reflection, may yet find an agreeable outcome.
Next day I travelled south of the border to near Birmingham where I found myself renewing my acquaintance with the governing body of a sport with which I had done a lot of work in the lead up to the London Olympics. The sport was a major medal winner in 2012 and here I was, working with the board as it planned strategy for the next Olympic cycle. What a privilege. My task was to introduce ideas about effective decision-making and structures for dealing with difficult and complex matters, in situations where there are many stakeholders. One of my frequently-used slides, about how small margins can make a big difference, actually features a photograph of an iconic moment in this sport. I hope that recognition went down well.
Off again later that day, this time to Dublin for a pre-conference dinner and then, the following morning, to deliver the key note presentation at the Mediators’ Institute of Ireland (MII) annual conference. MII is a vibrant organisation and I was most impressed with the incoming President who gave an inspiring opening address to the conference. Then I had well over two hours to facilitate a simulated mediation of The Family Case Study, conceived by me earlier this year as a political allegory. The dispute features five members of a family and its neighbourhood association. It is a play on the Brexit negotiations. With around 150 conference participants in the room, it was a major logistical challenge to allocate them all to the various national delegations - but it worked really well. The delegations met in groups, appointing their facilitators, rapporteurs and representatives. They worked from a set of questions about both process issues and substance. Periodically, the representatives joined me at the front of the room and we had a mediated meeting to discuss process questions, common ground and major concerns. What an experience. We learned together about handling such a large group, both within delegations and across the national contingents. The sense of engagement was palpable. And these non-politicians had some interesting insights into what is happening in the real world.
Finally, it was back to Edinburgh for an evening session at the Festival of Politics in the Scottish Parliament, on “Peacemakers of the 21st Century”. My role was merely to chair the meeting but, with four excellent and significant speakers with much valuable experience to share, I found myself working as hard as in any of the other events. That much of the really important work goes on under the surface was their central message – and a good one to summarise a fascinating three days.