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Brexit needs more participation processes

Why am I, a non-brit, writing about Brexit? For me as a mediator, Brexit clearly shows that people were empowered by their opportunity to cast a single vote. A ​​single vote only. Brits were empowered to say something. Yes or No. Nothing else. But I believe this is only the tip of the underlying iceberg. What they seem less or not enabled to do, is to talk about their concerns, their wishes and to be truly listened to.

People want to be more or less politically active, but all want to be listened to. Everyone has needs; security, stability, a good health system, a secure neighbourhood, identity and many more. And everyone should take these concerns, needs and wishes seriously; politicians, the media, scientists, neighbours, doctors, lobbyists – everyone.

This is first step in any mediation cycle: listen to each other, be open about it and create an atmosphere where everyone can speak out and truly feels listened to.

​​Only in the next step can one start to discuss and debate. I have heard a lot of voices complaining about the quality of debate leading up to the vote. Perhaps there is a danger of deliberation about such complex topics being facilitated by the mainstream media? While social media offers some potential for debate, most people are surrounded by networks of people who have similar beliefs to their own and are less likely to come into regular contact with people who hold different viewpoints.

As a mediator, I truly believe that, if people feel like they are taken seriously with their concerns and ideas, these people are unlikely to want to change the entire system. Rather, they are already part of the solution; a more sustainable solution, as it does include their ideas, concerns and wishes. Sure, all this takes time, but it always will; that is inevitable. But the payback time on that investment is fast. What is needed more than anything else is the courage to listen to one another.

However, this is the catch. Active listening is a skill that is hard to find in society. You may think I am being harsh, but think about yourself while reading this. Have you had own ideas and already feel like responding? Are there points that you disagree or agree with based on your own interpretation of what I am saying? If you had the chance, would you have first asked me more about it, or tell me what you understood so we could clarify that we are on the same path, before starting the discussion? Or would you have interrupted me already by now to put your view across?

Once the discussion starts, lots of other conflicts may arise, and as seems likely between the UK and the rest of the European Union during Brexit negotiations, it might become necessary to turn to communication specialists to help smoothen out the situation.

But who are these communication specialists? They may be diplomats with the skills and experience necessary to navigate the highly complex and fraught decisions that we all face now in Europe. They may be mediators like me, or perhaps moderators or facilitators; people skilled in conflict resolution of all types, whether political, interpersonal or ideological. People turn to mediators in all sorts of crises, whether it be access to water across international boundaries or the resolution of a local planning dispute. New research published last month by de Vente et al (the subject of the last Fast Track Impact blog) provides statistical and qualitative evidence of the social and environmental benefits of working with professional mediators and facilitators when dealing with complex and contested decisions.

There are great examples of participation processes that are facilitated by communication experts have been successful, not only to bridge the environmental economics divide (e.g. see TEEB approach), but also to bridge the science–policy health divide (e.g. see Cochrane). Furthermore the ever increasing number of citizen science projects tell a story based on trusting dialogue.

As a strong believer of the power and opportunities that can be created by turbulent times like Brexit, I believe that skilled mediation between the strongly held, opposing beliefs of those who wished to leave or remain is likely to enhance the chance of coming up with more sustainable solutions, based on trusted relationships that include everyone’s voices and their underlying concerns and wishes.

Currently this stands in contrast to most traditional views of leaders. Perhaps we need a new style of leader who is able to represent a wider range of voices from his/her country by listening to them first, taking their concerns and wishes into consideration. We might need politicians who are not afraid to invest time listening to all stakeholders; politicians who are not afraid to lose power, when they also listen to “normal” people and not only to stakeholders from industry and the like. We need politicians who either have the skills to listen or are strong enough to ask for external specialist help, to facilitate deliberation and find a path through the Brexit negotiations with empathy, respect and power. Public displays of political leadership of this type are rare, but I hope that with the legitimate support of mediators who can support our pathway, we will be empowered to live successfully together in future.

In this light, I personally would be interested to know from you:

1. Who of you has the (practical) skills to lead such stakeholder participation processes? 2. Who is of you is prepared to train people to become good mediators/facilitators? 3. Who of you wants to become a good mediator/facilitator? 4. Who of you is in the position to call for and legitimize such participation processes?

Together, I believe that we can empower people to raise their voices, listen to each other’s concerns, come up with sustainable solutions and better relationships for a better world for ourselves and future generations?

Please use the comment box below. Looking forward to be able to “listen” to your ideas, receive questions so we can get each other on the same basis for a fruitful discussion. Thank you.

About the author: Rosmarie Katrin Neumann

Rosi is doing a PhD on science-policy dialogue while running the knowledge brokerage company IMPACT DIALOG. She has more than 10 years of interdisciplinary experience, split between research and practice. She trained originally as a landscape ecologist in Germany, Iceland and New Zealand. Since then she has worked with a wide range of stakeholders around the world, including NGOs, practitioners, policy-makers and national media. This included time working as a professional knowledge broker at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany, liasing between international science-policy interfaces.

Twitter @RosmarieKatrin

More about the knowledge brokering services provided by fast track impact, including mediation and facilitation/moderation of stakeholder processes on the fasttrackimpact website.

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