The Big Picture: Living in the Universal Web of Roles
I'll use my life as an example here. I have a role in life -- many roles, actually. When I say role, I'm referring to the impact that my presence and activities have on:
My role embraces all these relationships. Whatever I do -- or don't do -- has an impact on all of them. Sometimes that impact is large and sometimes it's tiny -- sometimes it's known, sometimes unknown -- sometimes intentional, sometimes purely incidental. At the same time, all these things and lives are having their impact on me -- impacts which, again, may be large or small, obvious or subtle.
I know that I have a role in the lives of each of the people, places and things on this list -- and that they play many roles in my life. But I can only comprehend a small part of all that at any given time. There's always more I can learn about any role. And even as I learn, I know that lots is going on that I'll never know. It's almost as if I can sense these trillions of roles being played, in the foreground, in the background, like a ubiquitous, undifferentiated bustle and hum in the web of life.
These roles add up to the co-created reality in which I live -- in which all of us live.
So, at the broadest level, my effort to lead a co-intelligent life involves becoming ever-more aware of the participatory nature of existence, and of the roles I play in the world, with a sense of responsibility that contains neither guilt nor innocence, but a deep appreciation for the co-created reality of our lives. Whatever's going on, I'm involved. So is everyone else. No one is causing it -- but everyone is doing their part. I can learn about that, and participate in changing it, where needed.
In this co-created/co-creative world, I can
a) become more aware of my role in whatever's happening,
b) decide if that role matches my sensibilities, needs and values and
c) if it isn't right for me, change it.
d) help others become more aware of their actual roles in my life, in various situations, and in the larger world,
e) help them decide if those roles match their sensibilities, needs and values (not mine, although I can share mine) and
f) if they want to play different roles, help them think and feel their way into those new roles.
I can also
g) work together with any or many other people to better understand our collective role -- and the roles of larger systems and deeper dynamics -- in the world we share and co-create,
h) work together to understand how our collective role fits who we are, who we want to be and what we want our lives to be about and
i) work together to continually co-evolve our collective role to better suit our shared sensibilities, needs and values.
I can also
j) help establish community forums, citizen councils, and other political and governmental activities and institutions that help whole communities, states and countries explore their collective roles and pursue their collective dreams -- to co-create their future together.
I can do all these things by myself -- or, in a group, we can do all these things by ourselves. Often we can increase our potential co-intelligence by involving relevant "outsiders" -- consultants, therapists, loved ones, community members, people affected by the roles we play or might play, etc.
If my partner Karen and I have a conflict, we're each doing something to create that conflict. "It takes two to tango," as the saying goes. If we listen to each other, we'll be able to learn something about the role each of us is playing.
There may be some habitual patterns in the way we act together. We may be jumping like puppets on the strings of unconscious mutual dynamics that therapists call "a family system," a pattern co-created by us that is bigger than we are. We may have brought unconscious patterns into our relationship from former relationships or family dynamics, which have a life of their own, haunting our present relationship until we clarify and deal with them.
We're also embedded in a culture, and it is embedded in us. It, too, has a role. Our interactions are shaped by cultural assumptions about what's right and good, what is worth fighting about, how to deal with conflict, and so on. We may want to explore together some of those assumptions and see if they really work for us and, if not, change them.
Our place in our socioeconomic system also plays a role. If our fight is about money, we can realize that, in different socioeconomic systems, people might have fights about money less often -- or more often. Either way, it can give us a broader perspective on our conflict. It isn't "just us" that's involved.
There are always deeper dynamics and larger contexts at work shaping what happens. I don't have to understand and deal with all of them, all the time -- which, of course, would be impossible. Just knowing they are present and powerful helps me be more forgiving and empathic with myself and others in our daily struggles. It helps me realize that our individual roles are seldom as big -- or as small -- as they look at first glance. Things are just more complicated than any one person or thing.
If the situation isn't improving when I address it at a personal or interpersonal level, I know I can turn to something more basic in my search for resolution.
But even if I don't dig deeper or bigger, I find that a generalized "big picture awareness" makes me less satisfied with blame and guilt and more open to compassion, considering what a hard job we all have trying make it through this magnetized maze, suited up in steel armor and drugged to the gills. That's what it can feel like sometimes, when I realize what a powerful role these systems, cultures and unconscious dynamics play in our lives. Under the circumstances, we're all doing remarkably well. We need to help each other and get co-creative, not tear each other down.
At the level of our individual social interactions, so much of co-intelligence boils down to dialogue -- using our differences creatively to explore our way together towards greater understanding, possibility and connection.
If we can create an atmosphere or culture of dialogue, that's a very powerful achievement. If we can get an agreement with even one person to try dialogue just for a little while, that can often open things up. If all else fails, we can listen well, regardless of what other people do, letting go of our need to be understood (which is usually both very hard and very effective). Then we can do our best to fully understand them, making a real effort to connect. We can share what we think we're hearing them say -- and encourage them to correct us -- until they really know we have heard them. The results of this one simple act are almost always profound.
As far as I can tell, nearly every variety of co-intelligence at the person-to-person level (in relationships and small groups) builds on dialogue or is, itself, a form of dialogue. If real dialogue is happening, co-intelligence happens too, with little else added. Nonviolent Communication, Dynamic Facilitation, Listening Circles, mediation, The World Cafe, Open Space Technology -- they're all about dialogue and real listening.
