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Beyond positions: a politics of civic co-creativity


The first version of this article was written after the 2000
U.S. elections, when I spoke about the lessons we could learn,
including lessons about position-centered politics. I revised
it somewhat after the 2008 elections, since Obama seems to
be exploring what politics and governance would be like when
they aren't primarily about positions.

     Taking positions prevents us from moving towards each
other, and with each other, to find options that better meet the
needs of all involved, including the needs of the communities
and societies in which we live. It may be fruitful to take
this opportunity to imagine what politics would be like if it
focused on helping us all work together to solve our
collective problems and create a better future for
ourselves, our children and our world. -- Tom Atlee


Some say the problem with politics is the way we organize and finance our campaigns. Some say the problem is how special interests control our media, elections, governance, and much of the rest of our society. Some say that the whole thing is just one big horrible corrupt pointless mess. There are significant grains of truth in all these assertions.

But I'd like to suggest something different. I'd like to suggest that a big part of the problem with politics is with positions. Rather, to be more exact, our politics is in such a mess because it is based on "taking positions."

I know this may sound odd or trivial or abstract to many of you. But bear with me for a minute. There's a door here we could walk through to a better world.

Politicians are like soldiers and debaters. Soldiers and debaters take positions. A position is something you take -- and then you hold it. You don't move. And then you win or lose.

Political platforms are collections of a party's or candidate's "positions on the issues." Platforms are what candidates stand on as they lob cannonballs, soundbites and spin-doctoring at each other.

We can learn a lot about positions from the field of negotiation.

Let's imagine Sam and Charlie are negotiating. Using an old style of negotiation, Sam cleverly gets Charlie to give up lots of what Charlie wants so that Sam can get more of what Sam wants. What they don't do is separate their "interests" (what they each want) from their "positions" (what they think will get them what they want).

Roger Fisher and William Ury's watershed 1981 book Getting to Yes presented a totally different, and very successful, method called "principled negotiation." Using principled negotiation, Sam and Charlie don't "hold" their positions: They set them aside. Or they inquire into them. But what they focus on is getting real clear about what their respective INTERESTS are. Then they move together (which they can do since they're no longer stuck in "positions") to discover new options that could satisfy both of their interests. They shift from fighting to problem-solving, from being adversaries to being colleagues.

When people use a process like this, they come up with MUCH better solutions. It's easy to see why:

(a) When people's interests are fully understood and taken into account, they don't have to defend themselves and their positions. Their attention opens up, and they can be more creative.

(b) When people really hear each other's needs, they understand more about the problem at a deeper level, since those needs are part of the structure of the problem.

(c) When people do a process like this, they come to SHARE the problem. Instead of seeing each other AS the problem, they sit on the same side working on a problem they share. (This helps a lot: Not only is the other person seldom the real problem, but people tend to BECOME a problem to the extent that they're treated like one!)

(d) In a collaborative process, all the parties can muster together their many capacities and resources, and apply them to solving their shared problem instead of undermining each other.

(e) All the parties end up committed to implementing the solutions they create together, instead of holding back or maneuvering for better chances to take advantage of each other.

Doesn't this sound better than the Presidential Debates? Doesn't this sound better than what we see all too often in Congress or Parliament? It is a different way of operating -- and it is an approach that can be modeled and promoted from both the bottom and the top of our political systems.

From the co-intelligence perspective, we could say that focusing on positions evokes co-stupidity, whereas focusing on interests (or needs) -- or even just deeply understanding each other -- evokes co-intelligence.

In our individual and collective lives, we face many problems. And we face choices about how to address them:

* We can see other people as partners in a shared problem-solving effort -- or we can see them as the biggest part of the problem. They're likely to oblige us, either way.

* We can realize that their interests and needs -- and our own interests and needs -- are all part of the structure of the problem itself, which it would be wise for us to understand. Or we can ignore the real substance of the problem and just push our position as The Solution, and see how far that gets us.

* We can invite the other parties to apply their intelligence, creativity, information, and other resources to solving our shared problem. Or we can have them apply all those resources to outwitting, manipulating and defeating us (while we try to do the same to them).

* We can take up the cause of their interests and needs, and help them understand our own interests and needs -- that is, we can become partners in co-creating a better life for both of us. Or we can exhaust ourselves and our resources in battle. (How much did they say the most recent election cost the parties involved -- hundreds of millions of dollars?)

As they say, life is filled with choices.

We see this pattern -- this understanding of each other's interests and needs from a place of partnership -- in Nonviolent Communication, Consensus Process, Dynamic Facilitation, and countless other powerful approaches to solving problems and meeting needs. (See Co-Intelligent Practices, Approaches, Processes and Organizations for descriptions of these and other such processes.)

