Engaging human life energy elegantly for change

To change the world we can call forth and inspire people’s life energy toward the fundamental needs of life. Doing this requires our becoming aware of the different forms life energy can take and becoming its willing servant and catalyst, helping it find its way. One of our most important tasks in this effort is helping shift life energies from battle mode and alienation to wholeness and co-creative action.

If we want to make the world a better place, we need to take into account – and actively engage – the deep sources of motivation that drive human behavior.

Looking at motivation through the co-intelligence lens, I see life energy. It shows up in many forms in and around us. Blossoming through behavior, it shapes the world. And for that reason, it behooves us as agents of change to know how to work with it wisely and creatively to further greater life.

The many diverse forms of life energy give us handles we can use to reorient life energy from conflict and manipulation to greater alignment with the needs and longings of life.

In this essay I want to share some of my inquiries and realizations about the forms life energy takes. As an advocate of wiser democracy, I’m especially interested in how these forms of life energy show up in political conversations and dynamics. But I also want to acknowledge, at least briefly, that life energy plays powerful roles in economic and other realms, as well.

LIFE ENERGY AND CONVERSATIONAL PRACTICE

Life energy motivates, drives and shapes what we care about and do. It embraces all the different forms of caring, and caring is what makes the world what it is – caring for ourselves, our loved ones, our communities and countries; caring about money, freedom, truth, sports, justice, the world, you name it.

The problem is that so much of our caring sets itself against the caring of other people and the larger life energy of the world. High quality conversation can change that.

Many dialogue and deliberation approaches and practitioners access specific forms of life energy to achieve the goals of their practices. Below are a few examples of life energy that’s tapped through a sampling of conversational methods. The fact that ALL these forms ARE life energy can free us from the limits of any particular method and expand our sense of what’s possible working with all methods and with new variations capable of doing new things.

INTERESTS AND STAKES AS MOTIVATORS

In general, the word “interest” points us to where and how we direct our attention. When we “are interested”, we desire to know about or to engage with someone or something. Interesting things draw our attention toward them. Similarly, “interest” can refer to a concern, or to a topic that means something special to us, or about which we are passionate, and these, too, engage our attention.

In legal or financial contexts, interest refers to our involvement (especially financial) in a situation or agreement, or it highlights some issue or factor that we are paying special attention to because it will impact us (particularly financially).

Note that all these are tied to our caring, which is rooted in our life energy.

“Legitimate interests” – that is, factors about which we are justly concerned due to their impact on us or on what matters to us – are a central focus of principled negotiation (the “Getting to Yes” approach). Principled negotiation seeks to get the negotiating parties working side by side to identify each of their legitimate interests (that underlie their “positions”) and then to co-create agreements that satisfy all of those legitimate interests.

Closely akin to “interests” we find “stake”, which refers to someone’s share of the gains or losses associated with a situation, activity, issue, or decision – particularly when they have invested some form of their own life energy (often money) in the outcome. But most generally, a “stakeholder” can be anyone who will likely be impacted by how a situation, issue, activity, or decision turns out.

In many conversational processes that address issues, disputes, and complex transactions – like mediation, Future Search, and restorative justice – conveners make a concerted effort to engage a broad range of stakeholders, sometimes including, as well, those who have power or information related to the issue, even if they don’t have a direct identifiable “stake”. The idea here is to generate solutions that satisfy the interests of all stakeholders, thus reshaping the issue from a conflict to a shared project.

To the extent we succeed in such efforts, the life energy of all stakeholders or interested parties will become aligned to carry out the agreements that emerge from their conversation, instead of wasting their life energy in efforts to undermine and defeat each other.

NEEDS AS MOTIVATORS

In many ways needs are similar to interests and stakes, but function at a deeper level.

Nonviolent Communication (NVC), in particular, defines needs as fundamental and universal. NVC sees all our desires, demands, and proposals as surface manifestations of – and efforts to satisfy – deep underlying needs. NVC also suggests that our emotions and feelings are generated by our deep needs being satisfied or unsatisfied, and thus – if we follow them empathically – can help us discover the underlying needs we should address. Another defining characteristic of any truly fundamental need – according to NVC – is that it can be satisfied in many different ways. This perspective opens the door to finding mutually agreeable strategies for satisfying the deep needs of everyone involved in a conflict or situation. NVC uses empathic inquiry to clarify all the unmet needs in the situation and then to explore possible approaches to meeting them. This frees up life energy that has been stuck in personal and interpersonal distress so it can flow into making good lives for everyone involved.

