I was in Dublin recently, discussing an initiative on respectful political dialogue with politicians, academics and conflict resolution professionals. It was a privilege to spend time at Glencree, the centre for peace and reconciliation where so much has been done behind the scenes to ease the conflict between communities in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. More work might be needed soon, I suppose.
I was struck by a remark made by one of my hosts that many people in the Republic of Ireland knew very little about their neighbours in the north. This is an island which covers about 32,000 square miles and where the distance from Dublin to Belfast is about 100 miles.
Two weeks earlier, we had a family holiday to Moscow and St Petersburg. This trip to Russia was nothing less than a revelation. How little I knew about that great country, which spans nine time zones and has a land mass greater than the surface area of Pluto: the traditions, the culture, the ethnicity, the language, the economics and, most of all, the geography; a country which has been invaded countless times in its history, suffering extraordinary losses, not least over 20 million deaths sustained in World War 2; a country whose western and south western borders are with nations which were once a part of the Soviet monolith but are now viewed as satellites of a West which in turn is seen, perhaps unsurprisingly, as unfriendly. However intangible the threat, the feeling of insecurity seems very real.
None of this may justify some of the Russian government’s current actions. But it does help one to understand those actions better and be thoughtful about what steps are most likely to ease tensions.
Incidentally, Russian youngsters in these cities have, we learned, very similar aspirations to those of our own: a good job and an opportunity to better themselves. They experience the frustration of property values well beyond their means. They have their hopes and fears. They were much like, and wish to be like, our own young folk.
How little we know about each other. We are prepared to make assumptions, however. And judgements. These tendencies can be detrimental to building the kind of sustainable relationships which will enable us to survive and thrive, whoever and wherever we are. The same applies, of course, to the commercial disputes in which many of us participate.
How little the disputants often really know about each other: financial situations, problems in supply chains, failures of sub-contractors, the effect of a change in senior staff, discovery of an unforeseen physical problem with a project, limitations of technology, the frailties of human nature. Contracts are designed, of course, to circumvent many of these imponderables. We all know how expensive, time consuming and destructive a contractual dispute can become and how important getting to the real issues can be. That is where, even late in the day, good mediation can add real value.
A competent mediator will look for ways to enable people to get to know each other and understand more about how they really see things. I often invite all concerned to have breakfast together. That allows them to mingle: lawyers, experts, clients and support teams. After a few words to the gathering from me, the principal decision-makers often stay behind for an informal chat with me. How revealing that meeting can be, how helpful to the establishment of a working relationship which can pay dividends later. The discussion can be cathartic, tough, difficult, a revelation. The point is that it contains the possibility of encouraging the kind of change in tone which may be essential to moving matters forward – and to enabling those involved to find out what’s really going on, what it’s really about, under the surface.
How much more might be done if we could reverse engineer some of our disputes and encourage business and individuals to consider and understand, at the contract/relationship-creation stage, some of the human and other non-legal or even non-commercial factors affecting their counterparts.
We might even hope that international diplomacy and foreign affairs would (re?)turn to such a considered approach in the dangerous years ahead, rather than seeming to perpetuate stereotypes and often poorly founded mythology. We really need to get to know our neighbours, whoever they are.
This blog was originally published in The Scotsman on 21 August 2017.