The Referendum; Can we learn the lessons to become a more civil society? by Esther Ridsdale

Lessons from Darwin, Gandhi, begonias and a peace lily

Esther Ridsdale Personal & organisational effectiveness facilitator, consultant & coach. Enabling purpose-driven organisation and life enhancing ways of living and working.

Whatever Darwin actually thought about his idea of survival of the fittest, popular narrative seems to have been taken from this that nature is ‘dog eat dog’ and the natural strategy is to choose the option where ‘I’ win most regardless of whether this means others lose. (This is the predicted choice for people in “the prisoner’s dilemma” theory applied to a finite play game but popularly extrapolated to apply to on-going games too.)

The narrative on both sides of the referendum was mainly focused on “what would work best for me” and for ‘us’ in the smallest and narrowest sense. It encouraged voters to tot up the advantages to us personally as individuals. “Would I personally gain more from [not having ‘immigrants’, the cost saving from EU bureaucracy, shorter queues from not having go into the long EU passports queue at airport immigration when returning from my house in France (this really was the rationale for voting out that someone gave to my brother)] or would I gain more from [insert alternative scenario]?’

This rationale inevitably sets us against each other and creates a combative world and a less stable one. One group wins, another suffers. Their disillusionment grows and they protest and are either repressed or succeed in effecting a realignment that is just as likely to disadvantage another group.

Apparently over history, the only thing that has limited the growing divide between the poor and the super rich has been war (see Picketty, ‘Capital in the 21st Century’). Do we really need war and massive divisiveness as our main tool to realign and to reach solutions that attend to the needs of all in a balanced way? Can’t we build society in a way that supports the flourishing of everyone?

After the Referendum I couldn’t focus on the work I had planned to do and paced listlessly until I found myself in the garden and drawn to re-potting some begonias and a rather miserable looking peace lily. The peace lily was looking sadly bedraggled from being root-bound and too long spent flipping between being too dry or soaked, and then being scorched by direct sun through my lounge window. The heads of the begonias had hit the floor after blooming big, then catching and holding too much rain in the recent thunderstorm.

The previous day I had taken these to the “Living life to the full” Wellbeing Course I am currently running in Southampton. On Thursday we looked at the plants and considered what it is that enables them to flourish. And we asked what would enable them to flourish more (and in some cases, what would enable them to become less sickly).

We mulled over how this might apply to us and what would enable us to flourish more. Could we do with better nutrients, a more conducive, less root bound space, a stronger connection to source,…? And we talked about the interconnectedness in eco-systems. As I patted down the soil I reflected on the wider parallels between my peace lily and the begonias.

Someone shared that when there is a forest fire and many plants are destroyed or damaged in the heat and smoke, the big trees don’t just stand alone; Underneath the soil their roots are connected to the other trees and after the fire, they share the nutrients they hold and help to bring life back into the forest. I wonder how that analogy could hold for us now?

The most popular narrative in our society may currently be ‘survival of the fittest in a competitive world’, but we are less aware of the ways in which nature works symbiotically and how plants and animals work together and often directly support each other.

I am trying an experiment on this with a handful of colleagues at the core of the Civil Society Forum. One definition of Civil Society is “the arena where people come together to pursue their collective interests and make a positive and sustainable difference to their own lives and the lives of others (as defined by CADI: Centre for Alternative Development Initiatives. See Nicanor Perlas for interesting writing on this).

So we are calling the experiment “Being Civil Society”.

The experiment involves two or more individuals identifying something that they would really like to make happen; (something that would help them make a contribution in the world in some way), gathering together with one or more people with some synergistic aspirations and capabilities, and working together to scope and pursue this in a mutually satisfactory way. A cell is formed to scope and pursue these in ways that maximise value in all directions.

The experiment seeks to give experience of key principles in practice and to build capabilities and build resources to support others in similar learning and doing process.

