I’VE not done much political speaking in the last couple of years. Like most people, life and work have taken over. On those recent few occasions that I have appeared on a public platform, I’ve felt quite relaxed. My years as a trade union activist, an MSP and a pro-independence campaigner have equipped me to stand up in front of an audience without any pre-match nerves.

This weekend, however, I felt as anxious as a novice in the run-up to an event just a two-minute walk from my home in the Perthshire village of Birnam – even though it was organised by the local pro-independence campaign. So why was I more apprehensive than usual?

The reason for the butterflies was that I was about to step well outside my comfort zone. This wasn’t the normal type of pro-independence rally, where you can turn up, make a rousing speech about the failures of the Union, the betrayals of Westminster and the benefits of independence to be greeted warmly by a sympathetic audience. This was a venture into new territory.

The event was deliberately aimed at bringing people together across the Yes-No divide in a convivial social setting over a few drinks, with top-notch entertainment and a respectful dialogue to explore some of the reasons why people voted the way they did in 2014, and to find out more about their hopes and fears for the future. And it turned into one of the most illuminating and enjoyable evenings I’ve had for some time.

More than 100 people packed into the small theatre to attend “Scotland – Where Now? – An evening of conversation and entertainment with Elaine C Smith and guests”. It kicked off with a brilliant new local bluegrass band, Good Guy, Good Guy, Hank. I’ll leave you to chew the fat over the origins of their name. My friend Rosie Kane accompanied by her brother, Tam McGarvey, a class musician, made us laugh. So too did Elaine C Smith, who wowed the audience with the power of her singing. And the brilliant local duo Dave Amos and Jamie Jauncey – supported by their friend Donnie Coutts of Dundee – finished with a mighty soul tribute to Aretha Franklin.

The centrepiece of the evening was an hour-long dialogue between the audience and the all-female panel consisting of Elaine, myself and Labour party member Mary Senior, a highly respected and impressive trade unionist and currently the Scotland officer of the University and Colleges Union, speaking in a personal capacity. Unfortunately, a fourth speaker – another Labour member – had to pull out.

It was no easy task for the panel – or for Drew Campbell, the deputy manager of the Birnam Arts centre who deftly chaired the session – to face a diverse audience of Yes, No and undecided voters without lapsing into Question Time mode. None of us were there to push the buttons guaranteed to provoke stormy applause.

All views were treated with respect, and answered honestly, without any hint of anger, indignation, rancour, ridicule or hostility. I was heartened to be approached after the session by people who had voted No in 2014 and were now undecided, but were impressed and relieved by the tone of the discussion – and grateful that they had been listened to with respect. When someone makes the point that if they had attended such a good-natured event before the 2014 referendum, they might have been more open to Yes, that should tell us something.

Of course, one swallow doesn’t make a summer. And it may be easier to hold such events within a smaller community – where the law of six degrees of separation could probably be divided by three – than in a big, anonymous city. Nonetheless, the experience helped to clarify in my mind the importance of trying to establish a friendly dialogue.

I’m not naive: there are people on the No side who are entrenched, even zealous Unionists whose opposition to independence is visceral. Many will never be persuaded, because they see the independence movement as an enemy to be vanquished. But there are many, many more who voted No, not because they despise independence as a matter of principle but because we have not yet allayed their fears. We have still to convince them that independence will offer a better future for themselves and their children. And to be perfectly honest, some are turned off by what they have seen as the crusading fanaticism and intolerance of a big chunk of the independence movement.

Don’t get me wrong. Without passion, exuberance and enthusiasm we would not be where we are today. In no way do I want to see that curbed. But as the independence movement is maturing, I believe it is steadily becoming wiser and more attuned to the fact that – let’s whisper it – people have valid reasons and feelings for voting No.

At the event in Birnam people eloquently expressed their view that the constitution is not the only show in town. That while a minority of pro-independence and pro-Union people can think of nothing else, the vast majority of people have a lot of bread-and-butter concerns on their plate. That there are political problems in Scotland that can’t wait for independence. And that not everything in the garden will miraculously turn rosy after independence.

Marches and rallies are important to build a sense of momentum and show the world the movement is alive and thriving. Economic arguments are also important to debunk the myth that independence will guarantee us a future of sackcloth and ashes. But just as important is how well we communicate and build relationships with people who are not yet fully persuaded.

Passions ran high in 2014. Many of us got to know friends and family better and sometimes we found out we had profound disagreements we hadn’t realised we had. Sometimes it was hard to separate the politics from feelings of hurt and sometimes even anger. In 2014 the personal was very much political.

In these times of Brexit, Trump and the international upsurge of the extremist, neo-fascist right, it is more necessary than ever to build empathy, connections and solidarity between people. We are all human and flawed. But we share worries and fears and hopes and dreams for our families, friends and communities.

What we will be doing now in Birnam and Dunkeld is working out how we can expand those conversations and build connections with people beyond the independence movement. It would be easier just to churn out leaflets and organise colourful processions. But to achieve success, we have to confront the hard stuff too.