We are wired to cooperate. The September 2018 edition of Scientific American contained an article entitled “Why is Homo sapiens the Sole Surviving Member of the Human Family?” That article explored why, among the various branches of the human family present at the time, the branch you and I emerge from survived. One of the two reasons? Cooperation.
So, why so often do we ourselves not act this way? Why do we not cooperate? Why so often are we at cross purposes with one another? Even to the detriment of the group we are a part of, to the detriment of the group’s purpose, and the detriment of the individuals involved?
Is there something we can do about this, in ourselves? The answer is yes. And, in fact, I believe you and I have an obligation and a responsibility to do so. But what can we do? And can we do it now?
This all came tumbling into my awareness just this morning as I listened to a very remarkable person we will call Megan. Megan will help us see why we don’t cooperate and will also show us how we can lift the thin veil between tearing one another down and lifting one another up. Megan points us to the essence of personal development. She has a lesson to teach us all, and I have her story to tell…
The Crucial Conversation
Megan needed to have a conversation that had all the makings of becoming a challenging one. To help herself prepare, she completed a little worksheet we use to help shift internal state (emotions and thoughts) to a better, more open place. The worksheet has some tips about calming down our emotions and getting to a somewhat open heart. And it has some tips about how to shift from rigid thinking and closemindedness to a somewhat more open mind.
She went into the conversation with a different internal state. She had emotions yet her emotions were not driving her. She had a position, a perspective, but it was not fixed and she was open to being influenced.
She described the conversation–somewhat surprised and almost disappointed–as a non-event. It was positive for all involved. It was not as difficult as she thought.
Then she said this.
“It was like completing the worksheet and getting myself to the right place was more important than the event itself.” I always chuckle to myself that–very often–the most important realizations often come out at the end, almost said under the breath, as an afterthought. (I encourage you to look and listen for this.)
We can take any action with our heart at peace or our heart at war. (The Anatomy of Peace) The very same action may have profoundly different results depending on where our heart is. How we are regarding the other when we act profoundly impacts whether and how our message is said, how it lands for the other, the way it feels for them, how safe or threatened they feel… and therefore whether they react to us or respond with us.
Megan’s internal state called forth from the other person something different than she expected. Namely, openness. Consideration. Cooperation.
It wasn’t that Megan did this perfectly. She did it well enough. Hold that thought. It’s an important one.
An Imperfect Intervention
In November of 2018, I heard something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I was sitting in a session at the International Symposium for Contemplative Research listening to a panel discussion that included John Dunne, Center for Healthy Minds, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
A participant asked a question along the lines of, ‘How good do we have to be at trying to shift a conversation or situation to the positive before it becomes possible to do so?’ Various panel members gave their answers, and John said something very close to this…
You need to remember that human beings are wired to cooperate. We get sideways with one another, particularly in groups and particularly when under stress. Yet that inner drive to cooperate is so strong that even an imperfect intervention can activate that drive within the group and move things in a more compassionate, cooperative direction.
That statement “even an imperfect intervention” struck me to my depths. It was as if the room fell away and time stood still. I could feel it in my bones. And I recognized that this would become part of my work. Exploring this for myself–and helping others explore–that imperfect interventions done from the right internal state and from the right intent can yield profound results.
Small, Personal Interventions
It is difficult to do for the collective what we cannot do for ourselves. If you want to help your family, work team, organization or country–to be a bringer of or contributor to an “imperfect intervention”–it can help to have some practice at it.
How do we practice? It is deceptively simple and so entirely easy to dismiss it.
I shared the above story about John Dunne with Megan and her cohort. Megan pointed back to a piece of paper hanging behind her from the shelf in her office. It was the self-compassion practice. That’s her go-to personal intervention. When her emotions get stirred up and her thinking starts spinning out of control, she goes to her personal intervention. She does this most every day. That’s how we practice. That’s how we prepare. It isn’t fancier than that.
There are any number of possible personal interventions. Self-compassion is just one. Any practice that interrupts our normal behavior, settles our emotions, calms and balances our autonomic nervous system, opens our thinking, awakens our higher self, and/or shifts our perspective even a little will do the trick. Even a little. Even imperfectly so.