The principles (or simple rules) of the experiment are:

  1. Seek creation of real life-enhancing value and a multi-way win (which we’ve called “4 win”; a collaboration that creates positive value and minimises negative value to the world as a whole, to the parties involved, and also the organisations and communities that the participants operate in. And in support of this:
  2. Seek a balanced exchange of value between the collaborating and effected parties; And, given real life is not often accurately predictable, to seek commitment by all participants to make adjustments to gain a satisfactory balance whatever unfolds. (Drawing on mediation &/or arbitration in support to help and to build everyone’s skills in doing this ourselves.)
  3. Seek the smallest (or nearly smallest) viable scope. – Small and nimble makes the initiative more agile. By having quick, un-cumbersome experience it opens the way for value and learning to be quickly realised, adjustments made and supports the flow of the participants and the wider potential of the collaboration (see below).
  4. Seek to enhance the ‘flow’ of participants; ie tapping into our full potential; understanding and accessing our best in making our contribution in the world and flourishing in the process. A component of this is being authentic with others and to ourselves and getting practiced in Non Violent Communication as a vital supporting capability.
  5. Open-handed giving with an abundance mentality. – Giving in the way nature does; in the way that trees give far more blossom that they need to produce fruit and the rest give animals and insects the gift of food and humans the gift of the beauty. Giving in a spirit of generosity, accepting the need for replenishment of resources to a level that enables sustainability. Where people are able to give without recompense their contribution will nonetheless be recognised and recorded, and efforts made to pay forward the gift for the wider good.
  6. Track and transparency of both commitments and the experience – We are doing this partly through a database capturing commitments and delivery of them. The aim of this is to help create an environment similar to a small village in days gone by; an environment where we choose who to work with based on some knowledge of them and knowledge that, even if things don’t unfold quite as expected, getting to a good outcome is clearly the intent and is seen and supported by the wider community. The visibility shines the light into our interactions with all the benefits that light brings in nature in nurturing healthy life and we hope will help build trust and, from this, enable fruitful relationships to blossom.

Underpinning all this there are the key areas of 1) scoping, 2) valuing, 3) mediation and/or arbitration, and 4) holding the space for review of the delivery against the agreed outcomes and in enabling the flow and making adjustments to achieve a successful outcome for all. These activities can be carried by the participants, but there is additional value in having support from the wider community in this with others either taking on roles to facilitate and to build capabilities through education.

We are capturing the learning and building up insights and materials as we go along so as to support wider engagement with and experience of ways of working that are more consciously and deeply tuned to the needs of all. We are seeking to build capacity and finances to open this up for anyone to join and also to open up the Civil Society Forum as a vehicle to support wider collaborations infused with these practices. (Any support or donations gratefully received). To find out more see www.civilsocietyforum/being-civil-society.

I am finding being in a collaborative cell a hugely moving experience. When we connect with what is ‘on our heart’ and when we engage in really supportive relationships with others my experience is that this creates a powerful release of energy; like splitting the atom or free energy! Similarly the energy from my ‘fusion’ needs careful channelling. Like a child, as I release my energy there is the potential for accidentally knocking off a few ornaments from the mantelpiece. I am greatly appreciative that I am being supported in directing this by my inspiring co-collaborator Claudius van Wyk (who is coaching me on the same topic) and with my wonderful colleagues Christopher Wray (co-designer of the experiment), Ian Traynor and Pamela Mclean. We are not finished yet but it is so liberating to feel the sense of empowerment in working it all out together in a way of deep respect and possibility.

We are learning this as after several years of stumbling along with the Civil Society Forum we wondered whether we’d have the human skills to organise in a way that enabled a viable form with integrity at all levels. As Gandhi famously said we need to “be the change we want to see in the world”. It was clear that we needed not only to be working on the personal work ourselves, but we needed to find ways of developing this quite directly in each interaction. Each interaction needed and needs to be a microcosm or ‘holon’ of what the whole needs to be. So the experiment is ‘Being Civil Society’.

The whole events leading up to the referendum and the East Enders soap opera like drama unfolding since the result show patterns that don’t ‘scale up’ to a particularly attractive or ‘civil’ society. I think it’s time to examine the ‘holons’ at all levels; in our politics, in our domestic economy, in the world economy, in our communities, our workplaces and relationships with ourselves and each other.

Let’s start some experiments to build symbiotic relationships that build trust, respect, and wholeness and so use this opportunity to shift the patterns and principles and rules of working together that will grow the sort of fruit we want and build a world where all can flourish.

To find out more about the ‘Being Civil Society’ experiment see

Esther Ridsdale, 1 July 2016