Doing Dialogue

Preparation: Three Lessons from George Mitchell in Northern Ireland

February 20, 2015

George Mitchell didn’t enter Northern Ireland as a peacemaker. In February of 1995, President Clinton appointed him to a trade mission, meant to last until the end of the year. Rather than dedicating himself solely to policy, he spent his time building relationships, learning about the context in Northern Ireland, and earning the trust of all with whom he worked. Before the end of his appointment, authorities from Britain and Northern Ireland accepted Mitchell as one of three chairmen on an international commission on the disarmament of paramilitary organizations. Of the work the three chairmen would do over the next two and a half years, they would spend a comparatively small amount of time, only seven months, in substantive negotiations. What distinguishes Mitchell’s work? A model of preparation applicable in all levels of dialogue.

Over the course of months, Mitchell and his team created a series of documents based on their preparatory conversations that would guide the peace process. Similar to the framework of our flagship workshop, Power of Dialogue, these included ground rules, guidelines for conduct, an agenda for the opening plenary session, and terms of reference for the proceedings. Through this preparation, the parties voluntarily appointed Mitchell as chairman of the plenary sessions, and began to trust that he would act as a confidential and impartial facilitator of the ten parties involved – the British and Irish governments and eight Northern Ireland political parties.

In his account of the proceedings, Mitchell recognized, “Ultimately my ability to be effective would depend more upon my gaining the participants’ trust and confidence than on the formal description of my authority.” In spite of reoccurring violence, threats, attacks on his credibility, and leaks to the press, George Mitchell’s peace process plugged along, in no small part because of the framework and foundation he created with thorough preparation. The preparation did not minimize the divergences among the parties, nor did it attempt to begin building a solution. But preparation for any conversation – from a roommate conflict to a political conflict – can be invaluable. As you begin to prepare for your dialogue, here are three things you can learn from George Mitchell:

1. Listen.

In his account of the process, Mitchell said, “For the two years of negotiations, I listened and listened, and then I listened some more.” Begin to understand what the people involved in your dialogue want to talk about. Ultimately, this is their dialogue and you are there to serve their purposes. Feedback and information from party leaders directly informed everything from ground rules to the chairman and the agenda. Mitchell spoke at length with the British government as well as the representatives of North Ireland’s groups before beginning the dialogue to understand the full complexity of the conflict. (Granted the ramifications of this agreement would have an effect on British constitutional law, the Irish Constitution, and governance of Northern Ireland…but the principles are the same if the only effect is on house rules in a college dorm.)

2. Take the opportunity to ask the right questions. 

At Public Conversations, we focus our preparation on questions that will equip the participants to participate in the dialogue as much as possible, such as: What would allow you to feel safe in these discussions? What would inhibit you from participating in these discussions? What are you afraid of? What do you hope to achieve if all goes well? Who are you responsible for and what do they think? From the responses you gather, these conversations can help inform your structure of the meeting and the rules that guide it.

3. Don’t forget to build relationships.

As a facilitator, you are responsible for holding the participants of a dialogue to their rules and their process. To do so, they must trust you to lead them in an impartial and constructive way. Each participant must trust your confidentiality and your dedication to their purposes. As the negotiations in Northern Ireland picked up speed, Mitchell writes, “The only people who observed the rule [of confidentiality] were the independent chairmen. I believe that was one reason why the three of us gained the respect of the participants.” And as others began to breach the rule, they looked to Mitchell for guidance.

Preparation has been at the core of Public Conversations work for over 25 years, and we’ve realized many of the same benefits Mitchell did in Northern Ireland. Whether on the international stage or at the office, we all feel the temptation to get to the “actual work” as quickly as possible. But preparation should be prioritized, as it can lay the foundation for a constructive dialogue. So as you strive to use dialogue to encourage connection across painful divides, we hope you consider using these tools to set a foundation for a more effective conversation.

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