Thursday, February 14, 2008

Finding a Cooperatve Response in Competition

I'm in the midst of a 9-day training, delivering the Economic Dimension of the Ecovillage Design Education curriculum in Albuquerque. Monday night we introduced to the class a course currency (an alternative currency that would exist only for the nine days) which could be used to facilitate exchanges of services between students, and to make decisions about how we would use some of our plenary time later in the week.

On purpose, we didn't allow the students much time to digest the concept before we put it into action. Minutes after handing around a stack of 100 NEEDs (Neighborhood Economy Ecovillage Dollars) to each participant, we asked them to make choices about Wednesday and Thursday night where they could use NEEDs to "pay" for what they wanted. There were bonuses if students formed coalitions to bid jointly. It was almost total chaos.

Some students jumped right in and offered their entire bankroll for a pet interest. Others tried to build a large pool in support of a common interest (and to earn thereby a bonus for cooperating). Some were frightened and put off by the cacophony (it only took us about two minutes to start emulating the floor of the New York Stock Exchange), and simply drifted to the back of the room to get out of the way. A few were angry that the teachers had set up this competitive, old-paradigm dynamic. Some were having fun. What a mess!

After debriefing the experience, we asked participants to reflect on what they could do to have a cooperative response in a competitive environment. While we know that everyone in the course is there to learn about cooperative economics, here we were recreating (in a blink) the competitive dynamic we are all agreed we're trying to alter! If we can;t do it differently, who can? Realizing that all of us will be in this situation again and again—where we will want a more cooperative dynamic than what's occurring around us—what can we do?

I think there are a few basic ideas that can help.

First, notice if you're having a strong reaction. If so, your first task is to recognize it and work through it. (If you respond to the situation out of reaction, good things will rarely happen.)

Second, once you've cleared your reactivity (but whatever means works for you), I think your most constructive next step depends on whether you consider yourself a significant stakeholder or not. Let's explore each.

If you don't particularly care about the outcome, you are well positioned to focus instead on the process by which the conversation is proceeding. You can play a significant role as an active neutral, offering connecting statements or bridging ideas between parties at odds with one another. For the most part, neutrals tend to stand back (and click their tongues). This Pontius Pilot approach may not make things worse, but it isn't helping. You can do better than that.

Hint: stakeholders actively involved in a competitive or adversarial struggle will tend not to be very interested in your observations about the process. The all-important first step in making progress on the dynamic is to demonstrate to all the stakeholders that you understand and are genuinely interested in their concerns (note that this is different than siding with them; it is simply showing to their satisfaction that you get what they care about).

If you do care about the outcome, your task is probably more challenging, yet still not out of reach. For the most part, our instinct in this situation is to respond to competition by shutting down or competing back. On a more sophisticated level, you might try coalition building, which is like cooperating to compete more effectively. (Many of the students attempted this Monday night.) Best of all though, is an approach that is almost completely counterintuitive: work first to demonstrate to the opposition that you understand and care about their different view.

If done well (hint: it will tend to not be enough to simply repeat a person's words; once you're identified as the "opposition," you'll need to be able to get the other person's affect, not just their ideas—that means you'll need to be able to show the other person that you get their position and what it means to them), it will lead to a softening of the dynamic (no one who feels well understood tends to remain a hard ass), and that's the thin wedge of cooperation that can be worked into the dynamic, slowly and inexorably changing the nature of the conversation. The key to this working is to let go of our natural insistence on being understood as a precondition to cooperative problem solving. Instead, offer that to the opposition first and trust that the improved environment will ultimately lead to everyone getting more of what they want.

: the opposition may never be interested in returning the favor. Do it anyway. In the long run, it will be your best strategy—both for getting your concerns seriously considered, and for nudging the culture in the right direction.

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