“Weak” collaboration?

Over the last couple weeks I’ve seen notices and advertisements for four or five different groups sponsoring events meant to bridge the political divide, to help us get past the polarized talking at each other or so-called debate that has come to dominate our political scene.  (For example, check out On Being’s Civil Conversations Project, based on the important work of Public Conversations Project.)

Healing and hopeful initiatives, these.  Perhaps they will begin to alleviate the despair and sense of powerlessness and disconnection I and others sometimes feel about bringing collaborative approaches to the traditional political arena.  But, my despairing self wonders, “what good is it if the folks who REALLY need this aren’t listening and won’t collaborate?”

I get a related question fairly frequently when I do communication and conflict resolution training – a participant asks, “if I get this “win/win” concept, that’s all well and good, but if the other person doesn’t, how can it work?”  And the question came up in one of my first exposures to the study of conflict.  It was through game theory, looking at the statistical probability that two parties in a conflict will choose to advance their mutual, vs. their individual, best interests … which can lead to the question, won’t my willingness to collaborate cost me all that I hold important?

So that’s it – we fear that moves to collaboration will be seen as weakness, and that moving towards collaboration may make it less likely that our basic needs will be met.

So what makes collaboration worth it, why should we be fostering collaboration in our civic and political life?  Here are a few of my answers:

1) The alternative (competition, aggression, one party wins and the other loses) doesn’t work.  Just look at the current Washington gridlock for a great example.

2) Non-collaboration is inherently unstable and wasteful – there’s always a “loser” who increasingly has little to nothing to lose and every interest in upsetting the current order.  Stability in and of itself may not be an end goal, but if all of our efforts are geared towards either defending or upsetting the current structure, we just can’t be focusing our best attention and resources on creating the kind of world we want to live in.

3) Our world is too complex and interconnected for simplistic “I or my party wins” approaches – with serious and challenging issues like climate change, sustainability, inclusion, violence and war, and (you fill in the blank), we need all hands on deck to contribute their creativity, ideas and most importantly, actions towards solutions.  Whatever solutions (or non-solutions), we ALL will feel the effects.

4) Non-collaboration maintains and creates injustice.  As long as we act as though those with more power will have more of their needs met, as long as bullies and plutocrats get their way, we are all at risk.  And if we put on our blinders and think, oh at least it’s not me, we’re only fooling ourselves – we’re next in line. (Martin Niemoller: “First they came for the ____ and I didn’t speak out, then they came for ____ and I didn’t speak out … and then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.”)

5) It’s a myth that collaboration means “I get less than what I want.”  More on this in another post, but collaboration means that I express fully what my needs and preferred strategies are for getting those needs met.  You do the same (and I listen carefully, deeply), and we together come up solutions that meet both needs. As a strategy, collaboration is more likely than non-collaboration to help me get my needs met.

6) And more personally, if I live based on my fear, I’m not really living.  That is, if the “other guy” doesn’t want to act like I want her or him to act, should that dictate my approach or actions?  And besides, do I believe myself so powerless that it would be impossible for my collaborative approach to change the situation or the other person’s approach?  Maybe my taking that first collaboration step won’t result in my ideal strategy or outcome … but maybe it will, and even if it doesn’t in the short term, just being as collaborative as I’m able creates the kind of world I want to live in.  And in my experience I’m much more likely to feel good about getting my needs met by acting in a way that affirms everyone’s needs.

Anything you’d add?

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Filed under Conflict, Social Change

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