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The C-Paradigm: Learning Self-empowerment and Cooperation

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May 25, 2010
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Becoming the change we are trying to make in the world

By Michael Johnson, GEO

Underneath our skins we have a 50-trillion-cell, highly functional community with technology that far outstrips anything that we've invented with our human minds. When we're healthy, this system is so impeccable and harmonious that within us we have full employment, universal health care, no cell left behind. The organs cooperate with one another so that the whole system can thrive. You never hear about the liver invading the pancreas demanding the islets of Langerhands. It just doesn't happen. At this stage in human evolution, we don't need to grow another arm or a bigger brain. We need to grow greater awareness and connection in community.  
--Steve Bhaerman, co-author, Spontaneous Evolution: Our Positive Future and a Way to Get There from Here

I think that we deeply want to become cooperative, compassionate, loving people.  But I think we also know achieving it is very difficult.  We've grown up in a very competitive culture, and much of what we have learned gets in our way to becoming the kind of human beings we want to be.  And the kind of people we need to power our movements.

Often we reach a level of performance in our democratic organizations and workplaces that is okay, but far from what we would like.  When that happens I think we are just not able to bring enough personal power to our collaboration.  Our power gets blocked and hung-up in the poor ways we respond to face-to-face problems.

Ganas community members
I'm defining power as the ability to raise one's energy to move in a desired direction.  Running a cooperative business, sustaining an intentional community, or getting fired up for an organizing campaign are positive examples of using power.  Positive motivation seeks to move toward making situations and our world work better.

But more often than we care to admit, we run into face-to-face situations to which we respond with too much aggression or too much fear.  We over-react badly or get paralyzed, not knowing what to do.  And, in an instant - poof! -- our positive motivation can disappear.


A positive alternative

Can we do something about this?  Yes, I think we can.  What I think we can do is turn those difficult face-to-face situations into learning opportunities.  A workshop I tried out at last summer's Eastern Conference Workplace Democracy gathering in Pittsburgh was encouraging.  But I will speak more about that later.  First, let's look at what seems to go wrong?

Coming together in joint ventures inevitably creates problems because - thankfully - there will always be cultural differences, personality clashes, differing expectations, shortcomings, conflicting ideas, orneriness, etc.  When the inevitable problems arise, we have a moment of truth: are we going to respond to them so that we can create and increase our power; or are we going to react to them out of our competitive conditioning that blocks problem solving, weakens cooperation and solidarity, and thereby causes a loss of power?

To a large extent our competitive culture has taught and continues to reinforce us to approach problems negatively through:

  • avoidance and withdrawal by turning away from the problem;
  • aggression by blaming and punishing others or ourselves;
  • prevention by making rigid rules, regulations, and laws.  

Taken together, all of the conditioned thoughts, feelings, habits, and actions underlying this negative approach constitute what I call the Blame Paradigm (B-Paradigm).

With these negative strategies we either pull our energy down (avoidance, prevention), or raise our energy for destructive attacks, verbal and otherwise.  Very often we do both: get very enraged but pull down our energy in order not to attack.  These reactions also tend to close down communication and self-awareness.  They prevent us from empathizing with the interests and feelings of the person or people with whom we are partnering.  

Unfortunately, these approaches are very habitual, happening almost automatically, with little consciousness.  That is, they are reactions, not mindful responses to a unique situation.  For example, when someone says something like "I know you have that problem," my protective hackles rise up instantaneously.  Yet, I don't know why they are saying that, nor can I really be sure that I understand what they mean.  My defensive body reaction and aggressive feelings are going to work against me empathizing with the other person and understanding their perspective.  On the other hand, I can have that habitual reaction and at the same time respond mindfully: "Hmmm.  I've been there and done that many times.  It's just going to make a mess.  Let me get a better understanding of what's going on."

We usually grow so accustomed to our old reactions that we don't even see them as problematic.  They just happen as a matter of course.  Further, these conditioned negative reactions usually burden us with bad feelings - frustration, guilt, revenge, shame, denial, etc.  All of these diminish our solidarity and effectiveness. Compassionate Inquiry Text Box

But here is some good news: we don't have to be stuck in this cycle.  We can learn how to transcend these interpersonal impasses and strengthen our organizations.  I have come to this conviction after 30 years of experiential research, living and working with a team of people in our intentional community, Ganas.  We have learned - and are still learning - that we can embrace the inevitable difficulties of working and being together as opportunities - opportunities for knowing and appreciating each other more, for greater empowerment, and for richer cooperation.  That is, we can take a radically positive approach: a win/win approach that moves us toward and into the problem at hand rather than away from it or into attacking someone.  A compassionate approach that opens our hearts, our ears, and our minds so that we can care about each others' interests as our own without losing sight of our self-interests.   An inquiring approach that seeks to find out what is happening, what is wanted, and what options we have for addressing the problem for the sake of the common good that is involved.  A creative approach that has as its goal finding a solution that everyone is, at least, okay with, but hopefully one that everyone can get excited about, which is the basic point of building consensus and solidarity.

Taken together, I call this the Compassionate Paradigm (C-Paradigm).

Now this C-Paradigm is not a grand answer.  Rather, it is a life-long learning project to equip ourselves with a deep, creative orientation to face-to-face relationship.  As such, it is only a toolbox, but one that is radically different from so much of what we have received from our top-down conditioning.  It is a direction that can enable us to learn and make good use of many tools for becoming deeply democratic in our personal and collective lives.  