This focus on dialogue translates readily into the organizational and societal domains. One of the most important things we can do to improve or transform our culture is help make available the urgently needed know-how, spaces and opportunities for dialogue, anywhere and everywhere.
Two friends and I once concluded that the loftiest function a government could fill would be to observe cases where dialogue was urgently needed, figure out who should be in those conversations and what resources (facilitation, information, etc.) they would need to succeed, and then help those conversations happen as high-quality dialogue. What kind of a society would it be if, whenever there was a problem, the government's first action was to stimulate such generative dialogue?
We can do this from the bottom up in our groups, organizations and communities. If you are looking for something you can do to make a difference, consider that approach.
QUESTIONS TO ASK OURSELVES
Whatever situation we find ourselves in, we can always deal with it more co-intelligently. There is no end to the growing and learning we can do in this. The following questions provide some guidance for how we might go about being more co-intelligent. You can try them out now, if you'd like, by thinking of a situation you're involved in that feels like it needs more co-intelligence. You can ask these questions of yourself, or of a relationship, family, group, organization or community you are part of. If you're dealing with a collective situation, replace the I's with we's and adjust the sentences accordingly.
So here you are in your situation. Ask yourself/selves these questions. Go ahead and try them out: Write down some answers. Or reflect on them silently to yourself. Or just read them.
Our friend Jeff Schwartz used the co-intelligence ideas very creatively in a situation in his family. Below is the list of questions he came up with. I offer them as an alternative to the list above (obviously there are and can be no complete and definitive lists about co-intelligence), and to show what any one person can create by applying these ideas. Perhaps you'll be inspired to come up with your own lists. By all means do it -- and share them with your friends, and with us.
1) Have existing power relationships been expressly acknowledged? Has there been an explicit agreement or understanding to suspend or modify these relationships at least for the purpose of arriving at better decision making and implementing the better decision in this instance?
2) Is past experience with similar problems being considered? Have all participants been given the opportunity to present their learnings from past experience they consider relevant and to listen to the views of others?
3) Do all participants have access to the same key information? Have all participants identified (or been given the opportunity to identify) the information they consider critical for this purpose and/or that they regard as necessary/helpful to make a wise decision? -- and to explain why they regard this information as critical for this purpose?
4) Has opportunity been provided for silence: for participants to tune into themselves (heart, mind, gut) about this problem and possible solutions; for participants to share non-verbal communication with each other and the group as a whole; for participants to step into another world without noise and speedy interactions and demands, where truth can bubble slowly to the surface in their midst?
5) Have the context and limiting assumptions of the problem been explicitly identified and been opened to challenge or reassessment?
6) Have the short and longer term consequences of failure to arrive at a shared solution been identified and considered?
7) Has there been opportunity for feedback and listening about:
8) Has the process been inclusive -- i.e., included all affected people (or their answerable spokespeople) in an inclusive way? (Note: This includes both those affected by the problem and those affected by proposed solutions.)
9) Would better solutions be available to address the problem if a longer-term perspective (about the problem, the solution, or the consequences of the solution or of failure to solve the problem) was adopted?
10) Are there tools, insights, approaches and perspectives from others not present (e.g., other cultures, families, nations, races, professions, times, religions, philosophies, economies, etc.) that could help yield better solutions to this problem?
11) Has there been explicit recognition and examination of how the problem or question under discussion may be a surrogate for other problems and questions that are more serious, real or important for some or all of the participants?
12) Has there been sufficient opportunity for and exercise in honoring the differing views, concerns, perspectives and contributions of other participants and non-participants?
BRINGING CO-INTELLIGENCE INTO YOUR LIFE AND THE WORLD
What's nice about co-intelligence is that we all already have it, individually and collectively, to one degree or another. We care. We can listen. We know something about ourselves and the world. We're willing to work together. We have ideas, feelings, gut sensibilities. We can build on what we have. We can start where we are and grow from there. We can and do all grow differently, developing different resources for our individual and collective welfare -- and that's great.
All the same, it really is easier and more productive to apply co-intelligence together with people who know about it and want to use it to enhance their own lives and the world around them. So find allies. Initiate gatherings that will attract them -- in your living room, at work, at church or temple, wherever. And then build long-term relationships and groups in which you can work at this together. Share information about co-intelligence with friends and share your thoughts about it.
There are dozens of very co-intelligent approaches and resources. Study some of them. Read about them. Take classes. Maybe get certified. Go ahead and specialize in one or a few of them. But if you do, or if you already are, don't get stuck in any one approach. Learn some others, stay flexible, open, eager to find common ground and generate synergy with other practitioners. There is so much to know, and so much that knowledgeable people can do to weave the complex interconnections which will set the stage for the next step of our evolution together.
Connect with the Co-Intelligence Institute. Use our Web site. Share your thoughts and stories. Add your voice to the collective voice that's articulating co-intelligence for our entire culture and reaching out to other cultures to build common ground in this field.
Get the word out. Literally. Say "co-intelligence." Tell people "Hey! That was really co-intelligent -- what you said [or what we did]!" Find your own way to tell them what it means. There is no one definition, no one right concept. We're all feeling our way. But the word carries our efforts out to an ever-wider sphere of people. The more people use it, the more co-intelligence will start to emerge.
Three more things: Be patient. Have fun. And take care --
of yourself, your community, your world. It is going to be a
long haul, filled with meaning and love. Enjoy it.