The Difficulties of Cooperation, Part 1

I recently had a falling out with someone I admire. I kept wondering what I was doing wrong. Was my ego getting in the way? Could I have done things differently?

I have friends who follow 12 step programs and I’ve learned a lot from them. They say it’s our ego that causes us to feel pain. We feel hurt the most when our ego is invested in a person or a cause.

And when I say cause, I’m not talking about the enlightened sort that saves people or animals from hunger or violence. The cause I mean is the one where we try to get someone, an individual we probably know, to do a certain thing or act a certain way. Those of you who have teenagers will understand: getting adolescents to do chores can seem like fighting world hunger on some days. The point is that we are operating from our egos when we take disappointments personally. That is, when something doesn’t go our way and we feel frustrated, that frustration can be experienced as a blow to our ego. And blows to our egos, as everyone knows, are not fun.

So my question today is this: what does true cooperation look like? I’m putting another TED video up because I like what this very successful woman, Margaret Heffernan, has to say. Her thesis is that disagreement is necessary if we are to communicate with others effectively. I agree.



In some of my previous articles, I’ve written about disagreements I’ve had with various practitioners in the Canadian healthcare system. I’ve written about how I struggled to deal effectively with a group of people who used their greater knowledge to silence me. I’ve written about how I struggled to be heard, to be taken seriously and to be a good manager of my mother’s health. That experience – all three years of it – pushed me outside that box called my character and forced me to confront my own weaknesses.

So as I watched my elderly mother suffer, I often thought of something Bette Davis once said. She said that “Old age is not for sissies.” Indeed, neither is coming face to face with your own fears.

What did I fear? I feared I wouldn’t be able to safely guide my mother through a system that didn’t seem to care. I feared I would be disliked for speaking up. I feared my perception of events was skewed – that others had a better grip on reality and that I was making errors, errors that would make me look stupid or, worse, be catastrophic for my mother. Overall I feared I wasn’t equal to the task of caring for her.

In the end, however, my perceptions were correct and I discovered I was disliked whether I spoke up or not. The fact that I was clued in was enough to put healthcare workers on alert and treat me warily. My vigilance alone made me the enemy.

So what did being the enemy teach me?

It’s that question that leads me to Heffernan’s talk. She describes an unusual relationship between two very gifted individuals: Alice Stewart, a doctor and medical researcher in England in the 1950s, and George Kneale, a statistician she worked with. Stewart took on the task of proving that pregnant women who were x-rayed were far more likely to give birth to children who would later develop cancer. It was a disturbing theory for medical practitioners at the time because x-ray technology had just been developed and was seen as a life-saving tool. So Stewart had the difficult job of challenging its safety. It took her 25 years to be taken seriously.

Dr. Alice Stewart
Dr. Alice Stewart: Click here to read more.

What was Kneale’s role in her work? According to Heffernan, Kneale saw his relationship with Stewart in adversarial terms. He said it was his “job to prove Dr. Stewart wrong.” And by working toward disconfirming her theory, he gave Stewart the courage to proceed with it. As a statistician, Kneale would have taken raw data and manipulated it in various ways. He would do so to disprove the theory that x-rays were for unsafe for pregnant women. The fact that he could not disprove her theory, of course, was precisely the conclusion Stewart was hoping for.

Read my review of A Bigger Prize. 

However, the conclusion in this example provided by Heffernan is not as important as the process that preceded it. Stewart and Kneale would forge a working relationship made of conflict. They could do so because both had the attitude that constructive conflict equaled constructive thinking. Heffernan uses this example to support her belief that to outwit the neurological drive to associate solely with others “just like us” is to free ourselves from conventional ways of being and to enter that higher plane of consciousness, that world, simply put, of better thinking. I believe we can take her ideas a step further. I believe that to engage with others whose beliefs and methodologies challenge ours is one way out of the box I referred to earlier, that box that is our character.

