Muddling through or moving forward? From Education to Ebola, mindful cooperation unlocks social strength


In this era of disruption at many levels, when we’re often confronted by apparently intractable dilemmas — environmental, social, economic and political — how we respond is crucial. In particular, taking time to better understand the power of cooperation can be very valuable, both personally and professionally.

Mindful cooperation challenges a common assumption that the best way to deal with such dilemmas is through the competitive marketplace where individuals pursue their own short term interests. Instead, it’s about building communities where members learn to work together constructively, with a set of governing principles that create more resilient options for addressing problems. Collective decision making is strengthened through trust and reciprocity.

Mindful cooperation is an area of research that Australia21’s Mindful Futures Network has been paying close attention to over the past month, as we look at ways to foster positive decision making.

Some very interesting work has been done by Otto Scharmer, a Senior Lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Chair of the MIT IDEAS program for cross-sector innovation, which helps leaders from business, government and civil society to innovate at the level of the whole system.

Scharmer has framed three different responses to disruption that are playing out in all sectors and systems:

  1. Muddling through: downloading (maintaining the status quo),
  2. Moving backward: “making X great again”,
  3. Moving forward: leaning into the unknown to co-sense and co-create the future.

The third response is perhaps the most important and least familiar. It attends to disruption by leaning forward into the unknown, by sensing and actualising the future that wants to emerge.

Scharmer argues to do that, we need three critical capacities: listening and curiosity (an open mind), empathy and compassion (an open heart), as well as confidence and courage (an open will).

If you face a moment of disruption and you lack these critical capacities, you are easily thrown into the space of absencing — that is, into a self-reinforcing dynamic of separation and destruction.


Australia21: Prosocial group shotSo how can we move forward effectively?

An interesting new research project addressing this question is PROSOCIAL. It provides an evidence-based approach for improving the efficacy of groups that are trying to work together to achieve common goals. It uses principles derived from social psychology, evolutionary theory and economics.

Organisational Psychologist Dr Paul Atkins is a member of the international design team implementing PROSOCIAL and a senior Research Fellow with the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at the Australian Catholic University, based in Sydney.

Paul was the guest speaker at a recent Mindful Futures Network webinar with Dr Nicky Grigg, who’s a Research Scientist at CSIRO and a member of the MFN Advisory Group, and MFN founder Dr Lynne Reeder. He explained the PROSOCIAL approach, sharing  interesting insights into its implementation within schools, businesses and public organisations — and even as a tool to fight the spread of ebola. He also answered viewer questions about his work.

Click on the video to watch this webinar on The Science of Mindful Cooperation, or read the transcript below.


The Science of Mindful Cooperation


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The Science of Mindful Cooperation – webinar transcript

Australia21 - The Science of Mindful Cooperation MFN webinarDr Lynne Reeder: Welcome everyone my name is Lynne Reeder, founder of Mindful Futures Network. As you know we’ve been collecting information on the application of mindfulness, empathy and compassion at a systems level. Paul Atkinson has actually submitted two projects that he’s working on and he might mention some of those today. But these webinars are providing people with the opportunity just to get a little bit more depth around what’s happening. So I’m very appreciative of Paul and Nicky giving their time today. So I’ll hand over to Nicky who’s going to do the Q&A. We’re going to try and keep these webinars tight because we know that peoples’ time is important… so I’d like to hand over now to Nicki, thanks Nicki.

Dr Nicky Grigg: Thank You Lynne, thanks Paul. As Lynn said, we’ll hop straight into it. So Paul I’m just going to ask you a couple of questions if that’s okay? So in the Mindful Futures Network we’re interested in mindfulness, empathy and compassion — not just as individual practices, but how they play out in groups and in organizations. So it means this concept of mindful cooperation is particularly relevant. Can you shed some light on what mindful cooperation means, what does it mean to you?

Dr Paul Atkins: Well thanks Nicky. Thinking about the answer to that question I wanted to divide it up into three or four levels because I think that makes it a bit easier to understand.

Australia21 - MFN webinar slideWe’re probably all familiar with the idea of mindfulness as non-judgmental awareness of the present moment for individuals. I like to think of mindfulness in terms of a concept we called psychological flexibility, which on this slide here… is capacity to move in the direction of our values, even in the presence of difficult emotions.

The reason I like to think about mindfulness in those terms is because I think mindfulness in general is sometimes pitched in our society as being about getting rid of stress. In all the work that I do, I like to frame it with people more in terms of mindfulness in the service of doing the things that matter in your life. So at the individual, the personal level, we tend to work with people’s individual values and also cultivating that capacity to have a kind of open non-judgmental awareness.

