Sticking the PIN onto the tail of democracy - RSA

Sticking the PIN onto the tail of democracy


  • Picture of Perry Walker FRSA
    Perry Walker FRSA
  • Deliberative democracy
  • Communities

Perry Walker FRSA calls on Fellows to help develop critical tools for deliberative democracy.

This is one of the challenges which inspire his organisation, Talk Shop, which develops new ways of discussing and reaching agreement about the issues that really matter to us all, whether local, national, or international.

According to research done by More in Common: “66% [of people] say the country feels divided…[and] are worried that political division will lead to an increase in hatred and violence”. It found that over 90% of us want a society where we can disagree without giving up on each other.

My organisation, Talk Shop, believes that this is entirely possible, provided we have a reason to talk and ways to talk. For us, the reason to talk is provided by the ideal of ‘win-win democracy’; by which we mean that all sides achieve what really matters to them. The ways to talk are provided by the field of deliberative democracy, such as citizens assemblies. This blog, though, is about a tool that we feel to be missing – a way for people to identify what really matters to them – their underlying needs.

In my experience, the best tool for identifying needs is the PIN (Positions, Interests and Needs) diagram from mediation, which aims to find common ground between different parties. Positions are the attitudes we strike. In politics, this is often a group’s public demand. Interests are the things that we are interested in, our concerns. Needs are food, shelter, sleep, relationships and so on. We select interests that we believe will fulfil our needs, and positions to satisfy our interests.

Getting underneath positions to interests and needs has two benefits. First, it opens up a wider range of possible solutions, because there are usually more ways to meet those interests and needs than implied by the position. Second, the positions struck by two groups may well have nothing in common at all. But their interests may start to overlap, and their needs – because we all share the same basic needs – are likely to be very similar. Both factors will help us to find win-win solutions.

Talk Shop draws on several years of research into political situations in which win-win solutions have been found. Most commonly this is on situations where the participants are able to get behind their initial positions and share their real needs.

For example, the 1978 Camp David negotiations between Menachem Begin of Israel and Anwar Sadat of Egypt followed this pattern. Both leaders started out demanding complete control over the Sinai Peninsula. On deeper investigation, it turned out that Israel’s primary interest was in security - having fought a series of wars with their neighbours – whereas the Egyptians’ interest was in sovereignty. This made possible a solution that satisfied both leaders. The Sinai was given to the Egyptians (sovereignty), but was demilitarised (security).

Or take the case of seven Romanian villages that used a village assembly called a ‘sfat’ to govern themselves. They met and argued over whether to spend their money on a local clinic or on flood defences. One village put the clinic first, as its population was growing old and finding it hard to get to hospital in the city. Another argued for the defences, being worst affected by flooding. The discussion turned when someone suggested looking at what each village really needed. It transpired that they all wanted a clinic, especially in winter when roads are blocked by snow. Re-examining the costings, they realised that with a bit of extra effort, they could afford both the clinic and the dams.

We would like to develop a process that people in such situations can use for themselves to get from positions to interests, and from interests to needs. Our current thought is a version of the Five Whys used in Japanese manufacturing. The question ‘Why?’ is asked five times to get underneath the symptoms of some problem in order to understand the root causes. Our version is that people ask each other, several times, ‘Why is that important to you?’ or variations thereof. But we are facilitators, not mediators, and we could do with some help.

We would then like to find a way of spreading this process as widely as possible. One idea is a version of a television series aired in the US in the late 1980s, called “The Search for Common Ground”. One episode was on abortion. It involved two spokes people and a mediator. The mediator told the audience: “This is not a debate. We will not exploit conflict to hold your interest.” When the discussion began, the mediator sought potential points of agreement: “Do both of you agree that unwanted pregnancies should be minimised?” Both said that they did. So it went on. The mediator concluded the programme by saying, “The lesson here is that beneath the stridency and strong emotion, there can be some common areas of agreement.”

But to succeed in our ambitions we need your help and are looking for Fellows with expertise in two areas. First, mediation and negotiation to help us to develop self-help tools for getting at those needs and, second, expertise in broadcast media, so that we can find ways to spread the word. If you would like to learn more, please contact Perry at [email protected]

Perry Walker designs group conversations. He is co-founder of Talk Shop, director of and a Fellow of Involve.


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