Let me unpack what I’ve just said: Heffernan uses the example of Stewart and Kneale’s working relationship to define a good working relationship, one that by its fusion produced intelligence of the highest sort. She’s using this definition to support her belief that businesses and corporations would benefit from encouraging constructive conflict. She gives another compelling example of an employee at a medical device company who had serious doubts about the safety of a product under development. He struggled to express these doubts only to discover there were other employees who felt the same way. His voice became the voice of leadership in that particular instance because he found the courage to speak up and found support under him. While I applaud the man’s courage, I also know that things don’t always go so well. When some people speak up, they just get fired.

So I’m extending Heffernan’s definition to include character. I think it takes a strong character to enter into an adversarial partnership and its fusion not only produces intelligence: it produces even stronger individuals whose beliefs have been broadened and enriched by an active engagement with difference, what the French call the other. It’s the courage part of Heffernan’s example that is important because it takes courage to disagree and to be disagreeable.

Why did I bring up the ego at the beginning of this article? It’s because it is a paradox that it takes both a strong ego and a willingness to ignore it to have the kind of relationship Stewart and Kneale had. They needed to have faith in their ideas, but courage also to accept they could be wrong. It’s a balancing act not meant for the faint of heart, which is another point Heffernan stresses: most of us can’t or won’t do it.

In terms of my own experience, I learned that to deal effectively with medical professionals meant I had to have an ego strong enough to be disagreeable and a willingness to ignore the resentment it caused. I had to ignore the resentment if I wanted to function as an autonomous individual, propelled not by others’ beliefs but by my own.

So if I wanted to be as unconventional as I believe I was meant to be — like Stewart and Kneale — I had to move forward with self-generated force, unfettered by conventions that say laypeople aren’t knowledgeable about medicine and have no role in healthcare. One of the mantras that went through my head while I struggled with uncooperative staff was this: “Yes you are experts in healthcare, but I am an expert in my mother. Why can’t we work together?”

What does cooperation look like? I don’t always get things right and some days just aren’t good ones. My recent disagreement — with the person I mentioned at the beginning of this article — meant that a situation requiring our cooperation didn’t work out. A minor disagreement led to a bigger one and a decision over his fate was taken out of my hands. Things fell apart and now I wish they hadn’t. But I’m a grown-up and I know this is the price of expressing myself and living fully: it’s hard work and I can’t always win.

Here is a link to Part 2 of this article:

Postscript: there were no downloadable images of George Kneale available on the net. I would have liked to have included his image here.

Why I live in Montreal

Why I Live in Montreal

I came here in 1990. I was fresh from my Master’s programme in English Literature and needed a second-language credit to finish, so I came to do French immersion. Two weeks into the programme, I knew I was going to stay.

Although I’d grown up in Ontario and gone to university in Toronto and Hamilton, I never quite felt like I belonged. There was something about the formality of those institutions that always troubled me.

I never felt good enough or competitive enough. Although I now understand there were myriad reasons for my feeling this way—my natural temperament being one–external and measurable reasons existed too.

I was born in the 1960s, before the celebration of multi-culturalism in this country became standard operating procedure, and my parents had felt the lash of xenophobia. They were afraid of authority because they had reason to be. Although their fears had more to do with social ostracism than anything else, I could see, even as a child, that they occupied what they felt was a safe space on the periphery of Canadian culture. There was a reason they had one foot in Canada and another back in the old country: it gave them a sense of security.

So when, as a 30 year-old, I came to Montreal and breathed in the atmosphere, I was surprised to find myself feeling so completely at ease. Layers of unhappiness just seemed to peel off.  There were also clues in the environment that told me I was in the right place, a place where I could be myself, or at least be closer to myself-as-a-destination.

The potential for greater authenticity seemed to be part of the zoning here, just like the crazy parking signs, the multitude of buskers and performers and the vivid street art. There was an irrepressible energy here—like the energy that made trouble for me back in Ontario—and I experienced a quiet sense of permission. There was a voice that said it’s okay, be yourself and it was irresistible.  So I stayed; I explored.  

Why am I still here? I can answer that best when I look at the last year of my life. I took part in two projects outside my teaching duties. One project involved working with Francophones on a government initiative. The other was a more personal project, one that had a less sweeping focus but was very important to me. The latter was organized and conducted by Anglophones in Ontario. Suffice it to say my experience of these two groups differed significantly.

