"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them."
– Albert Einstein
Whether it’s a new idea or a better way of doing something, there is always someone with a differing viewpoint. How can we make them feel comfortable enough to share it? We have all attended conferences where the information was transmitted to us with very little audience participation, and not all of us are comfortable with expressing our views especially when it may not be in accordance with policy or the opinions of our superiors.
Quite some time ago I was on course where the speaker stated ‘Chatham House Rule’. I had never heard this before so I asked a mate who replied ‘not to leave this room’. While his interpretation was incorrect I found that the session to be one of the best on the course. Without any threat of retribution, everyone freely expressed their opinion and I actually think that the instructor, who was a senior officer, got more from the session than we did.
What is the Chatham House Rule? In accordance with Chatham House it is defined as follows:
"When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed."
Chatham House is the home of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London where the Chatham House Rule was first created in 1927, refined in 1992 and updated again in 2002. The Chatham House Rule should not be confused with the Vegas Rule, which as the old saying goes, means ‘what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’, i.e what is said in the room stays in the room. Or the ‘off the record’ comment which is commonly used by journalists. Research shows that a lot of speakers get confused between the Chatham House and Vegas Rules and I am sure this is the same in our Army.
The Chatham House Rule allows individuals to express views not necessarily shared by their organisation and allows them to communicate opinions that may be different of those of their leaders or even the majority. When people do not have to worry about their reputation or the implications of being quoted (or misquoted) publicly, they feel more relaxed, thus helping to create a trusting environment to understand and resolve complex and delicate issues. It may also enable further discussion post the conference. The Rule is used throughout the world and meetings do not have to take place at Chatham House nor have any affiliation with the House for the Chatham House Rule to apply.
For Chatham House itself, any breach of the rule will mean disciplinary action against a member or guest who breaks it, and will likely mean future exclusion from any further events. For other organisations it is usually an informal agreement where all participants can be trusted to not break the Rule.
What does this mean for Army? There is no doubt that the majority of readers have been on course or in a conference where the speaker has applied the Chatham House Rule. Are we bound by any rules or regulations? We can’t be excluded from future events because we need to conduct promotion courses and attend conferences. There are no formal rules or regulations enforcing the Chatham House Rule, but the audience should feel privileged that the speaker has given them their trust. This allows participants to bring their honest opinions and viewpoints to the conversation, without fear or favour.
If you are going to use the Chatham House Rule it might be worth discussing with the audience what it actually means (per the above definition), including the benefits of the Rule prior to speaking. You can also advise the audience that it is ok to repeat what is said on social media as the Rule can also be followed there, as long as the person tweeting or messaging only reports what was said at the event and does not identify the speaker, affiliation, or any other participant.
The next time you are on course or attending a conference and the speaker states ‘Chatham House Rule’, remember that it does not mean ‘what is said in the room, stays in the room’. You are free to use the information but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed. Hopefully by incorporating this Rule there will be a lot more openness and sharing of information. Who knows, someone who doesn’t usually say much might feel more relaxed and solve that problem we have been seeking answers to for a long time.