At the next level there’s the interpersonal, the sort of dyadic level if you like, of a relationship. There what we’re mostly interested in is open non-judgmental dialogue and listening capabilities and that’s how mindfulness kind of plays out at that level. It also sort of tends to show up in things like not being too invested in our ego, or trying to defend a particular position, or being right, or anything like that.

Then there are a couple of spots on the final levels which is like the small group level and then groups of groups. Really what it is, is again this kind of openness and inclusiveness in decision-making. For example an approach that’s based around abundance rather than scarcity, and the way that we’re operationalising that is by looking to the literature on communities organised in the Commons. So I’ve got on that slide just there…

The way we understand the Commons is some kind of resource or purposeful group, a local community and a set of social practices and agreements that move us in that direction. And again they can be infused with mindfulness or not. They work a lot better when they’re infused with mindfulness.

So I think of mindfulness sort of understood at those four different levels.

Nicky: Okay and so if you are working in a group or watching a group working how would you recognise this sort of mindful cooperation? You’ve mentioned things like dialogue and listening and open judgmental awareness, so I’m just… if you could tell us a little more about the sorts of things that you would be looking to, to recognise it and the sort of benefits that you’d see as a result of it.

Paul: Yeah. Well I mean to a certain extent recognising it is like you recognise it in any group or in any individual: a willingness to listen, a willingness to be present, a tendency not to be too judgmental or defensive and all of those things, those are the kinds of things we’re looking for in the group. I think mindfulness helps us to cultivate a kind of trust in ourselves and a trust in others as well. And so you know we’re sort of looking for that trusting environment. Beyond that I think that it’s important that we seek to bring in some of these other processes I might just show you.

Australia21 - MFN webinar Elinor Ostrom slideI’ve got these slides, I wasn’t planning on going through them all but Elinor Ostrom’s work on the Commons, where she looked at how groups, effective groups, manage common-pool resources internationally. She came up with these eight principles: shared identity and purpose, equity, inclusiveness, non-hierarchical monitoring of agreed behaviours, an approach for responding to transgressions, an approach for conflict resolution.

So I’m really looking for mindfulness to pervade all of those and we’re trying to… we start with that individual level and then we try and sort of… we start at the individual level then we go to dialogue training and then we go to these principles, to try and cultivate mindfulness in application in all of those areas. Does that answer your question?

Nicky: Yeah, yeah, very much so. And so I guess I was just going to expand on… ask you to expand on that then, because you’re involved in developing the PROSOCIAL initiative which is about helping groups work effectively together and do exactly that. So I’m just wondering if you can tell us about the sorts of tools and approaches that you use to help foster that kind of mindful cooperation in groups?

Paul: Sure. One of the tools that we use is a tool that’s drawn from Acceptance and Commitment Training and it’s an approach we call the Acceptance and Commitment Training matrix. I might just briefly demonstrate that.

Just to give it a little bit of context of PROSOCIAL, PROSOCIAL is an international initiative. It involves an evolutionary biologist and some psychologists and a filmmaker. There’s a bunch of us working on this initiative and essentially it’s about a mindfulness based approach to building collaboration in all small groups, based upon this tool I’m about to show you and also Ostram’s principles.

Australia21 - MFN webinar slideSo the ACT matrix is based around this very simple idea that we can be mindful of two core discriminations at any given moment. The first one is, Are we moving towards what’s appetitive to us or away from what’s aversive to us? So you know, you might be moving towards something you really care about, maybe it’s connection in a group, or it might be moving away from something, like ‘I’m doing this because I’m worried that other people might disapprove of me.’ If you’re an animal, animals do towards and away, do it very simply. But they don’t have, you know, a mind that gets really busy and so forth, so they’re just responding sort of automatically if you like.

Australia21 - MFN webinar slideOnce you add in language, then we need another discrimination. We need a discrimination between the internal world, our thinking and feeling, and the outer world, what’s actually going on in the outer world.

So what we’re doing in groups is we’re helping people to start to categorize and discriminate their experience. Is this a ‘towards’ move or am I moving away from something that’s, you know… ‘Am I under the control of something that’s aversive or am I under the control of something that’s appetitive?’, ‘Am I moving towards what matters to me?’ and then also this discrimination between ‘Is this something that’s actually going on in the world or is it something that’s really about my internal experience?’