Looking at this from a broader social systems perspective, Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef has both identified broadly shared human needs and also explored the social dynamics involved in meeting, ignoring, and manipulating those needs. With provocative insight, he claims that consumptive economies are built on pseudo-satisfiers, i.e., on consumer products and services advertised as satisfying fundamental needs that they don’t actually satisfy – or that they satisfy only temporarily with an addictive hook – such as cars and alcohol sold with imagery suggesting they offer sexual power. Such dynamics motivate people to consume more and more without ever actually feeling deeply satisfied. The life energy of a whole society can be guided in this way into profitable black holes rather than oriented to activities that actually satisfy deep human needs, including the need for a healthy connection with the natural world. Max-Need’s research provides a foundation for envisioning a good society in considerable detail.

VALUES AND PASSIONS AS MOTIVATORS

Things we feel strongly about – the principles we value, the issues we care about, the people and topics about which we are passionate – are infused with powerful life energy that shapes much of our lives, individually and collectively. All too often this life energy is either suppressed or invested in competing with other people’s values, passions and caring rather than in finding shared or complementary paths to fulfillment.

One of the early steps in many community visioning processes is to clarify the shared values that participants will use to guide their search for a better future together. Once they clarify what is most important to them, collectively, they can focus on the actions that would best help them improve their shared lives. Any proposal that emerges from such conversations can be checked to see how well it aligns with the group’s list of shared values. What they finally come up with will have the power to converge their diverse life energies into co-creative enterprises.

Alternatively, we can nurture not the convergence of diverse life energies but their independent empowerment and parallel evolution. People who care deeply about a topic or issue sometimes come together in a self-organizing Open Space conference (also called an “unconference”) in which they create whatever discussions and activities they want to do in various subgroups of common interest. Participants know their conference will succeed to the extent they take responsibility for the inquiries and possibilities that they themselves feel passionate about. Their passion drives what happens and their responsibility channels and shapes it. The fact that they may be individually passionate about different facets of their shared inquiry just means that together they will be able to cover many different facets without having to plot it all out; it just happens. Furthermore, Open Space principles guide them to move to different conference activities whenever they are not learning, contributing or having fun in their current sessions. So their passion and responsibility drive their “mixing” as well as their “matching” activities. Their collective life energy helps them engage complex challenges with considerable vitality and insight from right inside the issues they face. The power of Open Space is increased exponentially when it is used over many days in a row, since issues and possibilities arising during one day of rich interactions can and will be further processed during subsequent days.

People’s life energy also plays a role in the popular World Cafe process in which participants pursue questions that have “heart and meaning” for them. Powerful questions have a way of focusing attention, but on a wide realm rather than on a single perspective or outcome. And questions that really matter to the participants will generate conversations that matter to those participants: They invest their life energy knowing they will be motivated to take any resulting insights or initiatives out into their lives and communities. Out there, their life energy will give those insights and initiatives power in action. Furthermore, the design of World Cafe, with participants periodically shifting seats to talk with people they haven’t interacted with before, expands and uplifts the understanding and life energy of all involved.

CONCERNS AS LIFE ENERGY DISTURBED

Concerns show up when someone feels that a need, interest, value, or anything else they care about is being endangered or neglected. Their description of their concern usually contains important information that pinpoints what needs to be addressed to remedy their disturbed life energy. So inviting, tracking, and addressing concerns can efficiently cover a wide range of life energy forms.

Some consensus process methods replace voting with a check for concerns. When the discussion has produced a proposal that seems to have broad support within the group, the facilitator will ask if anyone has any concerns about it. This is not a rote, rhetorical question designed to discourage further reflection. Participants know that any doubts or issues they have with the proposal may call attention to something that the group should not overlook which, when addressed, will produce a wiser, more effective outcome. They pay attention to their life energy as it arises in the form of concerns. Those responses – whether positive or negative – provide guidance for the group to home in on outcomes that really make sense, around which they can align their collective life energy.

