What is Cooperation?

What is Cooperation?

Five hands clasped at the wrists with a grass background.

What is Cooperation?

In Skills for Change, we think of cooperation in terms of both what it is (sharing 100% of what we want and negotiating to agreement) and what it isn’t (no secrets, no lies, no rescues, and no power plays.) Fundamentally, since we often have difficulty asking for what we want and negotiating to agreement, cooperation is easiest to recognize by what it isn’t: it isn’t a power play where we are either making someone do something they don’t want to do or keeping them from doing something they want to do. Secrets, lies and rescues are all forms of power plays.

In most romantic relationships, friendships, community relationships and peer relationships, we begin from a presumption of relatively equal footing. We each have a choice about whether to be in relationship with each other, and our relationship is dependent on both of us deciding to continue the relationship. Our mutual right to decide whether to stay or go gives us power in the relationship. In Skills for Change, we like to talk about the fact that everyone has equal rights, but not everyone has equal power.

In parental, work and organizational relationships, there is usually a hierarchy. The hierarchy means one person has some to vastly more power than the other person. Unless a parent violates a child’s rights or loses their rights through criminal behavior, the parent has a high degree of power over their child’s location, who they spend time with, and what they do with their time. In a work setting, a boss has financial power — most people can’t afford to live without their paycheck, and the ability to fire an employee gives the boss a great deal of authority over what the employee does at work and how they do it.

Nancy Shanteau Bio

Nancy Shanteau is the lineage bearer for Skills for Change Coaching, an approach to making life changes for individuals seeking power-informed radical embodiment theory and practice. Co-author of Access to Power: a Radical Approach for Changing Your Life, she leads online courses such as Live Your Relationship Values and Cooperative Communication. Nancy identifies as white, multi-ethnic, pansexual, aromantic, relationship anarchist and as a settler living in unceded Nisenan territory. Find her on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/nancyshanteau.

How Power Affects Our Requests

How Power Affects Our Requests

This writing is excerpted from the Skills for Change Cooperative Communication course I teach online. Learn more here.

Asking for What You Want in a Hierarchy

Just because we are in a hierarchy, doesn’t mean we can’t ask for what we want. Often, leaders are happy to hear suggestions, offers, and other requests especially when the asker acknowledges the power structure.

“I know you will make a final decision that takes lots of variables into account, and I trust that you are doing your best to hold the whole while taking care of the parts. I thought if I explained my point of view and what I see, that it might help you make a more informed decision about my part of the business. And perhaps you can explain to me what contribution you’d like to see from me and my team in the coming months.”

“I know you are probably trying to keep expenses low or none while maintaining the building and the landscape, and I respect that there are lots of things you take care of that I don’t see, but get the benefit of on a daily basis. Thank you for all of your work. I’d like to share some ideas I and my roommates have for improving our apartment and hear how you usually like to see these kinds of improvements made, what works and what doesn’t work for you, and how I can be a great tenant for your apartment.”

Meta Conversations & Negotiations

Meta Conversations & Negotiations

Boys talking into tin cans, playing the phone game.Meta Conversations

In a meta-conversation, we talk about having the conversation before actually talking about the topic. We have a very short meta-conversation in each of the consent steps in the Clearing Held Feelings and Stories process. “Is this a good time for you to hear my held feeling? The topic is the dishes and it’s a three on a one to ten scale. I think it will take about 20 minutes.” This is a meta-conversation because if the person says no, not now, you may continue to negotiate about the conversation before you have it. “If not now, then when is a good time?” “I can talk about the dishes tomorrow night while we’re making dinner. Does that work for you?” “Yes.”

In order to avoid drive-by conversations we have meta-conversations. Drive-by conversations are when we start talking about a subject without asking if it’s a good time. “Hey the other night when you left the dishes in the sink, I did them because we had guests coming the next morning. I wonder if you are willing to consider doing your dishes at night before going to bed as a general rule? I’d rather not have to clean up after you.”

The listener might be receptive and able to roll with the conversation, or they might be doing something that requires focus, and you just interrupted something they care about doing well. A conversation that might be well-received at an agreed-upon time, may become contentious because of non-negotiated timing. In this example, we have addressed multiple meta-subjects: time, topic, intensity, and duration.

Power & Trust

Power & Trust

Trust Formula from Nancy Shanteau's Trust-Building Worksheet. Illustrations by Patrick Stein.The Relationship between Power and Trust

When people are clearing and one person won’t let go of their story about the other person, I know there’s a power/trust problem. Either the person doesn’t trust the other person, or even more importantly, they don’t trust themselves to take care of themselves if things don’t go well. Sometimes, simply pointing this out will help someone change their position relative to the story, or at least we can make a plan for what they need to do to build trust with themselves before they will change their story to include the other person’s story. I don’t even try to build trust across a relationship between two people when the person doesn’t trust themselves.