Australia21 - MFN webinar slideSo in practice we would teach people in a group, say for example… we might do a short exercise, we might just sit for a moment noticing sensations and what I’m hearing and seeing and smelling and also noticing thoughts and feelings and just making the distinction: thinking, thinking, thinking or sensing, sensing, sensing. So I might just give them a bit of that discrimination training. And then, I’ll just show you how this might work out in a group.

So we might start down in the bottom right there. I might say ‘Who or what’s important to you about this group?’ This is my own example of my research group at the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education. Some of the things that matter to me are my colleagues and passion-filled research and fun and friendship.

Australia21 - MFN webinar slideThen we go over to the more ‘away’ side, you know, ‘What sorts of inner stuff shows up and gets in the way of me moving in the direction of all of those things like there are about?’

One of the big ones for me personally is this growing belief that I’m actually [?] as I get older, I seem to be forgetting things and I’m not smart enough.

Anyway, when that happens and those sorts of inner experiences show up, I actually do disconnect from my colleagues. I start to sort of think… I start to do these sorts of things, which is the next step. I might not speak to them when I disagree with them, because I’m concerned about what they might think. Or I might, you know, work on projects by myself that are less meaningful and not connected to others. And what I’d like to be doing to move towards who and what’s important to me is more of this stuff, you know, showing up, engaging with my colleagues and so forth.

Australia21 - MFN webinar slideSo you can see that what this matrix tool does is kind of create a map of what we value, what’s going on in our minds, how we extract what we care about and the goals that we would like to pursue, the activities we’d like to pursue, to move in the direction of what we care about. But it also allows us to map the inner stuff that tends to show up and the behaviours that flow from that, when we get that inner stuff showing up. And the key part where it becomes mindfulness and not just goal-setting is we spend a lot of time training up this capacity to sit in the middle and discriminate what’s going on, so that we can move in the direction of what matters to us — this top right corner — even in the presence of all this difficult stuff showing up in the middle.

Australia21 - MFN webinar slideI’ll just say one last thing about the individual matrix. In our PROSOCIAL process we usually start with the individual matrix, because what we want to do is create an environment of trust and vulnerability in the room and willingness to share. That spiral there was just to indicate that we can sometimes get locked into a kind of defensive thing where, when difficult stuff shows up, we avoid the difficulties. So that means we disengage from our colleagues, and so more difficult stuff shows up, and so forth.

The last thing that I just wanted to show you was, we can also use — and this is the key bit — we can also use the matrix at the group level. So instead of doing all of that as an individual, we can do it as ‘What do we care about?’ and ‘What stuff shows up for us that gets in the way?’ and ‘What do we do as a group collectively?’ and ‘What do we want to do, to move towards?’ Then you can sort of establish this concept of collective mindfulness or, you know, mindful cooperation: ‘What does it look like for us to actually notice people getting hooked by stuff and acting in ways we’d rather not have them act?’ — and still noticing that with a degree of kindness and curiosity, being able to move towards what we care about.

Australia21 - MFN webinar slideThere’s one piece that just crossed my mind and then I’ll shut up and open it up to questions. A really key part of mindfulness — I know when I present this it sounds like it’s all lovey dovey and, you know, compassion and kindness and so forth. And it is, because I think mindfulness is very much about self compassion and compassion towards others.

But there’s also an edge to mindfulness which is about courage, and the courage to confront behaviours that we’re not happy with rather than avoid them. So this thing about psychological flexibility, to move towards what matters to us even when we’re hooked, also enables that kind of… I don’t want to say hard edge… but the courageous side, if you like, of being in a group.

Lynne: I suppose one question I had Paul was around that issue of courage. It seems that, you know… I was even reading an article by Jon Kabat-Zinn just yesterday saying that we know that we have this intelligent mind sitting over these older emotion regulation systems — so threat-based, drive-based — and it’s actually driving us crazy. So it’s really not an optional thing, we really need to be doing this in a very detailed way. So I was wanting you to speak a little bit more about that courage, how we start to do that. I know that Paul Gilbert for example talks about, you know, that the courage around compassion is receiving compassion from other people, you know, giving it to ourselves and giving it to other people… so those three sort of ways of those barriers. So I just wonder in PROSOCIAL do they go into those barriers a bit?

Paul: So one thing I want to say is for me courage is about… it’s not about lack of fear right, it’s about moving in the direction of what matters for ourselves or the group, even in the presence of fear. So it’s you know almost synonymous with this notion that in the ACT literature, in the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy literature and training literature we call psychological flexibility, moving in the direction of what matters even when it’s difficult internally.

