Archive for November 16th, 2020

Bahá’ís assert that ever-increasing levels of interdependence within and between societies are compelling us to learn and exercise the powers of collective decision-making and collective action, born out of a recognition of our organic unity as a species.

(Michael Karlberg Beyond a Culture of Contest – page 131)

At the end of the previous post I rashly promised that this one would seek to capture, amongst other things, how the close match between parts of Covey’s message and some aspects of the Bahá’í Faith combined to potentiate the transformative influence I have been attempting to describe so far.

A brief digression first.

Empathy & Compassion

What I think I have so far failed to fully appreciate is the extent to which my reading of Covey’s book at that period may have given me the capacity to realise, as touched on in the previous post, that my simply sitting there close to the pain of Laura’s traumatic insight, intensely, almost desperately seeking to understand was all that was required of me, was what she needed more than anything else at that precise moment. Rather melodramatically I expressed this, after another difficult session with another client in deep distress, as ‘bleeding with them in the hope that they would grow.’ I need to add that care needed to be taken not to join them completely in their immersion in pain and distress. That would entail a damaging loss of perspective as well as risking burnout. Rather it was developing an ability at second hand to experience and contain, rather than drown in their angst, so that constructive solutions could gradually be generated.

Hopefully I got close enough to at least one of the criteria for a successful connection with a traumatised person described by Peter Levin in his book In an Unspoken Voice: how the body releases trauma and restores goodness. He writes:[1]

Therapists must learn, from their own successful encounters with their own traumas, to stay present with their clients.

There will be more about this book in a later sequence, I suspect.

I was reminded, as I recently read Rutger Bregman’s book, of the distinction Matthieu Ricard makes between empathy and compassion:[2]

If someone who is in the presence of a suffering person feels an overwhelming distress, that can only aggravate the mental discomfort of a person suffering. On the other hand, if the person who comes to help is radiating kindness and gives off a peaceful calm, and can be attentive to the other, there is no doubt that the patient will be comforted by this attitude. Finally, the person who feels compassion and kindness can develop the strength of mind and desire to come to the aid of the other. Compassion and altruistic love have a warm, loving, and positive aspect that standalone empathy for the suffering of the other does not have.

Bregman explains Ricard’s other main point in simple terms:[3] empathy is feeling ‘with’ someone, whereas compassion is feeling ‘for’ them.

It’s probably useful to add that a diary entry from the following week indicates that the next session was far more positive.

Synergy and Interdependence

I’ve referred several times to Covey’s emphasis on synergy. We have now come to Habit 6, which unpacks exactly what he is getting and why it is so important.

Its main benefit is its creativity:[4]

In interdependent situations compromise is the position usually taken. Compromise means that 1+1 = 1 ½. Both give and take. The communication isn’t defensive or protective or angry or manipulative; it’s honest and genuine and respectful. But it isn’t creative or synergistic. It produces a low form of win/win.

Synergy means that 1+1 may equal 8, 16, or even 1,600. The synergistic position of high trust produces solutions better than any originally proposed and all parties know it.

He discusses the implications of this at some length, but I propose to focus on the section that most impressed me and which I have found most useful in practice: it’s titled Valuing the Differences. Given the emphasis Bahá’ís place on unity in diversity this may not be entirely surprising. Covey sees it as the core of synergy,[5] ‘Valuing the differences is the essence of synergy.’ What’s more his expansion of this point resonates with my own felt sense that all we each have is a simulation of reality: ‘the key to valuing those differences is to realise that all people see the world, not as it is, but as they are.’

Holding this truth in our hearts, in his view, makes us far more effective: ‘The person who is truly effective has the humility and reverence to recognise his own perceptual limitations and to appreciate the rich resources available through interaction with the hearts and minds of other human beings.’ As a description of one of the key reasons why the Bahá’í skill of consultation is so valuable, this could hardly be bettered.

What this amounts to is an indispensable precondition for progress in any field of human conflict:

. . . unless we value the differences in our perceptions, unless we value each other and give credence to the possibility that we’re both right, that life is not always a dichotomous either/or, that there are almost always third alternatives, we will never be able to transcend limits of that conditioning.

His diagram in this chapter[6] (see above) captures the importance of trust and cooperation in achieving synergy. Trustworthiness, in Bahá’í terms, is an essential characteristic that we should all be seeking to develop if we are to enhance our communities and create a better society.

In a previous post I had already vaguely grasped the link between synergy and interdependence. I was dealing with the Bahá’í process called consultation and referring first of all to Michael Karlberg’s Beyond a Culture of Contest, which argues that for the most part our culture’s processes are adversarial: our economic system is based on competition, our political system is split by contesting parties and our court rooms decide who has won in the battle between defence and prosecution.  The more valuable emphasis on a careful and dispassionate exploration of the truth is generally  conspicuous by its absence. The French courtroom is, apparently, one of the few exceptions.

The Bahá’í International Community explain how consultation helps us transcend our ‘respective points of view, in order to function as members of a body with its own interests and goals.’ They speak of ‘an atmosphere, characterized by both candour and courtesy’ where ‘ideas belong not to the individual to whom they occur during the discussion but to the group as a whole, to take up, discard, or revise as seems to best serve the goal pursued.’ At worst you get what Covey call ‘compromise’ solutions, and at best a synergy ‘win/win’ that transcends that.

What is intriguing, when I read this hindsight, is that Karlberg brings in  another key word here (my emphasis):[7]

Bahá’ís assert that ever-increasing levels of interdependence within and between societies are compelling us to learn and exercise the powers of collective decision-making and collective action, born out of a recognition of our organic unity as a species.

This strongly suggests that a sense of interdependence and the synergy it creates extends well beyond a family, a circle of friends or even a business venture, of the kind Covey often uses as an illustration of the power of his approach.

I’ve attempted to summarise all of what are for me Covey’s most important insights in this diagram:

Habit 7, Sharpening the Saw, I’ll ignore for present purposes. And I’ve recently discovered from a soon to be published book, The Secrets of True Happiness, by Farnaz, Bijan & Adib Masumian, that there is a Habit 8, explained in a book published in 2004 — The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness. I can see another volume approaching to squeeze onto my creaking shelves.

In the final post I’ll take a helicopter look at what I continued to make of all this as the months and years rolled by.


[1] In an Unspoken Voice – page 42.
[2]. From Altruism: the Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World – pages 58-63.
[3]. Humankind: a hopeful history – page 387.
[4]. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People – Page 271. Unless otherwise specified all the following quotations are from this book.
[5]. Page 277.
[6]. Page 270.
[7] Beyond a Culture of Contest – page 131.

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