From Project Gutenberg

To celebrate the launch of new pamphlet ‘From Fairy tale to reality’ I’m writing ‘Facilitation Fables’ every Friday throughout February (I’ve already done fable number one, fable number two and fable number three). In this fourth instalment I look at a fable where I think good engagement could have changed the end result. The fable for this week is ‘The Fox and the Stork’:

The Fox and the Stork

A Fox invited a Stork to dinner, at which the only fare provided was a large flat dish of soup. The Fox lapped it up with great relish, but the Stork with her long bill tried in vain to partake of the savoury broth. Her evident distress caused the sly Fox much amusement. But not long after the Stork invited him in turn, and set before him a pitcher with a long and narrow neck, into which she could get her bill with ease. Thus, while she enjoyed her dinner, the Fox sat by hungry and helpless, for it was impossible for him to reach the tempting contents of the vessel.

A number of fables deal with the negative impact of conflict. The petty tit for tat vindictiveness of the Fox and the Stork is laughable. In other fables the conflict is not quite so harmless. For example in the fable of the Eagle and the Fox the two animals end up eating each other’s offspring. We have probably all seen situations where organizations, communities and families are torn apart by conflict. Conflict comes at a high price, it leads to spiteful behaviour and ‘lose-lose’ outcomes which often get worse over time.

Luckily there are a number of approaches to overcome conflict. So how could this all have been solved? Here’s a rewrite:

The conflict between the Fox and the Stork got worse and worse. The Fox played loud music to keep the Stork up late at night; the Stork retaliated by spreading malicious rumours about the Fox. Before long both animals had competing law suits against the other and the whole neighbourhood was choosing sides. All of this conflict and commotion was noticed by the humble Tortoise (this happened at a time before his successful career as a racer). The Tortoise knew that something had to be done and tried to get the Fox and the Stork to talk to each other, but both refused. “He has to apologise to me first” said the Fox. “He’s the one with the problem, not me” said the Stork. The Tortoise was a trained facilitator and came up with a plan.

He knew that it was a long term plan. He spoke to the Fox and Stork’s close friends to reach out to the two angry animals. The friends of the Stork and the Fox managed to convince them to meet with the Tortoise individually. The Tortoise sat over numerous sessions and listened to the concerns and the worldviews of the two animals. After a number of sessions the Fox and the Stork agreed to meet together. The first meeting was tense, with lawyers in the room and both combatants threatening to walk out. The Tortoise had to set up some very strict ground rules, including rules about not interrupting and using positive language. They did a number of exercises of listening to each other and trying to see the situation from the perspective of the other person but little progress was made. Both the Fox and the Stork complained bitterly about how the Tortoise was wasting their time. “Fantastic” said the Tortoise “I’d like you both to write a joint list about things that you are unhappy about how I’ve run the process so far”. The Fox and the Stork worked together on the list and after this the conversation flowed a little easier. They began to find areas where they agreed.

The next meeting they dispensed with the lawyers and instead met in a more relaxed setting. As more and more common ground opened up the Stork exclaimed “You seem really nice Mr Fox, I don’t understand why you’ve been playing rude pranks on me ever since you met me?”. “That’s how foxes show people that they like them Mr Stork. What’s rude is your unwillingness to complement me on my pranks.” The two animals began to realise that while they would perhaps never share the same values they could at least understand each other.

The Tortoise suggested that the two animals agree to work together on a project that was important to both of them and the Fox and Stork decided to clean up a local park. At the end they shook hands. “I think I misunderstood you Mr Fox. I’ll never understand why you insist on playing silly pranks, but at least now I know that you don’t mean any ill will.” “And I’ll never understand how you can stand being so stiff necked and humourless, but I know your heart is in the right place.”

Two weeks later, to celebrate the fact that the two animals had agreed to be friends, the Tortoise organised a banquet dinner. The waiter approached the table and asked “Would you like Soup for your starter?” As one the Fox, the Stork and the Tortoise responded “Absolutely not!” and laughed.    

Facilitation has a number of key techniques for overcoming conflict, including ground rules, dialogue and mediation. We know how to frame conversations positively and work on uncovering areas of consensus, even in cases of extremely deep seated  anger and conflict. Clearly these techniques were not always available in Aesop’s time.

I hope you enjoyed this fourth instalment of Facilitation fables. Next week we will finally launch our new publication. This series of interlinked posts has been a departure for me and for Involve. If you liked it let me know and I’ll think about if there is merit in doing something similar in the future.