Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the Battle of Ideas, a two-day event involving 400-plus speakers and 100 debates over two days.  It bills itself as an annual debating festival of ‘high-level, thought-provoking public debate’.

I’ve attended at least seven or eight ‘Battles’ as a speaker and corporate sponsor.  Being a panellist representing one of the world’s biggest producers of beer can be daunting.  Especially when your fellow panellists portray you as a representative of ‘big alcohol’ and accuse you of making a product ‘that kills people’, an experience I’ve had more than a few times.  But, as the old saying goes, ‘Sticks and stones might break my bones, but words can never hurt me’.

This year I attended in my personal capacity.  I enjoyed fascinating debates on a diverse range of issues like the disruptive impact of big data on political campaigning and political activism (would people care about big data and politics if Brexit and Trump hadn’t happened?); the growing backlash against Silicon Valley (are they the ‘good guys’ challenging the old order – or tax-minimising corporations that threaten our future?); and censorship and free speech (are we becoming a society that is too easily offended and prone to  shutting down speech and views we don’t like?)

Reflecting on the issues raised in the free speech debate reminded me of how I experienced Brexit last year.  I was on secondment in Melbourne for six months.  I loved many things about Australia – but not the Australian Broadcasting Corporation!

So, in the absence of Sky News, BBC and the national papers, I turned to digital and social media for my daily Brexit ‘fix’.  I downloaded the daily edition of the Times, and read the BBC website incessantly.  However, my desire to be ‘closer to the action’ meant that very quickly my main sources of information became Facebook and Twitter.

It didn’t take long for “opinion overload” to become a daily part of my life. After a week, I was regularly clicking ‘unfollow’, ‘unfriend’ and ‘turn off notifications’.  I became more selective and started to focus exclusively on articles and commentary  written by people who shared my views.

In short, I was doing what I have criticised many others for doing – creating my own echo chamber and becoming less than willing to hear or entertain other points of view.  Fortunately, these extreme emotional instincts have since subsided.  But the experience has made me more sensitive to the ways in which echo chambers can limit critical and rational discussion, and lead to name-calling, anger and insults.

In the last two months, we’ve seen a BBC journalist requiring security in order to cover the party conferences, and heard a new Labour MP say she would never hang out with Tory women because they are ‘the enemy’.   Like or loathe Jacob Rees Mogg, it is hard to find fault with the way he responded to an angry anti-Tory protestor at a fringe event saying “Let’s leave my despicability to one side. What’s important is to have the conversation. You’re welcome to talk to me, but it’s difficult if your intention is just to shout and wave leaflets”.

For me, the no-holds-barred, passionate and serious-minded discussions at this year’s Battle were a timeous and much-needed reminder of the importance of listening to opinions to which you don’t agree, arguing back as much as possible, and being flexible enough to change your mind. After all, how do we solve the big issues of the day if we don’t, at the very least, take time to listen and try to understand the other side of the story?

In my opinion, as consultants and corporate affairs professionals, we are better placed to make well-argued rational judgements and recommendations when we are aware of the broad range of opinions that exist, and we show a healthy respect for them, even the ones we disagree with.

Sometimes easier said than done, but I totally agree with Jacob Rees Mogg.  It is important to have the conversation.