Why we need a talking revolution

The roots of Peter Osborn's passion for creative conversation reach right back to his family upbringing in West London.

I never had a proper conversation with my father. He was a generous, responsible, caring man, and we could always talk about sport or the weather or how to get from A to B. But whenever anything difficult came up – like my grandmother dying or why my mum never left the house (I later found out she was agoraphobic) – the answer would be ‘You don’t want to know about that.’ 

The trouble was, I did want to know about it.

Curiously, the more important a subject was, the more likely it was to be swept under the family carpet. The older I got, the more the frustrated I became with the culture of silence, especially around my mum’s condition. Mental illness in 1950s London, although very common in the wake of the Second World War, was a shameful subject. On top of that, my parents, while coping as best they could with the illness and the stigma, had no experience from their own upbringing of sitting down and talking things through. So my mum and dad, my sister and I were stranded in a kind of conversational desert, which none of us consciously chose or liked.

It would have been good to talk, as they say, but we didn’t know how. Not talking was just how things were. Fears and feelings went unexpressed, stories went untold and questions, if asked at all, went unanswered. Boy, was it dull, not to mention deeply frustrating.

I don’t know, even now, quite what I wanted to talk to my dad about, but looking back I can certainly recognise in my teenage self a need for a level of connection with my parents which, for all their great qualities, we never seemed able achieve.

So I left home, aged sixteen, and almost immediately made a remarkable discovery.

Rick and Min lived with their two young daughters a few doors down from my new place. It was the year when TV went from black-andwhite to colour, and the difference between my family culture and theirs was just as revolutionary.

They told each other things.

They wanted to know what was happening in each other’s lives.

They had rows, and laughed, and fell out and made up.

They had their challenges as a family too, of course, but at least things were expressed – often very colourfully.

Until I met them, I honestly didn’t know that families could be like that. I’d certainly never met one. For all its craziness, there was also something deeply sane about Rick and Min’s house. And I remember thinking, ‘When I have a home and a family, I want it to be like this.’

That happened.

Gayle and I had two children, a boy and girl. We talked a lot together, and listened to what they had to say. While they were growing up, I got the chance to work on a UK-wide project to promote the skills of dialogue in schools. It was perfect for me. I jumped at it – and almost immediately two things became very clear.

First, this not-communicating thing wasn’t limited to just my childhood, my family and the people we knew. There were problems all over – in families, schools, businesses, government, everywhere.

But, second, something practical could be done about it.

Years later, when Gayle was dying of cancer and life was at its hardest, I saw how our family culture of always talking with our son and daughter had helped them; not just to cope with their mum’s illness and death, but to develop into open-minded, wise, well-balanced young adults, comfortable with people and able to deal with life’s challenges in a way that my own upbringing certainly hadn’t prepared me.

It's conversation that makes the difference – creative conversation.

That’s clear to me now, and my purpose in co-founding The Talking Revolution is to encourage everyone to do more of it.


Overcoming Ethnic Divides

While disastrous ‘hot’ wars rage in Syria and beyond, bringing devastation to millions in the Middle East, Cyprus has been in the ‘deep freeze’ for a long time.   At a time of this turmoil and the great insecurity it brings to the region, a successful peace process offers a real opportunity to this small Island to be a good example of overcoming ethnic divides.

The optimism at the negotiation table at present may be indicating that finally Cyprus is approaching the point of breakthrough. 

Perhaps the leadership and the timing is now right and this time there will be a successful outcome; but then what will happen?  The post-conflict environment will be highly sensitive and fragile.  With a new era will begin the real hard work. 

The article questions if Cyprus is ready for a success and if she will be able to sustain a positive outcome.


Huffington Post, 22 March 2016, Cyprus Mail 27 March 2016



Cyprus: Can Civil Society Bring Life to a Stagnant Process?

by Yeshim Harris

Chapter published in: Resolving Cyprus: New Approaches to Conflict Resolution’ Edited by James Ker-Lindsay, London: I.B. Tauris, 2014

Executive Summary

Since the beginning of the Cyprus conflict there have been a number of direct and indirect negotiations between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot administrations. Even after so many years, these attempts have failed to formulate an answer that satisfies both sides. Following these, the stalemate now seems more intractable than ever before.

