Bill Marsh: The mediator’s voice needs to be heard in society, and not just in individual disputes


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.

Bill MarshOf 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 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 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.


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.
Bill Marsh, mediator,

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