The Key to Cooperative Relationships: Remove Bias

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Anatomy of Peace" by The Arbinger Institute. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How do you get people from vastly different walks of life to cooperate with one another? What do you think is the main barrier to interpersonal cooperation? How can it be overcome?

According to the Arbinger Institute, the key to effective cooperation is for all the involved parties to adopt the cooperative mindset. The Institute asserts that once you’re able to embody the cooperative mindset by removing your biases, focusing on seeing others as people, and acting according to your conscience, cooperation will come naturally.

In this article, we’ll discuss how to encourage others to leave their biases behind and to cultivate cooperative relationships.

How to Help Others Remove Their Bias

First, we’ll talk about what it takes to help others eliminate their biases. While tempting, Arbinger emphasizes that it’s not helpful to tell others they’re biased. If you do try that and they reject the accusation, it’s not helpful to punish them or withhold privileges. In both of these cases, we’re ascribing blame and demanding change instead of inviting cooperation. We already know that doesn’t work.

Instead, the Institute explains that the most helpful thing we can do is to be unbiased toward them—show them how it feels to be seen and treated as a full person. Put yourself in their shoes; learn what their experience looks and feels like, and try to share it. When you stay unbiased and see others as people, you humanize yourself in their eyes as well. They’ll get curious about you, wonder why you’re doing this, and open up to learning from you.

There’s an additional benefit to putting yourself in another person’s shoes—when you show someone you’re willing to join them in their limitations and hold yourself to the standard you hold them, you humanize yourself in their eyes. They see you stepping off your high horse and joining them on their level, and that tells them you’re willing to meet them where they are. It startles them into re-examining their view of you, and makes them question their biases against you.

How to Build Cooperative Relationships

The remainder of Part 4 will focus on the process that allows us to invite change in others. Everything that follows builds on the foundation of maintaining a cooperative mindset: eliminating our biases, seeing others as people, and acting on our resulting sense of what’s right. It is the base requirement for building cooperative relationships that resist cyclical conflict.

The Cooperative Strategy

Early on, we mentioned that we generally spend too much of our time and energy trying to correct what’s wrong, instead of focusing on making sure things go right. What follows is the method by which the Institute suggests we can help things go right by building cooperative relationships. The following image summarizes that process:

[image] anatomyofpeace-influencestaircase.jpg

As we climb the staircase, keep in mind that:

  1. Each higher step relies on the previous steps to succeed.
  2. If our efforts on a particular step are resisted, we need to revisit previous steps.
  3. The entire structure of a collaborative relationship relies on maintaining a collaborative mindset; without that, the strategy can’t succeed.

Our goal, in short, is to strengthen our relationships enough that everyone’s comfortable sharing the details of their struggles with us. That communication enables us to prioritize their needs and identify appropriate lessons to share with them. Ideally, you’ll approach every relationship in this way, but it’s especially critical you’re doing this for people you feel a responsibility to guide or correct.

Let’s look at each step in detail.

1. Maintain a Cooperative Mindset

Per Arbinger, this is the first step: See others as people, not as objects.

Every following step is a behavior. As such, the Institute explains, they each can be done from a biased or unbiased perspective. If you try to do these things when you’re biased, you’ll invite resistance. What you want is cooperation. Always focus on staying unbiased.

(Shortform note: Keep in mind that when you act cooperatively, everyone benefits. As Adam Grant states in Give and Take, you should aim to give more than you get: When you focus on the success of everyone involved, rather than just yours, people trust your motives. They can safely share with you without fear of exploitation or retaliation, and will value your presence in their life.)

2. Build Relationships With Those Who Have Influence

Sometimes, it’s easiest to help someone by recruiting the aid of others who care for them too. For instance, if the person you want to help is your child, recruit their siblings and your partner.

(Shortform note: The friend of your friend is your friend: Someone else might be better able to provide a particular kind of support than you are, and it’s worth leveraging that. Strengthening another person’s support network aids their interpersonal security, and that benefits you as well.)

Arbinger explains that you can’t build a relationship with the person you want to help if you’re disdainful of those who have influence over them. Respect their relationships and work to understand why they pursue them so you can understand what needs those relationships fulfill—even if you don’t personally like those people. For example, your children’s needs will not be best served if you have an antagonistic relationship with your ex-partner.

