How many times do you find yourself in a situation that feels uncomfortable, perhaps with someone who you just can’t see eye to eye with? What is your first reaction? Do you feel that fight or flight sensation? Do you respond by looking for a way to agree with them, backing down your position in the argument or do you look for a way to convince the other party that they are being unreasonable? Or do you try to change tack and look for what you both share in common? In Richard Sennett’s new book ‘Together: The Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation‘, he explores the history of cooperation and posits that most of these tactics are actually making it harder to reach a position of real cooperation. I went with some friends to hear him talk about his new book- here’s my reflections.

When we think of cooperation these days we tend to think of the soft fluffy kind – collaborating with people with whom we share common interests. Professor Sennett’s book is all about that less pleasant reality of conflict – particularly in communities and the workplace. It probably seems natural to us that we tend to draw towards those that are similar to us, those that share common interests and as a result avoid these unsettling circumstances. However, this tendency only makes it harder for us when we encounter those who are quite different and oppose our views, or come from different backgrounds and hold different values. Sennett makes the point that to be successful in life, we can’t avoid these situations, and getting better at cooperation takes dedication. There are four key skills Professor Sennett believes we all need to get better at if we want to improve our ability to truly cooperate in difficult situations and with people we don’t get along with:
  1. Practice dialogics not dialectics. Dialogics is all about creating understanding, but not necessarily agreement. Dialectical conversation is focussed on the premise that one person’s perspective will be superior or that a compromise will be reached. Dialogics says that we should both aim to understand the other’s position without trying to change ours; the end outcome being a mutual respect and knowledge of both realities. There’s a nice explanation about the difference here.
  2. Use the subjunctive, not the declarative. e.g. ‘Have you ever thought that perhaps the world might be like this….’ Rather than: ‘I think youre wrong because… My idea is this… I think we should do this next’. This takes practice, but it’s all about being ok with ambiguity.
  3. Informalise conflict. Complex cooperation improves in informal contexts. Robert’s Rules of Order for running meetings may make everyone feel like they have an efficient meeting and the agenda is being ticked off, but have you ever been in one of these meetings and felt like you’ve been heard? Conversely, setting out loose parameters for the time and allowing the conversation to flow enables previously unsaid issues to rise to the surface.
  4. Invoke empathy not sympathy. Frequently confused with each other, empathy is all about exercising curiosity – it’s about asking questions in a neutral tone, being genuinely thoughtful and curious about why someone is hurt or upset. Sympathy is when we say ‘I know how you feel, that must have been terrible’. It create an assumption that I can really know how you feel without first understanding what has happened. It lacks respect.
Sennett’s talk was fascinating, but also highly academic in tone. The simple take- away for me was that in trying to improve cooperation, particularly in the workplace and communities, we should aim to celebrate difference, rather than looking for commonalities. This feels counterintuitive of course and Sennett used examples to defend this point. He frequently referred to Modern day Britain and the legacy of Tony Blair’s labour government which as he put it ‘aimed to dilute our culture with the fallacy that we can all get along as long as we look for what we all have in common’. He also referred to the success of the race, gender and gay rights movements, particularly in England and how their success in part has been to how the celebrate the uniqueness of different perspectives.
How does all this apply to the world of the Internet? Sennett was less convincing in regards to this aspect but did have some unique insight into why Google Wave failed, having been an part of  it’s beta launch and performing a study on it. Google wave was a new platform that aimed to combine many social media functions from email to chat to video – it was a precursor to Google +. However it’s design incorporated a kind of tag cloud- like feature which meant convert ions that most alike were presented to the user in a larger typeface. This makes the assumption that what makes good community is commonality alone, not difference. As a result people whose conversations were more edge became disenchanted and left, leaving people who were very similar and a community that was just dull. ‘The common thread was thread-bare’ as Sennett put it. Sennett’s point of view in digital communities is that we need to have room for ambiguity.
Sennett’s work has provoked much criticism and controversy, particularly in clerical circles, and perhaps it’s because his principles, as he reluctantly confessed on stage, don’t apply to all areas of life, but probably are best applied in the context of labour. Despite this, I feel that his ideas are highly relevant today for a few key reasons:
  1. The nature of work has changed dramatically in the last 40 years. Labour has shifted to be increasingly focussed on service based interactions, people-to-people rather than people and machine.
  2. It’s also much more complex, requiring more self-management and range in skillset and outlook. However, the infrastructure of work hasn’t changed much – most of us still rely on a 40 hour week Monday to Friday construct, and offices with rows of desks which still echo the old factories from the birth of the modern firm hundreds of years ago.
  3. Sennett makes the argument that there’s a lot of rhetoric about cooperation but it doesn’t really address the real nature of complex cooperation, for instance, most MBA classes these days have a class on the subject. Making something more apparent doesn’t always mean we achieve good results.
 Do you find yourself frequently in conflict situations? How do you cope? What strategies do you employ? I’d love to hear what you think of this, feel free to comment or get in touch if this is something you’re also passionate about.
I’ll end on a quote:
“In these later days we have come to recognise the service, heroism, and devotion of the “rank and file” of the great army of progress—the “unnamed demigods” as Kossuth called them, whose bones lie in unnoted graves, but whose valour brought the victory. In co-operation all are workers, and many who are never named after their death, are honoured in their day and recognised in history. In a co-operative society all officers have been workers—and are officers because they have been workers. There is no privilege in co-operation, save that of service.” G. J. Holyoake, from The Jubilee History of the Derby Co-operative Provident Society

Further Reading

Five Booklet series on Conflict and Cooperation in communities

International center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution