Part 2: Collaborative Societies

(Part 1 here)(Part 3 here)

The primary principle around which we can build collaborative societies acting in the service of a chosen vision is meeting as many of the needs for the greatest number of people possible in a manner that is always respectful of the natural environment. The attempt to apply this principle is powerfully catalytic – it can change everything in all the spheres that constitute human society.  

Reconceiving of human nature

The fundamental assumption that stands at the core of any needs-based approach to life is that the core motivation of human beings is to attend to needs and that human needs are universal to all of us even though the strategies we employ to attend to them may be as varied as we are, as diverse individuals of different cultures, environments, upbringing or circumstances. Other assumptions intrinsic to this worldview include:

  • People have the capacity for compassion just as much as the capacity for harm.
  • People enjoy giving when they have choice.
  • People need each other in order to attend to their needs.
  • People can resolve their differences through mutually empathic dialogue.

The net result of this radically different story is that authority as we know it is not needed and that human beings can behave prosocially, can self-govern collaboratively, share resources with care and wisdom, and collectively steward the planet with understanding, grace, and love.

Pro-Social institutions

The ramifications of these assumptions on how institutions can function are radical and far-reaching. Everything from the purpose of collaborative institutions to how they are managed could not be more different from what we know and what so many of us assume is the only thing possible. In essence, the function of all institutions in a prosocially oriented and collaboration-based society is to serve needs. No longer is profit or power per se a goal; serving needs, whether of humans or other lifeforms, is truly the only purpose for any institution to exist.

Leadership is also reconceived, shifting from controlling and telling others what to do to being servants or stewards of the whole. Such a shift can only occur when organizations are structured so that people work out of the joy of serving life rather than amass personal wealth or survive day today.

When the goal is to serve needs, it is only natural that those affected by decisions should be involved in making them. The process itself would be based on naming and taking shared ownership of all the relevant needs and collaborating on finding the most effective strategies to attend to all the known needs. In other words, decisions are made as close to consensual as possible for the structure. Moreover, the primary decision about how decisions are made involves all those who are a part of the institution, organization, or group.

In short, the fundamental use of power shifts dynamically within a prosocial collaborative order. Rather than being power-over, power is used consensually with others to support as many needs as possible with the least possible coercion.

There always have been, and likely always will be, people who possess enough integrity, courage, skill, and other qualities that allow them to steward their power prosocially for the benefit of all. Part of the significance of embedding collaboration systemically within institutions and social structures means that collaborative leadership no longer requires accountable individuals to steward the system authoritatively. If the system remained authority-based, the possibility of using power over others becomes too easy, and positive shifts are not sustainable. When the systems are prosocial and collaboration-based, then even relatively ordinary leaders find ready support and endorsement within the existing structures to use their power with others for the common good.

Socialization within the collaborative paradigm

If the overall purpose is to be as responsive to needs as possible, that would, by necessity, include the young, i.e., children. Parenting and teaching will become as transformed as other institutions. Parents and teachers remain the major stewards of socialization in preparing the young for life in their society. However, should the fundamental structure of society become prosocial and thus focused on collaboration, there would be no further need to coerce or demand obedience from children.

To prepare children to take their place as empowered, empathetic beings in a network of collaborative functioning, they are, instead, raised and educated with empathic nurturing, dialogue, and empowerment as the primary tools for making things happen and resolving conflicts. Force is used only to protect, not to punish, and therefore becomes the exception rather than the norm in a child’s experience. The entire environment nurtures the capacity for compassion, empathy, and generosity through the daily modeling of such behaviors in the home and classroom.

More than anything, children and all other members of society learn in a fundamental way that they are part of the whole and that their needs do matter. A sense of freedom and autonomy accompanies this empowerment. In addition, the consistent role-modeling of adults responding to situations where things aren’t naturally flowing becomes key developmental building blocks of a capacity to collaborate under stress in these children. Such essential skills will prepare children seamlessly for their future roles in a collaboration-based prosocial order.

Trusting in the fact that you matter

It is generally observed that most people find it hard to imagine the degree of freedom gained in a prosocial order based on achieving both autonomy and interdependence. To a large extent, our life experiences are so tainted by the pervasiveness of restraint, obedience, and compliance that the notion of achieving full autonomy and freedom seems either inconceivable or even dangerous (the legacy of authority-based society), or both.

