Finding the Common Ground
‘A situation that has reached a critical phase’
‘An unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending’
Crisis is a word that is being frequently associated with climate and biodiversity and governments around the world are looking at how to respond to these crises. The Scottish Government views the twin climate change and biodiversity crises as an emergency and is developing policy to implement and encourage both structural and behavioural change1. Some say the government is “not acting fast enough”, or “going far enough”; while others suggest the policy direction is “a knee jerk response” and “won’t work”.
Often our natural human reaction to a crisis is to run for cover, batten down the hatches and prepare to defend what is ours. Understandably we are seeing this response across multiple sectors when the climate and biodiversity crisis is being discussed: people are feeling the pressure to change and change quick, many of whom feel they have been working away quietly and often unsupported in the background for some time trying to find better ways to manage the natural resources they are custodians of. At best they feel their efforts aren’t being recognised, at worst they feel blamed.
Some are responding to these feelings by closing down, putting up defences, and isolating themselves to resist outside ‘interference’. People on the ground living in rural Scotland are faced with voices saying: “what you have been doing all your life hasn’t worked”; “you aren’t changing fast enough”; “you are stuck in your past traditions and it’s time to move on”; “you’ve had it too good for too long”. Some environmentalists have become so frustrated with the pace of change they are turning to direct action.
Conflict inevitably escalates. Stakeholders polarise and begin to attack each other. People fail to see the human in each other, and relationships break down, creating barriers to forward progress or building collective solutions, even though they may recognise that something needs to be done. All across Scotland we are hearing of different sectors dealing with increasing tension as they try to navigate their way to a more positive future. It’s likely that as the crisis intensifies, so will the level of conflict.
The Scottish Upland Deer Sector decided to respond differently…
They recognised that badly managed conflict is not going to help progress and so asked themselves some important questions:
How do we recognise and respect the range of differences in the sector?
How do we keep people talking and working together to find solutions to these problems that challenge us all?
Conflict is inevitable, but how do we work our way through it well and not get stuck in a cycle of blame and shame?
They knew that to make progress improving relationships and building trust would be key.
Some sector leaders came together and approached Centre for Good Relations (CfGR) to explore how to navigate through diverging views, disagreements and conflicts that have occurred over the years (mostly around technical issues), to a different kind of process to look at the most crucial factor about how people work together on complex issues – the human dynamics and relationships between people.
The resulting ‘Finding the Common Ground on Sustainable Upland Deer Management’ project developed through the formation of a multi-organisation steering group; and an initial assessment involving 1:1 discussions with people from across the deer sector. The aim of the assessment was to develop understanding of the different perspectives and issues, and to assess whether stakeholders would be open to a civic mediation process.
Once it was decided to proceed, a process of dialogue was built which included a period of field work where civic mediation practitioners went out into the field to meet stakeholders face-to-face, (meeting online was a last resort, but helped cover a wider range of people across the Scottish Uplands), and held conversations directly between stakeholders. These conversations were structured by a series of increasingly well-attended workshops, (in Stirling, Dunkeld, Invergarry, and one held online), complemented by visits to listen to people on the ground at several highland estates. The workshops in Stirling were residential allowing time for stakeholders to build informal connections and relationships.
CfGR facilitated these discussions, using an ‘accountable dialogue’ approach which included the whole range of stakeholders from stalkers, land managers, environmental organisations, statutory agencies, academics and policy makers. This approach aims to build better relationships by bringing people together who see issues from different angles, but can potentially use their skills, expertise and diverse perspectives to work out how, together, they can find solutions to issues which they face in common. Over time, people focussed on how to handle their relationships to work towards the changes that are needed to address the twin climate change and biodiversity crises, and to support a healthy and vibrant rural economy.
Finding the Common Ground proved to be a positive and innovative process, which engaged increasing numbers of people over two-and-a-bit years’ work. It provided a space where difficult and important conversations could happen in an honest and constructive way. Most of all it brought people into relationship with each other and built a more positive and creative environment, allowing people to explore opportunities to work together in the future. One stakeholder described it as “an open and transparent process – a breath of fresh air”.
Of course, it has not ‘fixed’ everything, but the process provided a good basis for further positive steps…
At the final Finding the Common Ground workshop at Stirling University in June 2023, the fifty participants developed an emerging vision to describe what they would like the future to look like, and developed an accord committing themselves to abide by a shared set of principles about how they will communicate with each other, in order to set a standard for respectful behaviour throughout the sector. The workshop laid the basis for people in the deer management sector to communicate with the Scottish Government and others with a co-ordinated voice that respects fundamental differences of approach on the environment and the economy. Follow on work will build on the progress achieved, continuing to bring people from different viewpoints together to work collaboratively on areas of common interest.
Centre for Good Relations colleagues learned a great deal from the Finding the Common Ground process, both about the specifics of the conversations around deer management issues, and more generally about how accountable dialogue processes can support people working on challenging issues in the rural economy. This built on previous experience of stakeholder engagement processes and applying civic mediation to build understanding and relationships with people in the fishing industry, where a pilot process engaged fishers, government representatives and environmental organisations to build collaboration to support the achievement of healthy, productive seas.
Other partnerships looking to improve environmental outcomes are recognising the importance of actively working on and building positive relationships to ensure their success. One such example is the Restoration Forth Project; a partnership hosted by WWF who started their process asking the question: “How can we partner well with all stakeholders?” Our sense is that the approaches we have been using may have wider application on a range of issues for people working in the rural economies, the highlands and in marine areas around Scotland.
As the climate and biodiversity crises continue to loom; there are going to be increasing anxieties and feelings of desperation and exasperation, making it easy for people to slip into a negative cycle of conflict. It is important to find ways to keep people engaged in constructive dialogue, for them to feel empowered and energised to be creative, in order to find the solutions that are needed.
Sam Tedcastle, Centre for Good Relations.