(Shortform note: Respecting relationships is especially critical with children; peer influence can be supportive as well as negative. Engaging positively with your child’s friends keeps you aware of their connections and reduces the risk that they’ll pursue unhealthy relationships as a means of rebellion. Support your child’s social growth by being openly welcoming, friendly, and interested around their friends.)

3. Grow the Relationship

According to Arbinger, unless you’re close enough with someone that they’re willing to be open and honest with you, you’ll never get a chance to learn what’s really important to them. You’ll remain blind to the truth and details of their experience because they won’t share it with you and that prevents you from learning what’s holding them back. Build a relationship that’s conducive to your ability to listen and learn.

In this vein, make sure that the relationships you’re building are well-rounded and genuine. If you only talk to a person when there’s a problem, that’s not a strong relationship. Arbinger recommends you spend time with the people around you, especially outside of conflict.

The Institute points out that if you’ve been in extended conflict with someone, there’s probably a lot you don’t know about them. The people around you are constantly learning, growing, and experiencing new things. If you stop growing a relationship, you’ll start to miss all kinds of things. And your ignorance of those changes will feed your misunderstandings.

Ensure Your Goals are Conducive to a Cooperative Relationship

As Arbinger continually notes, the strength of our relationships depends heavily on how we communicate—and how we communicate depends on our mindset. As you work to humanize others, be sure to examine your goals, as well—in your relationships in general as much as in specific conflicts.

It’s important to spend time with others outside of conflicts, but it’s even more important to ensure that your goal in doing so is beneficial. You’re not spending time with people to learn how to manipulate them better; you’re doing it to learn who they are, to show them who you are, and to practice cooperatively seeking shared joy, success, and connection.

If you want lasting, stable relationships, it can’t be your goal to win arguments, exercise power, or be in control
—especially when those relationships are with members of your family. When you’re fighting with the goal of exerting your will, establishing your authority, or forcing the other party to change, you communicate the wrong lesson. Others learn that you care less about their needs than you do about your own desires. As you continue to treat them combatively, you lose their trust, their respect, and their cooperation. They stop sharing their needs, desires, and burdens with you and you stop knowing who they are.

In a healthy relationship, individuals hold a very different goal: to enhance the relationship and each other. To grow, mutually, toward a state in which both parties are healthier, happier, and more successful. To share each other’s burdens and aid in the fulfilment of each other’s needs. When you prioritize that, you naturally communicate very differently and you teach those around you that their feelings, needs, and values are important to you. They become more willing to share, and you get to know them better.
4. Listen and Learn

It’s easier to guide someone when you know what their needs are. If your goal is to be a mentor or a reliable support, remember: The more you learn about those around you, the better you’re able to help them. Arbinger asks: How can you know that you’re teaching someone useful lessons and communicating helpful things if you don’t know what they need because you haven’t listened to them?

Arbinger highlights that the Learning step provides another important function: It helps you keep in mind that you may be mistaken, and that those you seek to invite change in may not be the only ones who need to change. It reminds you to check your views and opinions against reality, and provides you with access to the information you need to confirm or re-evaluate them.

Perhaps the objective you’ve set at work isn’t feasible, or the strategy you’ve taken with your child is hurtful; you can’t find that out if you aren’t listening. You’ll only know whether the corrective change you ask for is reasonable and appropriate if you’re seeing the other person clearly, cooperatively, and without bias.

Listening Carefully Makes Others Feel Valued.

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life places great emphasis on paying attention and accepting what others have to say. When you listen to another person, Peterson says, assume they’ve reached a thoughtful conclusion based on valid experiences, and try to understand what led them there. As you listen, Peterson suggests occasionally summarizing the other person’s message. Say something like, “let me make sure I have this right: What I’m hearing is…” This technique lets you be certain you’ve understood the other party fully, gives them a chance to correct you, and signals that you’re listening carefully. It’s particularly useful in a conflict or argument, Peterson says, because it prevents you from arguing against or getting upset about a point you’ve misunderstood.

On the whole, people prefer to talk to a listener, Peterson says, because it helps them clarify their thinking and figure out how they feel. It may be that just speaking their problem aloud is enough to help them discover the solution they’re looking for, or that all they need is a common-sense sounding board.