Dynamic Facilitation uses concerns as a form of conversational Aikido. When strong disagreements, objections, invalidation, or combative energy show up, the facilitator asks the agitated party “What is your concern? Give it to me!” As she hears their answer and makes sure they feel fully heard, the facilitator records their concern on a chart pad labeled “Concerns”. She then asks them what they would want to see done about the situation. Through this series of moves, the facilitator both follows the participant’s energy and smoothly shifts it from adversarial to creative, from negative to positive. As this ongoing Aikido and active listening work their magic on one participant after another, the whole group’s collective energy evolves, refocusing increasingly on the fuller sense of their challenge that becomes clearer through everything everyone says. As the full challenge becomes shared – as it becomes owned by everyone instead of everyone blaming parts of it on each other – their collective intelligence goes to work on the whole mess. This shift ultimately generates breakthroughs that align the life energy of all involved on newly productive possibilities.

My proposal for a wisdom-generating gaming app also uses the generic power of addressing concerns to produce shared approaches to public issues among online groups specifically convened to contain politically diverse citizens. The more diverse the group and the more popular the solutions they create together, the more points they get and the higher their status in the game.

ASSUMPTIONS AND WORLDVIEWS AS SHAPING LIFE ENERGY

The way we see the world and think it works can be a source of life energy, but more often and probably more importantly, it shapes and channels that energy. Life energy flows through our lives in patterns established by our worldview and by its constituent assumptions about what is good, real, true, possible, and so on. Our worldview is so fundamental that we often don’t even see it; it is transparent like the eyes we look through and like the air we move through. Furthermore, our identity is often very tightly linked to it; our worldview tells us who we are and how we fit in. This combination makes worldviews very resistant to change – although changing them is one of our most important challenges as change agents. Certain worldviews and assumptions generate obliviousness and disaster, while others make important hidden factors clear and previously unimaginable positive outcomes possible.

Due to the formidable defense systems that usually accompany our worldview and its assumptions, efforts to shift them by direct attack are seldom successful. However, a potent but gentle conversational approach involves encountering others who have different assumptions in dialogues that invite us to safely explore our own views while truly seeing and hearing the experience of others. In the process, we usually deepen our humanity and capacity for connection, as well.

Bohm Dialogue (named for quantum physicist David Bohm who developed it) was explicitly designed to use participants’ diversity to highlight each other’s assumptions and to “suspend” those assumptions sufficently to allow the group’s thinking to evolve into a shared pool and flow of meaning.

Along similar lines, an experimental conversational approach (which could be done using World Cafe) would be to collectively apply the belief-examining exercises of such innovators as Byron Katie to our collective beliefs. In the case of Katie’s Work, we would use questions like “How do we react when we believe that thought?” and “Who would we be without the thought?”

While intergroup dialogues – interracial, intercultural, interfaith, transpartisan, etc. – are less explicit about suspending assumptions (Bohm) or examining beliefs (Katie), they can be especially effective generating deeply human encounters that can break down the arrogant solidity of our beliefs and our sense of other-ness. Often these dialogues help put our own beliefs into a larger context that can fruitfully co-exist with other beliefs quite different from our own, such that our diverse life energies can flow more smoothly together even when we disagree.

WHY ATTEND TO LIFE ENERGY?

Life energy can be a virtually free resource for resource-strapped social change movements – but only if we respect it and if we know how to liberate it, to evoke it, to work WITH it and to provide it with life-serving channels. Realizing the centrality of its role in our lives and societies can also provide us with insights for envisioning and catalyzing healthy civilizations.

There is, of course, much more to know about using life energy than what I’ve written here. But I hope this essay helps us move in the direction of using it well. In particular, I hope this essay helps shift our activist sense of strategic engagement away from wasteful adversariality towards tapping the power of positive passion and caring in ourselves, in those we seek to change, and in the systems and cultures we seek to create in our efforts to make a better world.

We are, after all, all in this together. To the extent we can combine our diverse perspectives and gifts to generate greater wisdom and power, we will be able to transmute the challenges we face into insights and energies needed to co-create the wholesome communities and the healthy world that we long for.

PS: I have been alerted to the fact that my framing here depends heavily on the words and worldview of the English language. Many of these terms – needs, concerns, etc. – may or may not have comparable terms in other languages – and even when they do, those other words may carry different connotations. Furthermore, English is missing many words for important ideas that can be readily expressed in other languages. While this critique applies very directly to the specific terms I use, I feel fairly certain that there are SOME words in any language that articulate the ways our motivations manifest, that identify different forms of that force in our lives that I call “life energy”. I would encourage interested speakers of other languages to create comparable documents that attempt to clarify and integrate the various phenomena associated with that realm as their cultures see it.

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