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Part 2: How to work with high stakes low trust

Reos Partners
April, 2013


Written by Hannah Dawson and Lorna Ely.

What do you do when gaps in society seem un-navigable? When the costs of getting things wrong are unpalatably high but where there is little trust and a weak appetite to work together?

In the last Reos newsletter, Colleen Magner of Johannesburg reflected on the question “What do you do when the stakes are high and the trust is low?” and why it is important in South Africa at this time.

To explore the question more deeply, Reos Partners Johannesburg convened a two-day public dialogue in partnership with the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) in February 2013. The dialogue brought together a diverse group of South Africans from the corporate, nonprofit, activist, civil society, youth, and government sectors to explore how they might confront their most pressing cross-sectoral challenges, develop an appetite for trying things differently, and, most importantly, find better ways of working together. Members of Reos travelled from all of the global offices to South Africa to facilitate the discussions, share international experience and learn from the South African context.

In this article, we share some of our learnings, as a “Part Two” to the original article.

About the public dialogue 

The dialogue required creative teamwork and occurred in three overlapping phases of divergence, emergence and convergence. On day 1, the participants were exposed to different ideas on high stakes/low trust through provocations from two respected public figures: Mr Brian Whittaker, Non-Executive Deputy Chairman of the Jobs Fund, and Professor Adam Habib, Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg. 

Participants also went on learning journeys, which surfaced new questions (divergence). Day 1 then created space for reflection and dialogue allowing participants to gain a sense of what new possibilities might exist for their specific contexts (emergence). On day 2, participants self-organised into smaller groups to process insights and apply ideas and approaches, which in some cases resulted in seedling initiatives (convergence).  In particular, these included a working group around developing a mining compact and a group focused on the food system in South Africa.


New ways of seeing stuck situations

Brian Whittaker’s provocation began with two stories, illustrating that in high-stakes/low-trust environments, what prevents cooperation amongst sectors of society and people are both perceptual and conceptual gaps.  He suggested that people have different ideas about things, but also different ways of seeing. Brian warned against “artificial relationships” between government, business, and other social partners in grappling with pressing challenges and called for new, deeper, more genuine ways of conversing to overcome these gaps. He emphasised that “one cannot change the fact that the stakes are high but one can reduce the risks” of working together in this environment. Brian challenged the conventional wisdom of the need for a grand compact or policy, and he stated that “we are in for a long slog with no quick fixes.” He concluded by encouraging participants to see South Africa’s deepest problems as “our” task.

Professor Habib began his provocation with the view that South Africa needs more open conversations because “people are talking past each other” and not to each other.  He gave examples of polarising viewpoints between the white business community and the majority black population. Adam suggested less accusations of blame are needed and instead, more self-awareness and a shift from externalising the problems that assigns blame to others towards “internalising the challenges”. There was a call to move towards more meaningful conversations with “less fluff and more substance” between the various stakeholders in South Africa. Given the tenuous state which South Africa currently finds itself in, Adam stated that a social pact is needed to tackle these problems. This requires an acknowledgement of the realities of the situation, accepting the legitimacy of other’s concerns, and importantly the moderation of expectations.

Following the provocations participants assembled into small groups and were asked to share what comment had struck them the most.

“Maybe the question is: are we offended enough?”

“The lack of self-awareness and authenticity: Change is fine as long as we don’t have to change.”

 “I’m struck by our despondency and not knowing what to do.”

“We need to moderate expectations. To make progress, everyone must be willing to give up on something.”

Learning about working with high stakes and low trust

The provocations opened up the space for the dialogue to not be about “problems over there” that government or business needs to solve. Instead, it was about the challenges that were within the sphere of influence of the people “in the room.” One participant noted, “it’s ordinary people who change the system.” Others saw being comfortable with high stakes/low trust and accepting the current realities as an important step to dealing with the problems we face. Facilitators stressed the need to “learn to moderate expectations in order to not paralyse oneself from moving forward.” Finally, the group noted the need to see each other for who we are as crucial for real dialogue to happen.

 “The necessity of having a mediator or bridge who can deface the devil –seeing the human being behind the issue– it takes away the blaming element – lets me see the person for who they are.”

“There is great power in giving others voice.

“My ideas about how things should be can paralyse me – I need to just get things going.”

“How do we deal with conflict?  Can we stand in conflict and walk away? Once you are really connected to conflict, what does this mean for us as individuals and a society?”

During the learning journeys, the participants split into groups to visit different places and people to enquire what high-stakes/low-trust looks like in their context and learn from other experiences.

In learning journeys, participants move out of their comfort zone and have encounters with people, organisations, and initiatives they would otherwise not get a chance to meet. Doing so allows participants to explore and experience for themselves the many and various dimensions of the complex realities they are trying to understand and influence.

Participants visited a home for trafficked children, art galleries, a school foundations, a city fire-station, a street trader, a small businesses located in informal settlements, and a trade union.

Following the journeys, participants shared what had struck them most:

“The point Adam Habib made - about the need to listen to the legitimate needs of the ‘other’ and to withhold your power. At our learning journey to the Photo workshop we saw pictures, which spoke to me and asked the question: who is listening to our demands? How do we internalise our own responsibility in these things and the need for people need to be heard. South Africa is at a point where you have to strike out on your own or rebel to be heard.”

An important theme was the realisation that “we can’t change high stakes, we can only change trust” and that “it’s possible to create high-trust spaces.”

One participant noted, “When we are not clear about our own projections, we do not create conditions for trust.” 

Where did the dialogue leave us?

The public dialogue provided the space to explore various social systems in South Africa characterised by high stakes and low trust. It exposed participants to a wide range of participatory techniques, including systems mapping, Open Space Technology, and World Café. They experienced how these processes work and the kinds of insights and possibilities they generate. They looked at ways to deepen the collective understanding of complex or stuck social issues and identify opportunities to leverage change in the system.

Two working groups emerged that hold the potential for future coalitions in 2013: the Southern African Food Lab (SAFL) and a working group around developing a social pact within the mining sector.

“I learnt a way of conversing that we can bring into all areas of life.”

“I was struck by how helpful the diversity of perspectives is on a range of issues – the more you understand the diversity, the more you can trust. When you know everyone is not like you, you can ground it in reality and make more informed decisions.”

“Bringing the two parties together when there are high stakes/low trust – I might be in a position to be able to do that in my daily life.”

We often talk in Reos Partners about the need to identify “generative questions”. In this experience we found one that was highly generative both locally and internationally:  “What to do when the stakes are high and the trust is low?”

As a result, practical insights were gained by the participants, some seedling initiatives emerged especially in the mining and youth sectors.

A number of future public dialogues have been identified for 2013 in South Africa and are currently in development.  Reos Partners will continue deepening its culture of learning and sharing experience.  An announcement about the 2014 Reos Learning Festival will be made in forthcoming newsletters.

Our thanks go the Ford Foundation, the Rand Merchant Bank (RMB) and the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) for supporting the event.


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