Now I think you mentioned we’ve got this sort of multiple… we’ve got a more cognitive system and we’ve got some more sort of primitive operant learning systems, if you like, that are in the brain. One of the reasons why I think meditation is useful, I tend to think of meditation as multiple exemplar training in noticing the difficulties that show up and staying present for that. So it’s actually training up that more primitive lizard brain, if you like, to feel fear to feel discomfort and stay with it and sort of go towards it, or even move through it if you like. And that is the very essence of courage.

I think you can also get it, courage, sort of top-down from a more self-regulatory point of view, in a more cognitive way as well, by being really clear about what matters to you, and that in the presence of very clear purpose and intention we’re more likely to be willing to put up with the discomfort of, say for example… I mean, think about courage in a group. It’s usually about something like running up to conflict, that’s a big one for most groups, or maybe handling under-performance or something like that, which is really a form of conflict in one way or another. In the presence of, say for example, conflict… what I’m saying is there’s… you can recruit either of those brain systems. You can, through meditation training, you can have repeated experience of just being in the presence of aversiveness but still remaining open to that. And through work on values and goals and shared identity and purpose you can create a context that very strongly calls for people to be courageous, even in the presence of difficulty.

Does that answer that question?

Lynne: Yeah. I I think too that there’s an… it seems that there’s a lot of anger in the world and a lot of the debates that we’re having at a political level at the moment, you know, are sort of joining in that us against them. So that sense of ‘I know how the world works and I want it to stay that way for me to feel safe’. So I was wondering, the work that you’re doing in PROSOCIAL and with organisations, you know, are you getting… I mean it’s fine for people who, you know, who for example are in the network, they’re already keen and interested in this, you know… How are you working with people say in organisations that have that high level of resistance?

Paul: Well again this is where our model starts with shared purpose. We really… I tried for many years to sort of run mindfulness based stress reduction courses in organisations and I didn’t get the buy-in as a stress reduction tool that I now get when I go in and I say ‘What do you care about?’ and ‘What’s tricky?’ You know, ‘Imagine this image that’s right on the screen now, what do you care about and what gets in your way of moving towards that?’ And then we’re instantly in something that they care about, so the whole conversation is framed in terms of something that the group cares about and then using mindfulness to enable that.

I suppose you mentioned, I think you mentioned something about sort of getting stuck in beliefs and prejudice and our kind of image of what the world is about. I mean, this is one of the reasons why it’s really key to do that vertical discrimination, because a lot of the anger and reactivity that we see in organisations and in groups is really about peoples’ image of the world, their story of the world, and their story of ‘Who I am’ and ‘How I have to be right’ and so forth. So to the extent that we can get people to kind of make room for that inner voice and that inner framing of the world, but still contact what’s actually happening here… like ‘What did Lynne actually just say just then?’ rather than ‘What I think she said…’ and that’s that vertical discrimination.

[If we can get out of our] minds and into the actual contingencies of experience, then we can start to move towards what we actually care about.

Lynne: Mmm, I think it’s the challenge of our world today.

Paul: I mean look… to say that, you know, Trump for example engages with the world, it’s all about division, it’s all about you know these kind of arbitrary categories of right and wrong and so forth and very little contact with what we actually care about collectively.

Lynne: Yes, having that global conversation.

Paul: I should have mentioned probably my background, I don’t know if that’s been described, but I am an Organisational Psych working at the Institute of Positive Psychology and Education in Strathfield.

Lynne: I’ve just got a question, it’s Margaret asking ‘Would it be right to say that an assumption of development or self-awareness is critical to this?’

Paul: It helps a lot if you’ve got a group that’s, you know, developed enough to be able to take the perspective of others for example, or they’ve got a sort of perspective-taking ability on their own internal experience. If that’s already there then you can slot into it really quickly, but we’ve used pro-social in a variety of contexts. I’m currently using it in a… well literally you know, a big commercial organisation that’s in a very sort of concrete industry. And they’re very focused on, you know, just getting things done, and most of them haven’t heard of mindfulness before. So we’re starting with a kind of really basic approach to mindfulness in the service of what matters to you.

And that’s where it’s really important, Margaret, to not kind of frame up mindfulness as this good thing that you should have, that you have to develop, because you just get push back in my experience when you try and do it that way. But if you frame it up as ‘What do you care about? and ‘What’s getting in your way? and ‘How might mindfulness help with that?’ then people are usually likely to put in the work.

It also helps a fair bit that mindfulness now is just absolutely mainstream and so I get a lot less resistance now than I did, you know, when I started doing this work 12 years ago.

