A recent School of Life event at Conway Hall, saw Richard Sennett talking to Alice Rawsthorn about his new book – Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-operation.
The book acted as an anchor for the meandering topics discussed over the next 90 minutes, during which time Sennett, quizzed by Rawsthorn, made the argument for cooperation and against solidarity.
This premise boils down to his belief that whilst everyone can find a common thread if they try, recognising and working with the painful differences between people is a much more difficult, but valuable learnt skill.
In particular, co-operation is hard because it is about learning to live with people who think differently or don’t know what they think at all.
I walked away from the event particularly remembering a set of recommendations for effective cooperation that Sennett shared with us from his book at very start of the evening:
As opposed to diagnostics, dialogics help us to understand and respond to what someone needs to say to us rather than what they do actually say.
In order to do this well, you need to become skilled in taking in the real meaning, which includes listening as much to the silences and understanding the nuances as the words themselves.
2. Use of the subjunctive
The use of the subjunctive rather than the declarative is about dealing with the ambiguities, not the clarities.
Using the subjunctive voice is more important than it appears – even to the extent of being a useful tactic for avoiding violence.
3. Be informal
Complex cooperation is more often informal than formal.
Informalise settings with a lot of conflict – whether in difficult neighbourhoods or volatile work settings.
4. Use empathy
Empathy is a cooler emotion than sympathy, it depends on an interest in what happened rather than a really strong feeling of indentification and in that sense is more authentic and more valuable.
Empathy is akin to curiosity – “Tell me about it. What was it like?” In fact adressing each other in this very human way is more respectful than forced sympathy.
The above rules, can be used together for different communities on the edges. They don’t deal with what these different communities have in common, rather how to speak to each other across the barriers of being different.
When asked why he was writing about co-operation now, Sennett reflected that the social network phenomenon and the way we interact in the workplace for example is leading to more and more ersatz forms of co-operation.
With particular reference to the workplace he claimed that what we describe as co-operation in this setting is actually a kind of theatre in which we smile, but stab one another in the back. This is opposed to the real deal, in which one person really needs help, but isn’t making it easy for the other person to give it.
I reflected then that maybe he wasn’t seeing the true co-operation I’m experiencing with clients we’re currently working with who do need our help, but that in giving it we’re making life difficult for them, leading to a need for the very co-operation Sennett describes.
Sennett cited the Rochdale Principles to outline examples of complex co-operation. Robert Owen’s rules for forming a co-operative do ring true when thinking about the many new alternatives to the established institutions that are emerging thanks to the medium of digital.
In his words, “We’re going back to cooperative movements to take care of ourselves”.
Looking at the frenetic start up scene particularly in financial services and health and wellness, it’s clear that a co-operative-led alternative is starting to arise.