Learning the C-Paradigm can be very challenging.  It calls on us not to go with our conditioned reactions, which is easy because they are habitual.  Rather, it calls on us to relax our most protective strategies in exchange for

  • learning how to empower ourselves;
  • finding the mutuality in our varying interests and needs;
  • building reality-based trust;
  • cooperating more fully; and
  • enjoying our lives much more.  

Further, it can enable us to turn the problems that arise between and within us into opportunities for continuously learning about ourselves, and others.

Testing out the C-Paradigm

That's the basic idea.  But it's more than just an idea.  The C-Paradigm has been field tested in an intentional community where participants could screen out many of the cultural reinforcers - a group of people who dedicated themselves to learning and developing this approach.

Can it be useful outside of that special environment?  That is the question that I, and others, are exploring.

To find out I offered a workshop on the C-Paradigm at the Eastern Conference Workplace Democracy conference.  The workshop went very well in terms of its own objectives - even better than I expected.  Eight co-op members from five cooperatives participated in the workshop.  First, they presented five specific interpersonal conflicts that were either obstructing good relationships or even derailing a co-op's solidarity.  After an hour of these presentations, I described the B- and C-Paradigms.  Participants recognized immediately that every problem scenario presented in the workshop utilized the B-paradigm.

More importantly, they saw a) how deeply habitual this paradigm is - across gender, class, and racial/ethnic backgrounds - and, b) that there is a clear alternative to that conditioned approach.  Further, they saw the potential value in using the C-paradigm to change the dynamics of each situation we had reviewed in the first hour.  Specifically, they saw how, with the C-paradigm, they could direct their energy and resources first into finding out what is happening and what is wanted.  How, as the factual, emotional, and perceptual information becomes known, possible solutions become more apparent, or how, sometimes, the problems could just dissolve.  Finally, how facing and solving interpersonal conflict can result in an exciting new sense of communal energy, ripe with trust, creativity, and inspiration.  

Embrace Text BoxI emphasized that the discussion did not provide any immediate solutions to the problems presented in the workshop.  Rather, it provided participants with an opportunity just to see how uncooperative the predominant blame and punishment approach to solving problems is, how habituated so many of us are to it, and how important it is to develop more cooperative methods both for solving problems and healing damaged relationships.  I also emphasized that this can be learned, but that it involves time and a good deal effort.

The next day, two participants - members of the same co-operative - met with me to explore the C-Paradigm further.  They decided that they wanted to experiment with the method in their co-op.  I recommended they organize a follow-up meeting on the last day of the conference to think that through with the others who had participated in the workshop.  This turned into an ad hoc workshop as three new people showed up but none of the other original participants.  We reviewed the original workshop and then started to focus on how the two worker-owners could take their learning home with them.  One of the new participants presented a rather dramatic story of a co-op's failure to solve one member's reactions to 9/11 that illustrated the B-paradigm.  A second new participant brought some useful critical observations about the challenges of using the C-Paradigm.  The discussion that followed from these two inputs led to a strong realization that nothing less than empowerment of individuals and the work group itself is the primary stake in finding effective ways of solving interpersonal conflicts.  In the end, the two participants who initiated this follow-up session decided that they would meet with each other on a regular basis to work with the C-Paradigm and give an open invitation to other members of their co-op to join if they wanted to.

Further testing

Two things were most encouraging for me in this trial workshop.  First, participants immediately recognized the B-paradigm for what it was and how trapped they were in it.  Second, they were excited about the creative potential of the C-Paradigm.
At the same time, the ad hoc follow-up session made me realize that the original workshop only tested one dimension of learning the C-Paradigm - the personal realm.  I hadn't thought through the possibility of developing other workshops that would explore applying the C-Paradigm in larger groups such as established democratic organizations and workplaces and to the democracy movement in general.   These two realms are much more challenging, but essential.  So I am very grateful for what the participants helped me learn.
The next phase of this research into learning cooperation and self-empowerment will include all three realms.  The workshop on the personal realm will remain pretty much as described above. In the second one, participants will focus on

  • identifying the ways in which reacting to problems out of the blame paradigm is habitual and deeply embedded in their work groups;
  • seeing how these ways, in part, constitute the norms of an organizational culture;
  • imagining what responding to this culture with compassion and curiosity out of the C-paradigm would be like;
  • identifying what the payoffs would be for the group or organization to move from the B- to the C-paradigm;
  • recognizing how resistant an established organizational culture can be;
  • identifying what the potential costs could be of initiating a change process;
  • and speculating on possible strategies for introducing the C-paradigm to those cultures.

In the third, participants will focus on

  • identifying the ways in which reacting to problems out of the B-paradigm is habitual and deeply embedded;
  • seeing how these ways, in part, constitute a movement culture;
  • imagining what responding to this culture with compassion and curiosity out of the C-paradigm would be like;
  • identifying what the payoffs would be for the movement to move from the B- to the C-paradigm;
  • identifying what the potential costs could be, and speculating on possible strategies for introducing the C-paradigm to those cultures.  

I am hoping, with others, to offer the set of three workshops in future conferences and other venues.  The goal will be to create experiential opportunities to deepen our knowledge of both self-empowerment and cooperation.  

Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a member of Ganas, an intentional community in Staten Island, New York and a volunteer organizer for the Valley Alliance of Worker Co-operatives, as well as a member of the GEO collective.  Email:

When citing this article, please use the following format: Michael Johnson (2010). The C-Paradigm: Learning Self-empowerment and Cooperation, Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO) Newsletter, Volume II, Issue 5,

Ganas photo by David Greenson.



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