Megan’s got her go-to. Megan practices. Megan is building capacity. And Megan can draw on that in conversations like the one she had.
Your Soul Knows
Your higher self, true self, soul, or whatever you might call it already knows what to do, how to be, and in what direction to move, when to move, whether to move. The problem is you–if you are like the rest of us–are often confused. The roar of misguided physical impulses, emotional reactions, and distorted thinking drones out the whisper from that part of us.
Even an imperfect intervention has the power to insert a temporary crack in the droning of our impulses, emotions, and thinking. The whisper can slip through. That subtle feeling. The knowing. That “knowing what to do without knowing why we know what we now know.”
This higher part of us has access to knowledge we cannot possibly comprehend. Here we access the realm that lies beyond the limited resources of the rational mind. The rational mind is a truly marvelous thing indeed but it is out of its depths when going solo into the unknown.
When faced with the unknown–such as a crucial conversation or important conflict–the rational mind needs an ally. That which lies beyond it–that higher part of us–can calm it down, can direct it and pass things to it. Things it doesn’t know.
All we need is a gap. That temporary, imperfect crack is often enough. The light can stream through. We can know. It isn’t our experience. It isn’t our smarts. It isn’t our logic. It isn’t our instincts. It isn’t ours. And you don’t need to believe me that it is there and available to you.
You can experience it. Megan is. Megan is learning that–at will–she can put her heart more at peace, sufficiently at peace, imperfectly at peace. Megan is learning that from that place the knowing she most needs right in the middle of a difficult conversation can come to her. That a new way of being with someone becomes available to her. A way that makes the other person feel safe.
Megan is learning that while planning for a conversation may be important, this is more so. With her building capacity, she can cooperate with the other, she can cooperate with life, she can help the other feel safe, and she can improvise in-the-moment with knowledge she didn’t even know was available to her.
Megan is finding her power, her strength, her capacity to serve. She is learning to lift that thin veil that exists between tearing one another down and lifting one another up. That thin, wispy veil that–to so many–might as well be an iron curtain.
The Utter Profundity
As we were leaving Megan’s report out to her cohort, I had something else to say to this intrepid group. I was feeling a bit in awe. Here are 12 leaders leaning in, learning, working together… on their personal development at work. I can’t believe I get to do this work, with these people, who in turn affect so many others.
“I don’t think you can yet imagine how these changes in yourself that Megan is highlighting for us all will enable you to positively impact your teams. You are becoming capable of the “imperfect interventions” that will enable your teams to tap into their innate drive to cooperate.”
We all sat with that for a moment. One other thing occurred to me, and I added.
“Think of the typical human interaction. It goes like this.
Something you say triggers me. I react, saying something that triggers you. You react further, and I’m mad at you for acting the way you are… the way I provoked you to act.
This is happening all the time, in the most important times and in the most pivotal moments. I am bringing out the worst in you in the moments it matters most.
We can stop this. If I can calm my emotions even a smidgeon. If I can open my mind even a smidgeon. If I can calm my impulses and stay my hand even a smidgeon. If I can become vulnerable and courageous just a smidgeon. That’s all that is needed, isn’t it?
We can become instruments of the imperfect intervention. Imagine that. Imagine the impact you will have. How you can serve your teams.”
We are much more powerful–right here, right now–than we think we are. Yes, practice helps. As Sara says, “Small actions daily can yield big results.” It is so true. But there is no need to wait, is there? You and I can summon the imperfect intervention, now.
In the moment it is needed.
Set the intent to be ready. And step in. Lean in. Now. Today. Within 24 hours. Practice daily. And practice, now, with what is arising, with the person in front of you.
You were born ready for this. Because you are wired for it. As are the people right in front of you. You don’t need to know how. You just need to try. Open heart. Open mind. Strong spine. Even if imperfect. Even if moved just a smidgeon. Do it from there.
Tap your innate drive to cooperate. Lay your imperfect intervention out there for all to see. And watch how people respond.
Cooperation is the only way forward. No one, alone, has the answers. We do. The cavalry isn’t coming. We are. I don’t think it is any more complicated than this. And that, my friend, brings me great hope.