What you’re communicating, when you listen carefully, is that the other person’s thoughts and feelings matter. That their experiences are valued, and they’re not alone.The desire to be heard, seen, and accepted is part of what drives us to form relationships in the first place. Give your full attention as a gift to the people you care for; it’ll help them grow confidence and security. You’ll benefit, too: There’s much to learn from the experiences of others and listening to theirs opens a door for you to share your own later.
5. Teach and Communicate

Be as open with others as you want them to be with you. A relationship of trust is a two-way street; when you refuse to share your own burdens, you show those around you that you don’t trust them or value their input. Invite the communication you desire by extending it to others.

(Shortform note: Openness is about more than saying what you think; it’s about honestly externalizing your internal world. Nobody can hear you monologue inside your head; when you’re stressed, angry, afraid, or hurt, communicate that verbally. Put aside your fear of rejection and be direct: If you’re tired of doing all the dishes, express what you actually want—don’t ask, “why don’t you ever wash the dishes?” Be clear, and say: “I feel like I end up washing all the dishes myself, and I want to see you do your part, too.”)

As we’ve noted, it’s critical, Arbinger says, to teach those around you how to be unbiased by example: Be unbiased toward them, toward the people around them, and let them see what that looks like. However, don’t let yourself fall into a superiority bias just because you’ve learned this before they did. Be patient, supportive, and forgiving; remember that stumbling is natural and that you, too, are not infallible.

(Shortform note: Teaching helps refine and master your skills: Explaining a concept helps organize the information in your mind, leading to a deeper understanding. Remain open to learning as you teach, from your students as well as the process of teaching itself. As you grow into the cooperative mindset, learning as you teach will help keep you motivated, engaged, and self-aware.)

6. Correct

Let’s put all of the above together, keeping in mind that Arbinger’s narrative focuses on parents who are failing to meaningfully correct their children’s missteps. The cooperative strategy, as a whole, is a means of building a relationship characterized by trust, open communication, and shared learning. As a parent, you need the power to offer corrective guidance, and you likely want that guidance to be embraced. Arbinger’s lesson is that this power relies on the strength of your relationship—and that any relationship in which you want the power to connect deeply, to learn and teach, and to correct when necessary, must be built in this way.

Once you’ve built that relational foundation, you’ll find that correction is necessary less often than you’d expect—as we’ve discussed, having a secure relationship to rely on helps people avoid all kinds of pitfalls and misunderstandings. The corrections you do need to make are easier for others to stomach when it comes from someone they trust, who they know cares deeply for them and sees them as a person. As Arbinger asserts, their respect for you comes from the way they see you behave, and reinforces their willingness to accept your guidance.

To recap: For correction to be accepted, people need to understand why correction is necessary and important. That understanding comes from your communication and teaching. The lessons you teach need to be appropriate to their situation, which you’ll only learn about by listening. To learn what matters to someone, you must grow your relationship with them until they feel safe enough to communicate openly. That openness becomes possible when you make it clear that you value both them and the people who matter to them. At the deepest level, none of this is possible unless your mindset is cooperative.

Aim for Growth Over Perfection.

As you try to correct a person’s behavior or address ongoing conflicts—and, more broadly, as you try to engage with others and build relationships—keep in mind that it’s natural to stumble and fail. You’ll make mistakes, and so will those you’re trying to connect with or correct. Don’t expect perfect success, and don’t be discouraged if progress is slow. In fact, don’t focus on winning and succeeding at all: In your attempt to master the cooperative mindset, focus on growing and improving over time.

Daniel H. Pink, the author of Drive, says that mastery requires a growth mindset. He explains that people with a growth mindset believe they have the potential to get better at anything they want to do. As a result, they see effort as the driver of improvement, focus on progress over results, and examine their failures for useful feedback. He points out that it’s not possible to achieve total, effortless mastery, no matter the skill. There’s always more to learn and new situations to apply your knowledge to, and improving isn’t easy.

As you apply your cooperative mindset to the relationships and interactions in your life, remember the benefits of perspective-taking, the value of secure relationships, and the importance of following your conscience. Continue to practice self-awareness and, as your relationships develop, pay attention to changes in the way you’re treating others and how they respond. Take pride in incremental progress; improvement is a success.
The Key to Cooperative Relationships: Remove Bias

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Anatomy of Peace summary :

  • How we perpetuate conflict by misunderstanding its cause and acting inappropriately as a result
  • What causes conflict, how we make it worse, and how we invite mistreatment
  • The steps we can take to escape the combative mindset and set aside our biases

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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