So far, settlement and peace building negotiations in Cyprus have largely consisted of bringing the political leaders, the UN and the guarantors to the negotiating table. In essence, all efforts to reach a settlement for a sustainable, peaceful co-existence have been guided by a traditional top-down approach, i.e. the elected leaders reach decisions on behalf of their communities, and once the talks are complete, then the leaders bring them along in support of the agreements or disagreements. Over the years, there have been attempts for engaging the two communities in the process, but these have been ineffective.

How does involving civil society and the wider public help with negotiations? Political leaders may sometimes be unable to adequately address the multifaceted and forever shifting relationships between the communities in conflict. With the best of intentions, negotiating behind closed doors may distort perspectives and leaders may find themselves lagging behind the changing dynamics at grass roots level.

In a conflict where two communities, as well as the broader regional or international actors are involved the overall picture becomes very complex. This has always been the case for Cyprus given its geopolitical position and the long history of the conflict. It is therefore understandable that those decisions that would potentially have particularly complicated implications would need a degree of confidentiality and diplomacy and may have to remain confidential until they reach a mature point in discussions. However does this necessarily have to entail absolute secrecy until the very end of the process?  

Experience from other conflicts shows that broadening the dialogue to include a wider range of opinions, especially from relevant civil society groups, can loosen up negotiation deadlocks. It helps the society involved to move towards long-term social change, and builds the capability to endure a peaceful co-existence by a number of ways. Is Cypriot Civil Society however ready to take on this task?

To achieve all these aims, structural reform of the peace process is needed, in order to allow a harmonious collaboration of the leaders, civil society and the wider public. South Africa and Northern Ireland provide good examples for Cyprus to learn from. After years of efforts and talks on these seemingly intractable conflicts, the leaders realised that an agreement without an inclusive process would not be sustainable. There is no doubt that many other factors contributed to the success achieved in these two conflicts; but it can be reasonably argued that inclusivity was one of the key components.

Every conflict has its own unique characteristic and therefore needs its own unique solution but there are important lessons Cyprus can learn from other peace processes, which can then be tailored according to its specific needs.

(The book is available to buy on Amazon or from the Publisher I.B. Tauris)



Cyprus Talks Re-Started: Will The New Hopes Survive The Old Methods?

(by Yeshim Harris, Published on Huffington Post - 28.2.2014)

After a long break, a new round of talks has started again in Cyprus. Both communities are busy preparing their negotiation teams; their politicians and leaders are discussing their shared views and remaining differences; and external stakeholders are looking on with very visible interest. On both sides, the media are buzzing with interviews, bulletins and TV programmes, and political analysts overseas are predicting and speculating on the future of this small Mediterranean island.

Two years ago during the last negotiations at Greentree Estate in New York, the atmosphere on the ground and overseas was entirely different. The indifference seemed tangible, the media were quiet and the negotiation process itself was drowsy.

What Has Changed?

The recent report of the International Crisis Group gives a good summary. Although the aspiration of these talks - i.e. some permutation of a bizonal, bicommunal settlement - is not new; this time, the stakes are different:

Firstly, the Greek Cypriot Leader Nicos Anastasiades is seeking a lighter federal structure than his predecessors, which will be more appealing to Turkish Cypriots and Turkey.

Secondly, there is dialogue first time since many decades, between the leaders and the guarantors of the opposite side; i.e. between Greek Cypriots and Turkey; and between Turkish Cypriots and Greece.

Thirdly, the international community is taking a much closer interest in this round of talks, due in part to the hydrocarbon resources discovered around the island in the past decade. 
Perhaps a further reason for such attention is the potential economic benefit of a settlement in light of the serious financial crisis the Greek Cypriot Community suffered last year - as well as the embargoes endured by the Turkish Cypriot Community over recent decades.