I think courage is a strength of the Anglophone culture, both in Canada and abroad, and is what makes it competitive and strong. The Brits colonized much of the world for a reason. They had the will to do it and the smarts to accomplish it. Their ability to act speaks to a competitive streak that has served them very well. On the other hand, their famous reserve—that stiff upper lip–can be downright unnerving to someone like me.

The French, who don’t seem to like Anglophones very much, were just as exacting in many ways. Their capacity for bureaucracy startled and dismayed me. When I think of the French, I automatically think of paperwork. They colonized too; however, I’m tempted to believe that their relative lack of breadth in that regard was due to the bureaucracy that surely must have slowed their imperialistic drive. Invade another country? Attendre, we’ve got a form for that!

So what was the difference? That irrepressible energy I felt when I first started exploring the streets of Montreal has another incarnation and that’s in the level of connectedness I felt with my French colleagues. I screwed up a couple of times; most notably, I once got hopelessly lost on the way to a meeting and was very, very late.

At first I was met with a Gallic shrug and then questions about my welfare.  Are you stressed? Do you have a GPS? Ahhhh, GPSs.  A long and detailed discussion followed about the newness of the roads in that part of Montreal and how they were not yet appearing on satellite maps. I sat there willing everyone to please stop talking about it. It’s because there was someone in the room who was judging me quite harshly and that person was me. I’m not sure why this is, but I can still cringe over that episode. I cringe even though it’s clear I was forgiven, immediately and completely, by the very colleagues I had kept waiting.

My dealings with the Anglos didn’t go quite like this. I had some difficulty with them too, but the resolution, such as it was, looked quite different. I had an email correspondence with an Anglo woman that can only be described as a conversation so tautly strung with suppressed anger that it twanged. Politeness is there in spades, but underlying hostility is too. As is the judging, the neutral words designed to point out my deficiencies, the posturing for power, the strategic sense of advancement and retreat. In short, I felt I was fighting a war and I had to measure each word because, like beads on an abacus, they would be counted. It was painful too, but I didn’t cringe. I walked on eggshells instead and it was exhausting.

It would be easy to say I’m over-simplifying. That I’m erroneously making these conflicts represent larger trends in diverse cultures. But having lived here for over 20 years, I know I’m right. The connectedness I feel living in this city explains why things went so well with my French colleagues. People here look at one another, acknowledge one another, and it makes a difference.

When I first arrived in Montreal, I had few opportunities to work. My French was limited and even service-industry jobs require one to be fluently bilingual. So I did what I knew best: I taught English, first as a second language and then as literature at the college level. My first job was at a language school. It was located close to a flagship location of The Bay, right in downtown Montreal.

One thing I noticed about Montreal was that people, particularly men, would look at me in a very frank and undisguised way. I remember walking into The Bay, almost daily, and using mirrors on the cosmetic counter to check my face. I did this precisely because I was being looked at. I assumed these men were looking because I had touched my cheek after erasing one of the school’s whiteboards. I thought I must have an ink smear, or perhaps running mascara, on my face.

It took me a long time to realize that they were looking for another reason altogether and that a frank appraisal of my looks was meant to communicate a very positive message to me. It took me a bit longer to realize that even women looked at other women and, far from being a sign of competition, it seemed to reflect a genuine curiosity, or a willingness to make contact, however subtle.

At first I was non-plussed by this and and it flustered me more times than I care to remember. However, in a sneaky way it felt good and gradually I got used to it. Around that time, I had a chance conversation with a woman at a coffee shop, a woman who had been recently widowed. She told me that whenever she felt lonely, she would take a walk around old Montreal. She said she felt an instant connection to others and I knew exactly what she meant. Looking at another human being can be a salutory act, a way of saying “I acknowledge you.” It’s powerful and it happens here all the time.

So you can imagine my surprise when a friend from Toronto, here for a year, started telling me how violated she felt when she walked the streets of Montreal.

I tried to explain the difference in culture. I tried to tell her that if men were looking at her, perhaps it was because they found her attractive and that she should enjoy it. I also encouraged her to become an observer of life in this city and to wait and see whether or not women looked at her in a similar way, albeit with friendship on their minds. She was not convinced, although I hoped that in a year’s time she’d at least come to appreciate the power of a friendly glance.

