Pattern #18

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Consulting and Abiding by Willingness

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Coercion drains life from living systems for narrow short-term results. Readiness to contribute is a precious, vulnerable but ever-renewable resource for wisdom and action. So ask about, respect, protect and evoke willingness — and as we make and respond to requests and suggestions, notice how willingness evolves, interactively shaping how we choose, act, speak, agree / disagree, let go, and persist.

Some questions for exploring this pattern:

  • Do I really feel like contributing something here? What makes me feel like I can or can’t?
  • When have you seen willingness respected and used well? When have you seen it violated or ignored? What were the results? What comes up when you think about that?
  • How can we combine the free energy of willingness with our understanding of where action needs to be focused?
  • What makes you want to contribute to group effort, in general? How have you noticed your willingness changing over time, in various circumstances? What can groups learn from that?
  • What would you really like to contribute to our efforts here? Do you feel your gifts are understood and respected? If not, how could you apply this pattern to change that?
  • When some people want to do something one way and others don’t, how can the group navigate those differences without trashing the vital energy of group members’ willingness?

Going Deeper …

This is an edited version of the video on this page.

The essence of willingness as I see it is aligning the life energy of the entity that is about to be willing, with an activity or situation that it is considering or which is being presented to them. People are often willing to do things because they believe in them, or because they have a relationship with a person or group who is involved. Because it’s involved with relationship, willingness has a dance-like quality. Willingness and unwillingness and consent (which is another pattern) dance with partnership and command, with power-over kinds of dynamics.

I began to be interested in exploring this because Consent and Willingness, and Well-Utilized Life Energy and Exuberance – these are all patterns in the pattern language. I noticed they all have to do with life energy. Consent has a “go along with”, “good enough for now” kind of quality to it. “I’ll put my life energy into this because it’s okay.” Willingness connotes a desire and a readiness – a kind of “let’s go!” energy. Well-Utilized Life Energy covers all motivations and is more generic. Exuberance of course has go to do with passion: “I want this! I love this!”

So that sort of places this pattern in the context of how life energy is manifested here in the pattern language. As I began exploring ways to increase willingness, I asked: “Where does willingness come from? What stimulates it?” These questions can be both for ourselves or for others. If you want to get people to be willing to do something, what you do? This can be done in a straightforward way, and it can also be done in a manipulative way.

So, what’s going on with the dynamics of willingness?

I came up with three evocative factors:
1 – You matter
2 – This matters (whatever the thing is that you are being invited to consider or get involved in)
3 – Your contribution matters.

“You matter” is brought to life by listening to people, by having them feel heard. That factor is discussed in the “Feeling Heard” pattern. It opens people up, dissolves resistance, creates relationship between listener and the person being heard. Related to that is respect, peerness, partnership, a sense that we are not dealing with power-over, we are not going to mess with you, dominate you, you are one of us, we are WITH you, not against you… There’s an inclusive welcoming shoulder-to-shoulder energy here which means “We are in this together!” This helps you be willing.

Caring and support is another piece of the “you matter” dynamic. “If something happens with you, we are here for you” – or, turning it around the other way,
“They will be there for me. I sense I am part of a larger whole where I can make a difference.”

Then we can ask: “Make a difference with what? What is this THING I am willing myself to be part of?” It can involve purpose, values, needs, a narrative or story we are all part of. These are all things associated with life energy as described in the Well-Utilized Life Energy pattern.

And all these can be mine, as in: what’s my life purpose, what needs do I have, what story am I living out in myself or in the larger world? Then there is the story of anyone who is bringing to me something to participate in, something to do or think about. “Am I willing?” Very often marketers tell promoters they should sell a story, not a product or a service. Marketers are selling you a story, something that people can step into and participate in meaningfully and play a role in.

Story is so fundamental to who people are as human beings. We can engage people if we can sell a story where THEY matter within the story because IT matters. Whatever they’re doing in the story, it will matter because the story matters. And inviting them to share that story with the others involved. So it can be like promoting: “What do YOU want to do? Well, you can DO that here.” Or “Here’s our project. Do you want to be part of it? What do you want to do?” All that is part of the “this matters” life energy factor.

