Devices for discussion

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Over the last few years, we’ve seen our societies polarise around divisive issues, be it around Brexit, lockdown and more recently, the monarchy. Often the tools used to sound out the population reinforce that division, like opinion polls or referendums.

You can almost predict the result will be each side reinforcing its arguments and opposition to the other, with no room for discussion. Shortly after Brexit, I got involved in More in Common, an organisation that was set up shortly after Jo Cox MP’s death from a far-right terrorist. It was aimed to build bridges and one of the activities was bringing together people who had voted for Brexit and against it to find common ground.

It got me thinking that amidst all the new technology, many of the tools we used are created to find winners in debates…and therefore losers too, as opposed to genuinely understand each other. Of course, we have citizens assemblies or digital platforms for deliberation like Decidim, but what can we learn from our ancestors.

From our older generations, we can find the circle of life created by Native Americans, where people gather in a circle in an equal way as everything in the circle of life is equal and so should everyone’s issues be. At the same time, the Western culture brought people together at boardroom tables. What we call the Cabinet of Ministers was named because the Prime Minister wanted to gather his top advisors in a small private room, called a cabinetto in Italian.

The native Americans also invented the burden basket where everyone could leave their troubles at the door before entering a discussion. There is also the talking stick, where people can ask to talk and have the stick to empower them rather than only one person having the stick or microphone.

The open space method was created accidentally by someone who had planned a perfect agenda, but then found people had more meaningful discussions during coffee breaks. He decided to create a way for people to decide what topics they would discuss and be able to set up their own sessions and anyone could come and go as they pleased — the law of two feet. These have now been adapted to the modern age into barcamps or unconferences.

The world cafe method is a way for people to be able to share their views on a range of subjects and mix up who they share them with, so everyone has time to have their say with different groups.

Future search is a similar mechanism where people share the past, present and futures around the issues to bring in all the elephants in the room out of the closest and debate conflicting issues healthily. They are then asked to identify ideal futures and find and then confirm the common ground they have agreed upon, as a way to move forward.

What methods do you use to help people find common ground?

What have you learnt?

What can we learn from other sectors and cultures in how to get people to overcome differences and take action together?