In the past, most conversations about the negotiations on both sides of the island began with a rolling of the eyes and a sigh that said: "Here we go again". There seemed a general weariness of repeated attempts and a shared view that this had been going on for far too long. Everyone, quite frankly, had better things to do than to hope for the success of yet another peace process.

This time, however, the atmosphere is vibrant, even hopeful, albeit cautiously so. The deep, lingering scepticism remains. This is not the first time the stakes have been high, after all, and each time hope has crumbled into bitter disappointment.

What Hasn't Changed?

The reasons for the failure of past settlement talks are manifold and some were very specific to particular circumstances at the time. One flaw, however, has characterised all previous attempts in Cyprus: talks have repeatedly been conducted with limited consultation or communication with the affected communities. It is no wonder that each time, the resulting decisions and proposals have been greeted with distrust by the islanders themselves.

So far, talks in Cyprus have consisted largely of bringing political leaders, the UN and the guarantors to the negotiating table. This traditional, top-down approach has created a pattern in which elected leaders have first made decisions on behalf of their communities, and only then reached out for their support. The preparation of the communities before and during the process has always been minimal, unsystematic and without a comprehensive feedback mechanism.

Over the years, attempts to engage the two communities in the processes have been deficient and, therefore, largely ineffective. In 2008 for example, the creation of technical committees for consultation was a step in the right direction but in the absence of a coherent structure, their work faded over time. The related series of public meetings were mostly question and answer sessions held on an ad-hoc basis and sadly did not facilitate regular, meaningful dialogue with the negotiation teams. This top-down approach has hindered a sense of public ownership, resulting in a fatal disconnect between political negotiations and grassroots reality.

How to Create Public Ownership?

Despite the best intentions, political leaders alone may be unable to comprehensively address the mutable and multifaceted relationships between the communities in conflict. Negotiating behind closed doors can distort perspectives and leaders may find themselves lagging behind the changing dynamics within society. In recognition of this deficiency, formal negotiation methods in many other areas of the world have gradually been moving towards greater inclusivity; but, until now, the Cyprus peace process has stagnated in the old approaches.

Without the opportunity to understand and shape ideas and decisions, ordinary people cannot feel part of the process and, consequently, cannot own the settlement proposals. If there is to be any chance of reaching satisfactory and sustainable peace, public engagement must be an inherent component of the peace process. Inclusive dialogue needs to take place before and during, not after, the negotiations themselves. This gives leaders the opportunity to prepare their communities for a settlement and to mitigate the affects of potential scaremongering by hardline parties and rejectionists.

A Self-Created Way Forward for Cyprus?

In a conflict like that in Cyprus where two communities, as well as broader regional and international actors, are involved , the overall picture is a complex one. The need for the confidentiality of potentially controversial decisions is understandable, particularly at the formative stages. But does this mean absolute secrecy is needed until the very end of the process? Couldn't a comprehensive system of consultation be designed by the respective communities, which enables open discussions and holds leaders to account, while retaining a degree of diplomatic discretion?

Cyprus today bears witness to the failings of a traditional, top-down approach to settlement talks. Experiences from other conflicts show that broadening the dialogue to include a wider range of opinions is both possible and fruitful in loosening negotiation deadlocks. There are many historical examples: Mozambique, Northern Ireland, Lebanon, and South Africa. While none of these instances offers a panacea, there are lessons that can be learned from them. Until there is a structural reform of the whole process and the harmonious collaboration of leaders, civil society and the wider public is achieved, peace will be elusive. So yes, there are new hopes for success this time round in Cyprus, but are these hopes likely to survive using the old approaches?

While cultural changes and paradigm shifts are notoriously difficult and cannot happen overnight, they are possible. Old habits die hard but such a shift will break familiar patterns: A shift to a new vision; a vision in which a 'peace process' involves the whole of society and not just the political elite...


Syria - can 'jaw-jaw' trump 'war-war'?