“Your contribution matters” could involve questions like: “Do you have any thoughts about how we should go about doing this? How do you feel about doing this? Do you have any feedback? Are there things you would really like to do in this context? Do you have any aptitudes or skills or passions you’d like to contribute to this? If you tell us what those are, then we can pick something that would be a good fit for you.” “If you want to join the Army and want to do computers, then, okay, join the Army and and we’ll let you do computers.”

At any time, as we’re maintaining willingness, if somebody has concerns or objections, that suggests something’s not being considered here. And so we’re going to take that seriously. This is part of the attitude that “Your contribution matters, so if you think we should paint it red instead of purple, okay, let’s hear about that. We are taking it seriously.” Or “If you’re going to need some kind of training skills, capacity building of some kind – individually or collectively – to be part of this, then we will provide that to you. Your contribution matters so much that we will invest in you, not just listen to you, but invest in you to participate.”

So these three things – “you matter” (the listening, respect, caring); “this matters” (this is a big fancy project with a powerful story which you can be part of;) and “your contribution matters” (you have got a role to play here and we’re going to engage with you around that role) – all of these constitute Consulting and Abiding by Willingness. All of them contribute to willingness coming up. We are in fact evoking and maintaining willingness by doing these things.

I mentioned at the beginning that you can do this manipulatively. I can present people with a narrative to join that aligns their values and needs in ways that make them more willing to do what I want to do. This is a great tool for an advertiser. Or as a populist dictator, I can emphasize patriotism with a narrative: “You can be part of it, you are part of it, and anybody who isn’t is bad.” Lots of people buy into the patriotism narrative and they want to do it, THEY want to go and die for their country. This is manipulation. You can say it’s good or bad depending on how it’s used and what you believe about what is going on. But, in any case, there are ways to tap into what’s really important to people and to shape it.

You can also listen to them in ways that dissolve their personal boundaries and increase their emotional dependence on you, which is present in a lot of cult activity. You are going to be very friendly in order to make them part of you so that they are one with the group. It’s not a co-created consensus, it’s a seductive consensus. You have been seduced into becoming involved.

And here’s another manipulative aspect: You may FEEL like you are having an important impact, but it’s not necessarily true. Look at voting, for example: How much impact does your vote actually have, particularly when you are presented with options that you don’t get a chance to co-create? You are presented with options someone else created, that you’re supposed to just pick between. How much impact does that really have and to what extent can those options be manipulated to benefit somebody in some way? You feel you have an important impact even though you’re not. A lot of ideological battles have that quality.

Of course this dark side is not the dynamic that’s intended in the Consulting and Abiding by Willingness pattern. Nevertheless, we can view the conscious use of willingness as a neutral thing that can be used for good or ill. And we can look at the pattern as calling our attention to that dynamic and to use it in a principled way. That is definitely part of what’s going on with building a wise democracy.

Who could apply this Consulting and Abiding by Willingness pattern? Obviously it would be leaders, groups, and organizations – but also people in relationships. To what extent does your lover, your parent, your child consult and abide by your willingness? To what extent do you consult and abide by their willingness? When you are raising your child, how much is oriented to “are they willing to do this”? And what are you willing to do? Nonviolent Communication has lots of stuff about how to raise a kid and how to be a parent in that way.

This is very close to the Consent pattern. Are people willing to have sex, are they willing to be touched, are they willing to be talked to in certain ways… so this also is very present in sexual dynamics. And of course, if you want to get lots of people into a public engagement activity – which is a big part of what wise democracy is about – you face the question of how to improve participation, collective decision-making, collective reflection, collective learning in ways that would make democracy wiser. In a wise democracy you need to be able to do these things. And in these cases you need to address people’s willingness to engage, in ways that are fair.

My friend Miki Kashtan, who is an international leader in Nonviolent Communication, in her book “Reweaving Our Human Fabric”, actually wrote about a half-dozen stories imagining what a culture would look like if it was organized around willingness rather than coercion. Her stories cover situations that seem quite real. They are not unrealistic utopian niceness. Each one shows how people in such a culture would go about taking each other seriously in ways that arrange for what needs to happen to happen through the willingness of everybody involved.

