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I spend a lot of my time fretting about how to help people do things together. When working with RSA Fellows, my aim is to help them combine their skills and ideas to achieve more than they could alone. I sometimes think it’s an odd position to find myself in, as my own inclinations are exactly the opposite.

If given a piece of work to complete or a problem to solve, and the luxury of choosing how to do it, my instinct isn’t to work with others. In fact, I usually find a place where they are unlikely (preferably unable) to bother me. I collect a generous wedge of books, bits of paper and scribbled notebooks, and institute a complex system of rewards involving hot coffee and small pieces of cake. Finally, I forbid myself to return to society until I’ve finished the cursed thing.

All this is well and good, but last night I felt Richard Sennett might be urging me to reconsider. In his new book Together, which he discussed at the RSA last night, he argues that we’ve lost the skills necessary to work with each other. One example is the ability to listen: he thinks we tend to make declarative statements, rather than listening to and engaging with the views of others.

Why has this happened? Two examples Sennett gives are our culture of work, which pegs us to short-term contracts and piecemeal tasks; and living in over-developed cities that are less amenable to chance encounters. We’ve lost, he says, the craft of collaboration.

In particular, Sennett thinks this is a problem for the way we relate to people who aren’t like us. The greatest problem for those who lack the skills of co-operation is that they cleave to those who are most like them – and with this the range of possible opinions, views and activities narrows. In a diverse society, not being able to co-operate with people from a different class, culture or generation is a barrier to achievements that benefit everyone.

I haven’t had a chance to read Together yet, but no doubt it conforms to Sennett’s singular style, which is a kind of learned free-association: a patchwork of anecdotes and textured observations that draw you towards his view of how people behave in society. The overall effect is charming and persuasive, and I’m very susceptible to it (The Conscience of the Eye, his book about the social life of cities, is something I return to again and again for sheer pleasure).

In person I found myself less easily swept along. Partly it was the jargon (some of the finer points of dialectic vs. dialogue were lost on me), but perhaps more that I felt something was missing from the picture. His argument at its simplest – that co-operating with people is hard, and hardest with people who aren’t like us – seems true, perhaps even obvious. What’s less clear to me is whether the skills that Sennett proposes are sufficient for us to co-operate better in the conditions where he thinks it’s most difficult – and most vital.

Collaboration as a term is ubiquitous: social media is supposed to encourage it; endless conferences and networking sessions (of which I’ve organised a few myself) promise it will happen; businesses and social enterprises are falling over to do it with each other. Colleagues at the RSA have recommended it persuasively as an approach to improving public services.

Most of these kinds of collaboration are between people with at least some kind of shared commitment. There may be differences over the means to the end, but that end – whether it’s creating something, solving a problem or sharing a resource – is what gives the members of the group their drive to co-operate, and crucially to create the conditions of trust and sacrifice needed to get something done. Part of the genius of good collaboration is creating devices that help identify those shared commitments: ways to break apart difference and separateness.

Sennett might argue that these ends are out there to be discovered, and all that’s required is to cultivate his toolbox of skills: the ability to listen, to empathise, and to recognise what we have in common with others. My impression from the talk, though, was that the real sticking point is the reasons that we offer and accept for co-operation, and how we make a case for the ends that we expect others to help us pursue.

Sennett is clearly right to feel that people who can negotiate differences skilfully will do better at working with those who don’t share their views. However, without a convincing story about why co-operation makes sense for those involved, sensitivity to others and their needs seems unlikely to make the difference. It’s a deeply important and valuable attribute to have, and it has an admirable champion in Sennett, but it’s not enough on its own if the ambition is to get beyond people who already recognise what they share.

I look forward to seeing whether there are more thoughts on this in the book when I get hold of a copy. My feeling is that the business of co-operation is really about how we make a powerful and reasoned case for why something needs to be done: one that has the power to persuade not just our friends, but anyone who can follow the argument. That’s probably a lot to ask of each other – but then again, if we really want to work together, we'll be asking much more besides.


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