maandag 11 juli 2016

If you ask the wrong question ...

... you may end up in a dead end street.

Ever since the vote for the Brexit and against Bremain on June 23, it puzzled me what had happened. Like many others, it stayed with me throughout the days. In a lot of commentaries, it was mentioned that the referendum showed that a lot of people felt that politicians did not respond to their needs and worries. That the vote clearly showed that people had enough of the immigration policy, that especially people who were not able to find their place in the globalizing world, voted no. All explanations about how to interpret the no. And yet, it was unclear, it was a guessing game what to think. As if we had gone back in time to the Kremlin days. You never knew what it meant, yet there were insiders who knew that if Brezjnev stood on the left side of the balcony it meant something completely different than if he would have been spotted on the other side.

Lessons from the Bremain-Brexit referendum

This past week I taught a workshop on conflict management. Somebody suggested to spend a little time on applying what we learned on the Brexit-case. Within seconds people were voicing their opinion, and within minutes we would have ended up in a heated debate. As if we were discussing a Nexit. (The workshop was in The Netherlands).

Reframing and reformulating

We took a time out and reformulated the question and distinguished three different aspects. This helped to hear the different opinions and understand where people came from. We distinguished between:
1. Content/opinion. What is your opinion on Europe/EU?
2. Emotions/feelings. How do you feel about Europe/EU?
3. Concerns/needs. What is your concern? What do you need or wish?

On the level of the opinions there were just a few flavors: people were either for or against the EU. As if there were only two options.
We continued the talk and asked people to articulate their feelings. These feelings ranged from frustrations, disappointment to anger and impotency. Only one or two individuals expressed being thankful that Europe had not been at war in decades.
Than we asked people to express their concerns, needs or wishes. What happened than, was very interesting. Almost everybody felt the need for some sort of cooperation, some sort of creating a shared future and developing shared activities. Reform the cooperation and some of the procedures, yet no mention of leaving. The atmosphere in the room had changed from a fight or debate where one could be with the good guys or the bad guys, into a more open dialogue on what people missed, needed or hoped to find. A dialogue to understand rather than to conquer, to empathize instead of being insensitive to others. Same topic, translated into similar yet different questions, created a completely different discourse, feeling and conclusion.

Dead end street

It happened in the workshop as it so often happens in conflicts. If you ask the wrong question, you help to escalate the situation or freeze it. Create a deadlock where common ground can be found. Yet, it asks for a very strict and clear commitment to creating a process to explore and understand, before jumping to conclusions. It feels like taking a step back instead of moving forward. You are moving down a dead end street with emotions pushing you to continue till the end of the alley. The challenge is to stop this process, take a time out and try and look from a distance what might help to change the discourse and create any progress.

Counter intuitive 

The only way out feels counter intuitive: take a time out, sit down, and reformulate the questions. This does feel completely wrong and counter intuitive: to take a time out while you feel like running, to sit down and reflect while you want to conquer, re frame and reformulate questions, while you just want to shut the others' mouth.
However unnatural it feels, it is the only option. A hard lesson for Cameron and Johnston as it is for a lot of people who find themselves trapped in an escalated conflict.