This involves not only other people’s willingness, but our own. When something happens and we are presented with an opportunity or challenge, do we consult and abide by our own willingness? Does my willingness only get consulted by others? Can I ask myself: “Am I willing to do what I’m being asked to do? And: Am I being taken seriously, or not? And: How am I going to respond to these things?”

This is where we get to the last part of this pattern: When people are asking something of us or suggesting something to us, how does our willingness evolve in interaction with what they do, and with how we respond to what they do? A lot of the things that I just described in terms of the “You matter, this matters, your contribution matters” – all that is something to keep in mind while we’re doing that. Do you notice: “If I choose to do this and act, or if I choose to speak up or not, or if I choose to agree, or disagree, or persist, or let go, what happens with my willingness? Does it grow or shrink or what?” Willingness dancing around in these circumstances. We need to pay attention to the signs, to our emotional state, to our bodily state, when we are being drawn into something, drawn into a vortex that we don’t like and to abide by our own unwillingness – to step back and say “no”. The whole “say no” movement – as opposed to the “just do it” movement – has all these boundary issues to it. All these things have a lot to do with willingness and being in touch with your own feelings, body, soul, spirit, whatever.

There’s integrity in doing that. Integrity is an interesting word – it is related to “integer” – it is like oneness: I am a whole, I am together, I AM. The more you operate from that deep place, using willingness as a test – honoring your own sense of willingness, where your life energy draws you, where your life energy says “wait a minute, be cautious” – the more integrity you have.

A social circle, a social system or a culture can be built around disrespect of that. It can oppress people and create a scene where conformity is dominant and people are just following orders and rituals. People, including yourself, are wanting to be safe or liked or admired. Integrity in a funny way is bound up in the Consulting and Abiding by Willingness dynamic, both from a personal perspective as well as in the group, and the social and cultural fields people are embedded in.

And then there is a reputation for willingness. It’s a real factor. It gets you invited into more collaborations, people think of you as somebody they can work with. It also potentially can you give you a reputation for being easily abused. So having a reputation for willingness in certain realms and for boundaries and unwillingness in other realms, or with other people in other situations. There’s something here about how to modify and present who you are in the world to other people, to groups, to society generally. A big chunk of reputation can be structured around the ecosystem of willingness that you have established for yourself and presented to the world.

And the last really two important things I want to say: Willingness is an alternative to force. If people are willing to go along, you don’t have to pressure them or bring in external energies like paying them, or applying other extrinsic motivations as opposed to intrinsic motivations. Willingness has to do with intrinsic motivations. And the more everything can be based on willingness, the less energy you have to bring in from the outside. And that is a form of efficiency that should be recognized and honored. You should go: “In the power-over approach, the forcing, you have to put in energy to push or to deal with resistance. The presence of willingness reduces that need.”

So this raises the question of the extent to which we can let go of control and invite willingness. The more people’s willingness is stretched and demanded, the less likely a “culture of willingness” will evolve. To the extent people are respected and consulted and their life energy is evoked and worked with, the more they’ll be willing to stretch in certain circumstances. There is a whole dance of willingness and it grows and contracts in response to how it is consulted and respected. It is not only a renewable resource, it is a resource that can be actively cultivated. The more we help bring willingness to life in and around us, the more all the entities around us – the people, nature, groups – will be willing to do things they might not otherwise be willing to do if they are always being pushed around.

An interesting thing just happened. Just as I was talking, I realized how much this relates to our relationship to nature. To what extent are we noticing what plants and animals can and will do and want to do naturally? To what extent are systems – ecosystems and natural systems and natural cycles – able to do things willingly, the way they would naturally do them? The more we force them to do things that they’re not naturally made and inclined to do, the more resistance we will get, the more degradation and messes we are going to get, and the more energy we will need to put into the natural systems to keep them going. In the process of doing this talk, I just realized how much this pattern actually applies to ecology and our relations with nature.

Anyway, there’s much to explore – endlessly – but I am going to stop at this point. Enjoy your use and exploration of this pattern.

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