So what does all this have to do with politics?

It seems to me that that question itself shows how far we have drifted away from creating collective lives that make sense.

Politics is, in its essence -- and should be, in its form -- the way a society goes about solving its collective problems and creating its shared future. Politics is no more adversarial -- in its essence -- than negotiation is. We can do politics as adversaries or we can do politics as partners. There is overwhelming evidence that human nature has the capacity for both cooperation and battle. We can work together or we can fight -- and we can do either one competently or sloppily.

Given all this, it seems to me that, in most circumstances, it makes sense to do our best to try to work together competently. I may be missing something here, but it seems kind of immature to set up an entire political system so that the first thing we do about our shared problems is fight with each other.

Yet that's exactly how our political system is set up. It is organized as a majority-rules, winner-takes-all battleground populated by competing parties with opposing positions who either

a) attempt to defeat each other
       or, failing that,
b) compromise ("hammer out" solutions that give each side
      only a bit of what they wanted) or trade ("I'll support you
      on Proposal X if you support me on Proposal Y").

Notice that NONE of these approaches involve people working together to find options that truly satisfy the needs and interests of everyone involved.

So: What would a politics look like that DID involve people in creative partnerships? Is such a politics even possible?

At the very least, we could have a politics that STARTED from a place of co-operation. If and as that cooperation failed, there could be ways of stepping back inch by inch into increasing adversariality, with opportunities at every step for moving back into partnership. That's what diplomats often do when they're trying to avoid war. There's an awful lot of know-how about how to do this -- not only basic theory, such as "tit for tat", but scores of VERY powerful techniques for healing relationships, coming to powerful shared understandings and creating brilliant, unforeseen solutions together.

So I'll say here and now that I'm tired of a politics where party platforms are designed to say what The XYZ Parties will do to solve the country's or community's problems when they take power. If we have to have platforms, let them propose what kinds of conversations The XYZ Parties will organize to help the country or community work together to find top-quality solutions to their shared problems -- and conversations to clarify what better futures they'd like to make together. That approach would make some co-intelligent sense. Perhaps some third party could explore the possibility....

I actually describe such a politics in "The story of Pat and Pat, the view from the year 2020" <>. It's a futuristic, down-home story about how Patrick and Patricia McFallow become co-mayors of Threshold, Iowa, in 2016. During their four-year mayorship they engage thousands of citizens in powerful, empowering conversations about what they want their community to be like and how they can change it. Of course, the community starts changing, brilliantly and fast. When the next election rolls around, every political party is advocating some version of what Pat and Pat pioneered. This is natural. (Note that the emerging Transition Towns movement and the Transpartisan movement are founded on some very similar "beyond positions" assumptions.)

I sometimes imagine a traditional politician showing up in a town like Threshold, Iowa, that's lived for a while with such a truly co-intelligent politics. He'd say, "Vote for me. I have the best position on the issues." The citizens would look at him like he was from Mars. "What are you talking about? Who cares what your positions are! On any issue in this town, none of us knows what the best solution is until we explore it real well with each other. You are stuck in your own head, man. If you want to get anywhere with us, offer us some new ways to work on things better together."

Scores of democratic innovations are being proposed -- new voting methods, teledemocracy ideas, ways to give the public better control of the media, democratic skill-building... The list goes on. I actually collect such innovative ideas, and hope someday to help weave them into an ongoing conversation about how to make our politics more co-intelligent. But I can't help feeling that the answer we most need lies deeper than most of these reach.

Politics shouldn't be FOCUSED on choosing who will lead us or who will make decisions on our behalf (as the representative democracy people advocate) -- although this is one necessary piece of the whole. Nor should politics strive for all of us to vote on every single issue (as the direct democracy people advocate, but few average citizens could actually do, especially well). Rather, I think it should focus on those things that will help our whole society or community make wise decisions, solve shared problems successfully (and track the consequences of those solutions), and create our future together sustainably -- over and over, forever and ever.

Traditional democracy provided us with a good beginning to the project of developing our collective intelligence. Now we need another major step forward. Here and there in this world, I suspect, we would probably find everything we need to begin building a powerful new, co-intelligent politics. I'm doing the best I can to find and publicize pieces of the puzzle as I find them.

It seems to me that if we can put the whole puzzle together, we'll discover we have a new world, right there. It would be a very special world, a very special culture -- one that could renew itself over and over, as the natural world does.

And it seems to me that if we can't put the puzzle together, we won't be here long. We'll pull each other and our world apart.

Pass it on.



For more on this approach to politics, see

Principles of Public Participation

A Call to Move Beyond Public Opinion to Public Judgment

and other articles on

Co-Intelligent Political and Democratic Theory


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