A Mediator's Perspective on Brexit

Iain Christie, barrister - How mediation could help navigate the nation through Brexit

The national crisis facing the UK following the result of the EU Referendum has many similarities to the crisis facing couples following a decision to end their marriage by separation or divorce. Uncertainty about the future, fears about financial security and an inability to know exactly what is in everyone’s best interests, let alone how to communicate that clearly, are common to both situations. So too are high emotions which cloud our ability to think straight and act rationally in times of acute anxiety.

The qualities of leadership required to steward the nation through this period of upheaval mirror those of a good mediator. These include the ability to help each party to listen to the other side and acknowledge what they have to say (re-framing in more neutral language if necessary), to validate their feelings, to search for common ground and to identify shared interests. The mediator-leader will then gently move the participants away from their stated positions (Leave or Remain) towards satisfying their mutual needs. Whichever side people are on, their needs are the same as each other: for security, clarity, certainty, co-operation, fairness and peace. Once those needs have been identified, a practical plan can be worked out on how best to meet them to each side’s satisfaction.

None of this can be achieved overnight. That’s why family mediation takes place over a period of several weeks or months during which the parties adapt to their changing circumstances and reflect on how well the emerging solution will work in practice. The transition from being a member of the EU family to a new relationship with our ex-partners will also take a considerable amount of time to come to terms with. The mediator-leader’s role during this time is to create a calm environment in which to hold that difficult dialogue, to encourage all sides to keep going, appreciate the work they are doing and, above all, to stick to an agreed process which has a proven track record of reaching workable solutions at less cost than any of the alternatives.

As the UK and EU begin the process of separation, we might all reflect on our individual contributions towards creating the conditions necessary for a peaceful resolution of the current divisions within the country. Are we reassuring others that we will get through this period of change, despite our own uncertainties and vested interests, and placing trust that a process exists or will be found to bring about a lasting settlement; or are we adding to a culture of fear and foreboding by repeating over and over a narrative of division and doom?

Things may never be the same again but instability and conflict provide enormous opportunities for growth if we are open to a different way of thinking. As Einstein famously observed, we cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them. Mediation techniques provide an alternative paradigm for a different way of thinking to guide us safely through periods of profound change whether that be in our personal or national lives.

Iain Christie is a barrister and mediator practising in civil and commercial, family and workplace mediation. He is Secretary of the Civil Mediation Council and Vice Chair of the Bar Council Alternative Dispute Resolution Panel. The views expressed are his own.