'Yes, there will be a price to be paid for military action - and we don't know what it is - but we can’t sit on the sidelines and do nothing.'

How often did we hear that during the Parliamentary debate on Syria, and from the commentators in the UK media who support a military strike against the Syrian government? And how often was that statement reinforced by the contention that ‘diplomacy has failed’?

But the alternative to military intervention is not ‘doing nothing’. It is taking action based on established methods of conflict resolution and peace-building. And while past diplomatic initiatives might have failed, others might be more successful. Here are some suggestions for action now and in the future.

  1. 'Contain the fire'
    Ryan Crocker
    , a highly experienced US diplomat and former ambassdor to Syria, has likened the violence there to the huge fire currently burning its way through Yosemite National Park in California. It's so big that nothing can be done to put it out, so the strategy is to contain it until the fuel it's feeding on is exhausted. 

    Similarly, says Crocker, unless or until the parties in Syria decide to stop fighting, no outside intervention will make any significant difference - and a military strike would just add fuel to the fire.

    So the strategy must be to contain the violence as much as possible through measures focused on the surrounding countries - Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and Israel - and the allies of those fighting i.e. Russia, China and Iran supporting Assad, and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states supporting the rebels. At the same time, through intermediaries, work on initiatives to persuade those fighting to stop, even if temporarily i.e. a ceasefire. Once the violence stops, the space is opened for mediation.

  2. Diplomacy is not mediation
    A diplomat, it was once cynically observed, 'is an honest man sent to lie abroad for his country.' Whether or not that's accurate, what's certainly true is that a diplomat's function is represent the interests of his or her state - diplomats are not neutral mediators. 

    And what passes for mediation in foreign affairs is anyway far from what professionals in the field would recognise. Even high level ‘mediators’ have little (if any) training in the necessary skills and methods and simply rely on their experience as (usually retired) politicians and diplomats. 

    On the other hand, there is a growing pool of highly skilled mediators around the world – working every day in commercial, community and family conflicts – who have vast experience of settling complex disputes.

    So why not use them in the political arena? They could be employed directly, or advise the small band of international mediators who are currently called on whenever a hugely difficult conflict erupts; or both.

    The UK government could lead the way on this, not least because a former Foreign Secretary (and former diplomat) - Lord Hurd - is a champion of the idea, as he told the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Conflict Issues back in 2007

  3. Look at the bigger picture, too
    The greatest cause for peace in the Middle East that the US administration could make today is to normalise its relations with Iran. The US did this with its former Communist enemies, the USSR and China, so why not Iran, which poses a much lesser threat?

    President Obama is a Nobel Peace laureate and a visionary orator. Sadly, to his critics he is becoming increasingly known by a disparaging nick-name – Barack O’Bomber. A bold peace move towards Iran and its new, moderate president would be proof that he truly deserves his Nobel Prize.

    The UK government could support and encourage such a rapprochement, which would positively alter the dynamics throughout the entire region.

  4. And look to the future...
    Beyond this, the UK government could do more to develop itself as a key global peace-maker. It could leverage its deep traditions of democratic governance and human rights through its huge network of international relationships – the UN, the EU, the Commonwealth, NATO and the WTO (to name but five) – to act increasingly as an effective and truly impartial mediator in international conflicts.

    Unknown to most of the public, it already acts in this role in a limited way through the Conflict Pool – a sum of money dedicated to peace-building and conflict management overseas. And there are other initiatives, mainly managed by the Department for International Development. Far from ‘doing nothing’, its work in this field is widely admired internationally.

    So why not build on this and other ‘soft power’ strategies (e.g. the British Council, the BBC, arts and sport) that enhance our reputation around the world?

These are just a few suggestions. I am sure there are many others, because through my work for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Conflict Issues I have encountered many inspiring individuals, organisations and ideas in the field of peace-building and conflict management that, I believe, could have a significant impact on how we approach conflict today.

It is time for the mainstream to sit up and take notice.