When trust in the fundamental fact that we matter is rebuilt, people will move voluntarily towards greater capacity in three different areas at once: exercising choice and inner freedom; demonstrating a willingness to care about the effects of their actions on others; and, cultivating resilience for handling the effect that other’s actions may have upon them. This is because everyone’s voices are heard, and everyone’s opinion matters. Once someone is heard and their views are treated with mutual respect, they become more willing to trade off wins and losses. Dialogue, the primary communication mode that accompanies collaboration, becomes even more possible, allowing even seemingly intractable conflicts to be resolved or transcended.

Among other things, in developing prosociality, we learn to direct our efforts to change how we act as individuals, engage in groups, make decisions, and model collaborative leadership and loving intention towards all, including former enemies. This is truly the essence of what it means to exercise power prosocially.

What is power?

Miki Kashtan5, p.130 provides us with a neutral and straightforward definition of power: “the capacity to mobilize resources to attend to needs.” While the attempt to attend to needs may or may not result in actually meeting them, having access to resources increases the likelihood of needs being met. Power is an essential need that everyone has because no other needs can be met without it, and the individual withers.

Anything that can be used to meet needs becomes a resource, be it strategies, ideas, behaviors, things, or other people. Some resources are external, such as tools, seeds, money, social networks, or education. Some resources are internal, such as beliefs about our entitlement to resources, self-connection, or awareness of choice.

Choosing to use power

Defining power, simply as the capacity to mobilize resources to attend to needs, makes it neutral, in addition to being necessary. This definition separates power from how it’s being used: despite our general use of language, power-over is not something we have; it’s something we do – it is our choice about how we use the power we have.

I have found these distinctions exceptionally helpful in understanding our behaviors because it serves as a reminder that the urge to use power over others is independent of the actual ability to do so. In other words, it’s not so much that power corrupts; it’s that power provides the possibility of carrying out urges that we might have anyway, regardless of our access to power.

Power-over vs power-with

Using our power over others is about taking actions that allow us to attend to our own needs regardless of whether that works or doesn’t work for others. Having certain forms of power shields us from engaging with what others want (need & value). Specifically, I am referring here to structural power as that which gives us the option to use power over other people because of access to more resources. With structural power, we have the possibility of limiting other people’s access to resources, narrowing their options, and of making choices difficult for them to exercise because of possible consequences we may deliver. That is what structural power gives us.

Having such power doesn’t force us to use it over other people; it only makes it possible. It’s still our choice what we do with our power and how we use it. Unless we change our relationship with power internally, we are then likely to use it over others, often not realizing that we are. Because others bring habitual fear of consequences into every relationship of power difference, it can be invisible to us that we are getting our needs met at their expense. We get our needs met, others don’t, and we can simply make things happen for us, regardless. If people don’t do what we want, we can deliver consequences to their actions that tend to leave them more motivated, based on fear, to do what we want.

Using power with others is difficult to define or describe in part because our linguistic models of power are completely steeped with the power-over model of power as quasi synonymous with power itself. The key feature of that model of power that makes it so challenging to present something else as power is the zero-sum aspect: if one person has power, another doesn’t; the more power I have, the less power you have. The very notion that it’s possible for more people to have more power all at once challenges our habitual ways of thinking.

The notion of human needs and whose needs are attended to by any action we take or decision we make has helped me immensely in grasping in full what using power with others can mean once we transcend the framework we have inherited. Using power with others is about attending to the needs of people consonant with the powers vested in them, thereby adding both to their power (their capacity to mobilize resources to meet their own needs) and to the whole. Time and time again, I have been astonished by seeing that bringing in more needs results in consensual solutions that are more creative and robust. To my eternal regret, I find that many people eschew this magical experience because simply explaining it to them just takes the life out of it. Personally, I find it so refreshing and inspiring. I trust that many others would share this experience, but only if people could learn to accept that apparent loss of control that may seem initially disconcerting to them.

Exercising power prosocially

Whatever access to resources we have, and every one of us has access to some, we face the profound question of how to use our power – having power and using power are not the same because our use of power involves choice. The fundamental choice we make concerning our power is whose needs we will serve with our resources and how much of a say others will have about our choices. The capacity to reach decisions with others instead of alone, at their or our expense, is known as ‘power-with’.