One of the reasons people hold onto their defensive stories is that they don’t trust themselves to hold boundaries without their story. The negative story holds the boundary and then we can take the action we need to take. If we have a more compassionate or big picture story, we might not then take care of ourselves and our needs. If we can build self-trust that we will hold a boundary anyway, then we can accept other people’s stories as also true.

Once we’ve established self-trust, then we can apply the Trust Formula to create an analysis for why they don’t trust the other person. We’ll talk about that more in the next activity.

Feelings & Stories

Feelings & Stories

This image shows two figures and illustrates the Observable Facts (anything a camera would record), the Story-Free Feelings (the sensations and emotions felt by the two people), and the Stories (the subjective thoughts, ideas and beliefs people have about themselves, others and their experiences.)When we learn to distinguish between feelings and stories, we increase our ability to create space between our experience and our observation of our experience. This gives us an opportunity to make wise adult choices in  our responses to events.

Story words that masquerade as feelings: abandoned, rejected, dismissed, unimportant, betrayed.

It’s tempting to use these words to describe our feelings about events because they are so strong. Yet they require action from another person, and thus represent our stories about the other person’s motivations rather than our feelings in response to the observable facts of the situation.

Sometimes we get a chance to share our stories with the other person and hear What’s True, What’s Not True, and What’s Also True in response. At other times, we don’t have a cooperative relationship with the person and are unable to share our stories and trust that we will be treated with compassion or given a truthful response. In such circumstances, making distinctions between our feelings about a situation and our stories about a situation can help us accept the unacceptable and our powerlessness over both our feelings and knowing the truth about the other person’s motivations.

Learning to Pause

Learning to Pause

When we get emotionally triggered, our safety system kicks off a sequence of biological responses to danger. This process prioritizes the fight-flight-freeze-tend/befriend-dissociate reactions in our body and reduces resources for non-survival systems, including our mental processes. As a result, once triggered, we often have reduced capacity for making thoughtful agreements.

I created a drawing to show how two people’s trigger sequences can create a negative fight cycle that escalates and produces angry, hurt conflict, and often takes a lot of effort to resolve. My goal was to help clients find the early markers of their trigger sequence. If we can identify ourselves starting to get triggered, we can interrupt the process, re-center, and make a different move that produces a different result. Take a look at the drawing and notice how each partner’s escalation sequence has early stages of the cycle. If we can create interventions early on, we can de-escalate, rather than escalate conflict, create a lot less harm, and require a lot less repair work in the aftermath.

Standards & Boundaries

When we are negotiating changes in a relationship, often people attempt to get other people to change in order to manage their own internal state. I call this “externalizing.” Unfortunately, even the successful exertion of control over others doesn’t tend to make us feel more safe. It can even make us feel less safe, because we know the other people are rescuing us and their efforts to please us aren’t coming from their own desires and needs. Eventually, uninterrupted rescue tends to become persecution, and persecution is an extremely unpleasant consequence to our desperate attempt to control how we feel.

Empowered Boundaries

Our boundaries are limits that when expressed constitute consent for our bodies and selves. It’s helpful for us to internalize the dignity of our boundaries. We are responsible for holding our boundaries, and we express our boundaries in conversation and actions that are natural consequences of other people’s behaviors and choices.

For example, we might say to a roommate, “When you choose to play loud music in common spaces, and I want it to be quiet, the natural consequence is that I’m not going to stay in the same room as you. If you want my company, we need to figure out a way for both of us to get what we want.” Our dignified boundary is that we’re not willing to remain in a location where the music is too loud for us. We will either ask for the music to be turned down or off, for the person to wear headphones, or we will move our bodies to a different location. Hopefully, if we’re in a cooperative relationship, the person will value our desire for quiet as important just as their desire for loud music is important.

Big Picture Stories

A Lesson from Cooperative Communication: Telling Ourselves Big-Picture Stories

Here’s a sample lesson from the Cooperative Communication course. I’m posting it here to give more folks a chance to see the course materials.

If you have questions or comments, please post them below. I’m delighted to learn what you’re thinking!

Types of Stories

When we tell ourselves stories about other people, very often the story we tell ourselves revolves around ourselves and our experience. The advantage to this tactic is that we have some power over a story if we are involved. If someone’s story is all about them and their experience, we have little or no power or influence over their story. Because we are trained to avoid our feelings of powerlessness, the idea that someone’s story could have nothing to do with us may be frightening or overwhelming. Yet most people are having their own experiences and telling themselves stories that put themselves at the center of the action. When we can differentiate between our stories about ourselves (self-centric stories) and stories that are genuinely about other people (other-centric stories) we are much more likely to create a whole picture that includes everyone (a big-picture story.)

Trust Formula from Nancy Shanteau's Trust-Building Worksheet. Illustrations by Patrick Stein.

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