I'm listening to Matthew Taylor's Agree to Differ on iplayer. It's hard not to get caught up in the subject matter - in this case fracking - but I'm listening out for process.
I agree with Matthew Taylor's contention that in most media coverage of controversial topics "the protagonists spend more time attacking and caricaturing each other than they do addressing the heart of the issue". I also think that the orthodox approach, which is to set up discussion and disagreement as debate, with winners and losers and settled points of view, may be entertaining but is rarely a way of finding the best understanding.
In his own blog, Matthew writes about the origins of the radio series:
‘Imagine’ I thought ‘if we applied the kind of techniques used in mediation to shed much less heat and much more light?’ Vital to that method is requiring that the protagonists resist caricaturing each other’s position – something which immediately inflames debate – and focus instead on clarifying their own stance.
So what is the process that Matthew has followed in this refreshing radio programme?
- Matthew is cast in the role of mediator, and our mediatees in this opening episode were George Monbiot and James Woudhuysen - one in principle at least in favour of fracking, and one opposed to it.
- There was a round of introductions: personal, anecdotal and focusing on the very early inspiration rooted in childhood experience. Matthew himself didn't provide the same kind of introduction: he's facilitating the conversation, rather than joining in. This helped to humanise George and James: it's hard to take against these small boys with the mutual connections to woodpeckers (you have to listen to it!).
- Each mediatee was invited to give a short opening statement, uninterrupted. A bit like a courtroom or staged debate, but also with echoes of the uninterrupted opportunity to speak that you might have in setting up a "thinking environment".
- We were told to expect exploration of the things the protagonists disagreed about. This might seem counterintuitive: if what's being sought is agreement, how does exploring disagreement help. But wait...
- George and James were asked to summarise back the essence of each other's argument, and to find something in it that they do agree with.
- After a round of this, our mediator then summarised back what he'd heard about the remaining disagreement, and George and James had the opportunity to correct any misunderstandings in the summary. James took the opportunity a couple of times.
- At one point, Matthew sets out a ground rule, in response to James starting to say something outside the process: "The one rule we have here is that you're not allowed to say what you think George believes." Nicely done, and an interesting insight into the process being followed.
- This process was then repeated for a second area of disagreement.
- So for each key part of the topic, we heard about areas of agreement (e.g. "in favour of nuclear and renewables" and "neither of you sympathetic to NIMBYism") and we understood more precisely the remaining disagreement.
- At the end, Matthew summarised back what would characterise the most extreme positions - investing in or protesting against fracking. Which I found a bit strange as the sign-off: perhaps the demands of the medium for positions and opposition were too strong to be ignored.
Linearity in an aural medium
I wondered about the limitations of radio (or other aural-only media) in that you can only focus on one thing at a time: no post-it brainstorms or mind maps here, where all facets of a question can be presented at once. I find this very useful in face-to-face facilitation, for getting everything out on the table from all perspectives, before beginning to sort it. Does the "one-at-a-time" nature of speech reinforce the sense of opposition?
Well done Matthew Taylor for bringing a different approach to understanding a controversial question. Future episodes are on vivisection and the future of Jerusalem. Catch them on BBC Radio 4 Wednesday's at 8pm and Saturday at 10.15pm, or on the iplayer.