To solve this decision-making dilemma, it is essential to create structures and processes that institutionalize the experience of ‘everyone matters’; enculturate the commitment to holding everyone’s needs with care. Holding with care everyone’s needs for meaningful choice is the core guideline for understanding how to apply the power we have as individuals. For as long as those in your group or organization with less power than you have access to choice, you can be satisfied with your use of power. That is the path that can lead to prosocial and collaborative decision-making that doesn’t by necessity require everyone to participate.

I want to emphasize that it’s entirely possible to reach a collaborative decision efficiently, precisely because we can uncouple our core needs from the millions of strategies and opinions that we often create to meet them, and also separate the needs of the people who have them, to come up with a coherent list of criteria for a decision that doesn’t depend on everyone continually defending their position.

Power-with means finding the path that, relative to the purpose at hand, supports maximal empowerment and participation on everyone’s part. That doesn’t necessarily mean equality, though often it might.

Living your attendant responsibility

It is an enormous challenge to come into power and live its attendant responsibility without creating harm. I am concerned, in part, that we will be less effective in our endeavors so long as we continue to believe that the issue is power rather than what we do with it.

As research indicates12, and many, including myself, believe, whenever someone mistreats another, or a parent mistreats a child, they are quite likely to have been previously mistreated themselves. Not engaging with the effects of being powerless and denying the effects of internalized powerlessness on our capacity to make choices can have serious and harmful effects.

What can we do? For a start, in the presence of a corrupt use of power, to whatever extent we can, we can strive to expand the human capacity within ourselves – to hold complexity, to hold everyone with tenderness, to have empathy for the many forms of being human. This is not an easy task.

We need to do the work of transforming our judgments and continuing to see the humanity in everyone, including those whose actions we most deeply deplore. Unless we can do that, along with healing from the effects of our own traumas of powerlessness, nothing will protect us strongly enough from becoming oppressors if we come into power. Taking inspiration from Martin Luther King, Jr.

One of the greatest problems of history is that the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified with a resignation of power and power with a denial of love... What is needed is a realisation that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anaemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.

Dr. King

Transforming judgments

A core practice employed by Non-violent Communication (NVC) practitioners dedicated to developing ahimsa, “a state of the heart which has no enemies,” is known as Transforming Enemy Images. Here is a reflective exercise prepared by Miki Kashtan5, p.36 to support those who want an appreciation of what this practice entails.


    A. Judging someone is an indication that a need of ours is not met. The first step in transforming judgments is to recognise and connect with our unmet needs.

    B. The action we’re judging is itself an attempt to meet needs. The second step is connecting with the needs of the person we’re judging so we can open our hearts with compassion.

    C. When we experience challenges in transforming our judgments, we can reflect on what needs we might be trying to meet by holding on to our judgments. Connecting with this set of needs may be essential to enabling the previous two steps to proceed.

  1. Write down a judgment you have of someone else that you would like to explore. This may be something you think about that person that you completely believe is true. You might pick someone in your personal life or someone who is in some position of political or economic power whose actions affect you.
  2. Think about a time or situation when you are likely to have this judgment come up and write down an observation of what this person is actually saying or doing at that time.
  3. What needs of yours are not being met in relation to that person’s actions? How do you feel when these needs are not met? Explore this sufficiently to experience the relief of self-connection.
  4. Explore the possibility of opening your heart to this other person. What needs do you imagine this person might be trying to meet by taking this action? How might this person be feeling? Explore this sufficiently to experience the relief of compassion.
  5. Check-in with yourself about your original judgment. Is it still alive? If yes, return to connecting with your own needs or with the other person’s needs – wherever you’re experiencing an emotional “charge.” If the judgment is still alive after that, consider: what needs might you be trying to meet by holding on to this judgment? What feelings arise in relation to this? Again, connect with yourself sufficiently about these needs to experience some relief.
  6. Check-in with yourself again about the judgment. If it’s still alive, consider the following set of questions

         a. Is there any way in which you believe the judgment to be “the truth”? If so, explore what needs might be met by this belief and what needs might be met by letting go of this belief.

         b. Are you afraid to express this judgment? If yes, what needs are you afraid would not be met by sharing it, and what needs might be met?

         c. Are you judging yourself for having this judgment? If yes, explore any way in which you’re telling yourself that you should not have this judgment. Connect with your choice about whether or not to work any further on transforming this judgment and explore any needs that might be met by continuing to work on transforming the judgment or letting go of working on it.

         d. Reflect on your feelings, needs, and any requests you have of yourself or the other person in this moment.