Lynne: Thanks Paul. And Deb has asked a question, ‘In a fairly cutthroat, cynical, fake news environment how do you manage to convince especially commercial organisations to take on something ‘touchy feely’? You were actually just addressing that Paul.

Paul: We do have evidence. We’ve got some great evidence from one place… well, two very different things that I might want to mention. One was in an Australian government public sector agency where we showed really big shifts in a positive direction in staff morale and attitudes to management, at the same time — this was 2014 – 2015 — at the same time that the rest of the Australian Public Service was decreasing dramatically and all of those things. So you know, usually I’m talking to managers and basically I’m giving them something that they want which is better leadership, more cooperation, more collaboration, better communication and so forth, so framing it up in those terms.

But I would just briefly mention that we’ve also used it in contexts as diverse as in Sierra Leone working with the ebola crisis to change community groups. Now that’s a very under-educated group — not to say that they’re not self-aware, I can’t really speak to that, but they’re not highly educated by any means — and in that group we were able to (I say we, it wasn’t me personally it was some of my colleagues), were able to shift behaviour so that they were much less likely to spread the infection. So I think this is all about human values, it’s not necessarily about really high educational levels.

PROSOCIAL and Ebola in Sierra Leone from Alan Honick on Vimeo.

Your point about cynicism is a really, really key one and I used to yield to that, until I realised that was my own avoidance, that I didn’t want to be disapproved of. Now I’m just… I quite often start out my slides with something like ‘Creating the more beautiful world that our hearts know is possible’. Like, I’m unashamedly idealistic in as many contexts as I can be because I’ve noticed that, you know, there are people out there that want to be idealistic in this day and age of cynicism.

It’s not always appropriate. There are certain circumstances where I just get laughed out of the room or people would disconnect and in those circumstances I go to, you know, ‘This will help you do things you care about’. But I think it’s really worthwhile for the people listening to look at how we censor ourselves. We censor our own caring because we’ve been told over and over again that the world is about money and efficiency and all of these things. It’s just not, it’s just not, and we’re starting to realise that.

Lynne: Yeah, well Margaret has put in another comment saying ‘In the corporate world my experience is that workplace expectations significantly colour people’s views, or at least what they will expose of themselves.’ That’s exactly what you were saying.

Paul: Yeah. Yeah there’s certain framings and I mean one of the things here is the distinction between the personal and the professional. You know, we have this idea that at work we’re supposed to be this kind of machine that’s, you know, efficiently producing outputs or something, and there’s this big gap between personal and professional. So I have people saying to me, you know ‘I don’t do emotions at work’. It’s just indicative of that gap, but it’s actually also indicative of just a huge denial and avoidance. So this is where mindfulness is so key is to train people up in contacting that. You know, so sometimes I’ve done work, for example, showing the importance of using emotion effectively in decision making because emotions were evolved to help us make decisions. You can connect on it, you can connect to the literature around that, but you can just show it experientially, you know ‘Last time you made an important decision was there any emotion present?’, ‘What was it telling you and how was it pushing you?’ and then learning to kind of unhook from that.

So you can you can come up with language that appeals to sort of alpha males, like situational awareness and metacognitive awareness and stuff like this, and you just have to frame it up. But again, the basic principle is ‘What do you really care about’ and ‘How is this, you know, evolved psychological system which generally is self-protective and helpful, but how might it be tripping you up in moving towards what you care about?’

Lynne: Yeah, that’s right. In fact there’s, you know, neuroscience studies showing that people who have the parts of the brain damaged that experience emotion simply cannot make decisions because there’s nothing there for them to be able to choose between.

Paul: Yeah that’s right, they just, like that part of… you know, they lack the capacity to value and care. Actually it’s a very good example and I probably draw on it, literature like that.

Australia21 - MFN webinar slideLynne: Yeah, yeah. Excellent. Alright, well we’re at the end of the half hour. I want to very much thank Paul and Nicky for their time today. We will be continuing to have these webinars, probably early next year now, and one of the things that we’re really wanting to do in the Mindful Futures Network is be gathering these stories of how mindfulness is being applied by you in workplaces and in systems. So I’d again ask for people if they’re doing those, or if they know of people who are doing them, can they please send them in so that we can be really collecting this information and seeing the difference that it’s making. So thank you everyone and I look forward to catching up again. Thanks everyone, thank Paul, thanks Nicky.

Paul: Thankyou. If people want to learn more about Prosocial there’s some details on the screen.



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