Council of perfection, council of despair...

Eddy Canfor-Dumas


February 2021

‘I think they need to sign up for one of your workshops!’ So said a friend last Friday when he sent me the video of the now infamous Handforth Parish Council meeting.

Like millions of others I watched and laughed – the committee meeting from hell, with added Zoom delights.

But what would we have done if The Creative Conversation Company (TC3) had been asked to help smooth the troubled waters of the Handforth Parish Council?

Here – heavily qualified by the awareness that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing – are three observations.

Conflict and confusion

The first thing that struck me was the degree of conflict and confusion on display. As we teach in our Conflict 101 workshop, these things often feed on each other, driving a confused and conflicted downward spiral.

Everything is bitterly contested about this Extraordinary Meeting – exactly who’s in charge, whether the Standing Orders apply and even whether they're technically meeting or not.

So central to all of this, as with all conflicts, is the need for clarity – including, crucially, about the status of the person invited in to try to sort things out, the indomitable Jackie Weaver, chief officer of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils.

Cue my second observation.

‘You have no authority here, Jackie Weaver’

Authority comes in several forms – legal, moral, the authority of experience or expertise – but when playing honest broker in a conflict it’s crucial to be accepted and trusted by the parties on all sides.

This is the true source of authority in this context. And the fact that Jackie Weaver is not accepted by a key player in this dispute – the Council Chair – means that her role as peacemaker was bound to be difficult, if not impossible, however benign her intentions.

In fact, as she was invited in by one side of the dispute, it’s unsurprising that she might be seen as lacking impartiality by the other side, especially if she’d kicked some of them out of a previous meeting.

That said, peacemakers often have to start without the explicit acceptance of everybody involved in a dispute, which means they have to work hard to try to earn the trust of the sceptical or the downright hostile. And until or unless they do, it’s rarely a good idea to bring everyone together in a meeting for which they’ve not been prepared, or even agreed to some basic ground rules.

If TC3 had been invited to help transform this conflict, our first act would have been to gauge the attitude of the key players to our involvement before deciding how – or even whether – to proceed. Because ultimately, it’s the parties to the conflict who are responsible for how it develops.

Understand First

My third observation is about the wider reaction to this video.

Many were quick to take sides and to see the dispute through the lens of their own concerns – the calm woman facing down bullying men, for example.

But being calm in the face of anger is no guarantee that you’re in the right. Neither is anger a clear sign that you’re in the wrong. Both can be a reflection of who holds the power in a conflict, for example, and who feels powerless.

In short, it’s tempting to make a snap judgment about a conflict when all you have is a snapshot of it. Which is another way of saying, again, that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Our mantra at TC3 is to ‘understand first’, which means giving all the parties who decide to engage with us the courtesy – as a basic starting-point – of an empathetic hearing. Through this we can begin to understand their history of the conflict, what they care about and the needs driving their thoughts, words and actions.

And on the basis of that understanding we can begin to explore together how the conflict might be transformed – if the parties are willing.

So, three observations, focused on three needs – for clarity, for trust and for understanding. Meet those needs and even Handforth Parish Council could have a fighting chance of achieving some harmony.

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