Protective use of force

While striving for full collaboration, at times, we need to consciously choose to make unilateral choices, even to use unilateral force, when that choice would attend to the maximum needs possible under the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The first of these is the protective use of force, both individually and collectively. The entire project of nonviolent resistance is an extension of the protective use of force as applied to structural situations. Just as in the case of stopping an individual from inflicting harm, nonviolent resistance uses the force of a collective of people to create conditions that would allow harm to stop, all the while remaining open to dialogue.

This raises a question about inclusion. I know that based on my own experience, I have shifted. In practical terms, in the groups that I work with, I’m now willing to set conditions for membership instead of keeping everything open and to accept that sometimes a group will need to ask someone to leave rather than lose itself as a group. How to do all this with love and care remains an open question.

It takes a deep spiritual practice to attain a state in which we can exercise force and remain entirely connected to another’s humanity so that there is no ounce of subtle punitive energy behind the action. That intention – to use force only as necessary to protect – supports the possibility of maintaining a human connection with the person against whom we use the force. It is that connection, which at times can only be inside our own hearts, which makes those actions non-violent.

If our hearts remain open, we can continue to aim for sufficient connection to arrive at a solution that works for everyone. We are more likely to get there if we successfully maintain a clear, unwavering commitment to upholding the dignity and humanity of those against whom we are using force. This is the essence of the link between protective force and non-violence, between love and power.

The question of the relationship between force and non-violence is not easily resolved. For example, Gandhi said: “I can only teach you how to bow your heads before anyone even at the cost of your life.” Clearly, he was willing to die for what he was working towards.

This non-violent stance is ineffable. It cannot be defined; no language can describe non-violence with simple words. I honor the wisdom that says that non-violence can only be described as what it is not. It’s a combination of love, truth, and courage. Force is simply not what non-violence is about, not by fundamental design. It becomes the material outcome of what we do when we stand, courageously and lovingly, for what is true for us.

The protective use of force is intended to create a wholesome outcome that, ultimately, will work for everyone. This commitment is beyond what the word “intention” can capture. However, it is of that ilk: it is unwavering, uncompromising, and always holding out the conviction that the outcome will serve everyone.

Force vs. empathy

Endeavoring to serve everyone, even when force is required, is a path of empathy. This approach is based on the premise that when people feel fully heard when they know they matter, they are more likely to be open to hearing from others. This makes some sense. The question is, how much empathy would be sufficient to make room for offering the necessary feedback for people to learn about the effects of their actions? I am afraid there may be people whose emotional needs are so high, whose concern for their own safety and well-being is so consuming, and whose lack of trust is so extreme that no amount of empathy would be sufficient to open their hearts.

Part of the irony of this situation is that whenever someone “buys” their needs through the compliance of others based on fear or reward, they are bound to know, somewhere deep within, that they are outside the web of interdependence and love. Those who serve these interests do not do it because they care. If this conjecture is accurate, then external power doesn’t necessarily feel powerful, thus reinforcing the uncaring behavior of those in power. That’s a lot to bridge through love and empathy. Most of us don’t have sufficient staying power, faith, or even capacity to create and sustain relationships to generate transformation in this way.

Another reason why we cannot bank on the kind of voluntary change of heart as the foundation of significant social change is the amount of repetitive harm being done – to individuals, to our fellow creatures, to our biosphere, and the carrying capacity of the Earth – despite repeated entreaties to mitigate these actions for several decades. There simply aren’t enough of us around who can muster sufficient love and faith to engage in enough dialogue with enough people to make it happen. That is, in essence, why non-violent resistance, despite being, in some ways, a loss and a compromise, remains absolutely necessary. It doesn’t reflect less love, just less reliance on it.

Restorative justice

In a prosocial social order, justice would be restorative rather than retributive. This entails a shift in the field of morality and justice that comes from seeing violence, or any other act of transgression, as emerging from acute suffering, from needs, especially the need for dignity, being chronically unattended to. From this understanding comes restorative justice approaches that offer promising new avenues to reducing violence. As a dialogical system, it is based not on professionals who come from the outside to provide services but on agreements and methods designed by the communities that use it and are responsive to their specific circumstances and needs.

In prevailing restorative systems, the person whose actions triggered pain is referred to as the “author”. The person/s who experience the pain is known as the “receiver”. Restorative circles operate in three phases:

  1. Pre-circles: The facilitator meets separately with the receiver, the author, and community members to provide each of them with an experience of being heard about what the conflict means. In addition, the facilitator gains clarity about what the act is that the circle is about and which parties are needed to participate to increase the chances of a restorative result. Finally, the facilitator connects with each person to ascertain that everyone arrives voluntarily.
  2. Circle: This is the heart of the process and includes three steps: mutual comprehension, self-responsibility, and agreed action.

         Mutual comprehension: During this step, each participant may speak to their experience due to what happened in the past. The process entails reflective listening, so speakers address each comment to the individual they most want to hear. That individual is then asked to express the essence of what they heard until each speaker feels adequately heard.

         Self-responsibility: During this step, each participant speaks to what led them to take the action they took. It is understood that the receiver and the community members took action in response to the author’s action.

         Experience indicates that in most cases, a spontaneous expression of mourning or regret arises during this step, primarily due to the humanizing effect of the entire process, which allows actors to experience the effects of their actions on others and themselves.

         Agreed action: The individual action plans that form the agreement describe specific, doable steps involving only resources accessible to those offering them. They seek to ground the restorative results by establishing concrete actions to repair harm where possible, restore or build relationships, and reintegrate people within their communities. Like everything else in the circle, everyone participates voluntarily in the action plan (including the facilitator, who is fundamentally a community member and not an external authority). The goal is restoration, not retribution. Each action chosen has a specific time frame so that its effects can be measured.

         The action plan is designed to address as many of the needs identified in the earlier phases as possible. The action plan cements connection into a sustainable shift in community relations, which can support all parties in changing the nature of their actions and relationships.

  1. Post circle: Everyone who was present in the circle, plus those involved in carrying out the action plans, is invited once again to gather to explore to what degree the results of the action plans have, indeed, been restorative, and whether any changes in the action plans or subsequent steps need to take place to attend differently to needs discovered, and/or to more or different needs that have been identified since the action plans were designed.

Within a restorative system, decisions to implement protective measures would be called for in some situations, with two possible outcomes. One would be rare instances where someone would be part of a restorative circle without voluntarily agreeing to do so. The second possible outcome is the use of enough force to limit the physical freedom of a person in the even more rare instances when someone’s freedom could mean more people getting killed, maimed, or sexually assaulted, to cite a few obvious examples.

It is apparent, that a legal code founded on restorative principles rather than retributive would be entirely different, as it would be a more process-based, context-sensitive guide to discernment than the outcome-based evaluation of specific actions the way current legal codes operate.

Striving for "conversion"

Given that the use of force lies on a spectrum, the commitment to prosociality means, in part, always using the least amount of force possible while keeping the doors always open to dialogue and offering an open heart and open arms for people, leaving them room to have a change of heart without losing face. We want to focus internally on not using force, without losing action and without losing love.

This will entail using the moral language of the people in power, not just that of our constituencies. Then, when we engage in campaigns dedicated to building collaboration, we can be in dialogue with the people in power about what practices, institutions, social structures, and overall social arrangements can truly align with their core values as well as ours for everyone’s benefit. If we only see those in power through the lens of greed and desire for control, we lose our ability to have power-with them to create change, and we will fall back into an either-or win-lose paradigm. When we call out powerful people in terms of their values, we offer them a gift in return for them giving up significant elements of their power: the gift of their humanity in terms of their moral and ethical stature as a leader.

I see those committed to non-violent social change being called to engage in such fundamental questions, wrestle with our commitment to love, and grapple with what makes it so difficult for us to reach those in power to create fruitful dialogue. There is no way anyone can know what is required to catalyze change. So long as we keep our commitment to love at the center, keep questioning ourselves, continue to seek feedback from others, put in place ways for us to know when we have crossed over an anti-social line and have become violent, I want to trust that, collectively, we will find a way to uphold the commitment to move forward effectively.

As Gandhi did, we can strive for what he called “conversion”: an experience for those in power that results in an actual change of belief, coming round to agree internally with what is being asked of them.

Read the entire three-part series "Reclaiming Our Common Ground of Being Human"

01. If We Are To Survive This Century

02. Collaborative Societies

03. Reclaiming the Commons


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