I had no luck and that’s because the cultural imperative of avoiding the gaze of others is strongly ingrained in other people in other cities. That’s true in this country and in other parts of the world. It’s too bad. When my mother was ill and I was crying almost every day, I appreciated the fact that people here would see my reddened eyes and not look away. Their gazes, far from being threatening or embarrassing, served to tell me that crying was a normal thing to do under stressful circumstances. C’est normal, their eyes seemed to say. And that helped–a lot.

I can still feel the way I felt when I first arrived in Montreal: that I’m living in a transporting place where I can be taken to a higher state of consciousness if I allow it to happen. And it does happen when I come around a corner and see a sculpture in an intimate spot or a window-box overflowing with flowers. I still stop when I see a church facade that is particularly artful or an expanse of water rippling in the view between buildings. Montrealers have taught me to notice these things. 

And I still remember my first year here. I remember opening my classroom window at the Y, where I was teaching English, and explaining that what a soulful saxophone player was doing outside was called “busking.” The children came to the window and we watched as a crowd formed and passersby stopped to put coins in his saxophone case. In other words, we watched while people of all ages stopped not only to notice his music, but to listen and acknowledge it as well.

And now you know: this is why I live in Montreal.

Romancing the Riot

I’ve been posting about the Montreal student strike for a few days now. I’m doing this because I feel the need to present a more balanced view. It seems there is a very strong tendency, on the part of people inspired by the “We are the 99%” movement, to believe any protest is legitimate.

This is disheartening for those of us who try to approach conflict ethically. I recently read, on a very admirable person’s blog, that innovation takes humility. I agree. There’s nothing more humbling than working hard on something and then stepping back and evaluating it honestly. It’s harder still to admit failure, either in part or in whole.

Managing disappointment is one of the hardest emotional skills to learn, but it is, arguably, one that most successful people have mastered. It keeps us from trying too hard for too long, from throwing good money after bad, from focusing too exclusively on “the one” when there are a lot of “ones” out there for us. It provides the support for that most useful of tools, the coup de grâce, and allows us to know when to say “enough.”

I really wish the student strikers, and their largely uninformed supporters, would just get there already. I’m tempted to throw out that famous feminist question, “What part of NO don’t you understand?” when I see people from outside of Montreal supporting the strike, people who have no idea of the extent of the disruption. It has gone on for over three months now, shows no sign of stopping and yet the government, largely supported by the public, has been saying no to the students all along.

For all the momentum the “99%” are inspiring with their Occupy Movements, there is a downside. It seems to be a movement without brakes. For example, there are times in life when we need to fight our resistance to change and that can mean resisting our need to be right. It can mean taking an honest look at what is going on around us and deciding, for ourselves, if our actions are creative or destructive. Sometimes, it will mean that taking no for an answer really is the best option.

One thing I demand from my students when they analyze a text is that they must practice absolute fidelity to it. What I mean is that they cannot, under any circumstances, draw conclusions beyond the information an author or poet or playwright gives us. So when Alice Munro creates her wonderful character Liza, in “Vandals”, and we later see Liza trashing her neighbour’s home, we can take into account that she is a) a victim of sexual abuse; b) a born-again Christian with flexible morals and c) a young woman who understands the value of getting even.

What we cannot say is that she is deeply scarred and will go on to live a desperate and unhappy life. We might want to believe that, we might even see the sense in saying it, but that “fact” is just not in the story. On the contrary, the hushed but triumphant ending seems to belie such a cynical future for Liza. It’s precisely her potential for greatness that makes the story so memorable.

So as I sit and grade papers, and I see my students making over-drawn conclusions, I get out my pencil and write, “not in the story,” over and over again. And I do it over and over again because I believe it’s part of the human condition to make a happy ending happier, a tragic ending more tragic. It comes out of our deep need to embroider, to create, to magnify.

And most of the time, that impulse is a good thing. King Lear falls from such a great height because, simply put, Shakespeare knew how to dramatize the pitfalls of self-deception. In his hands, Lear’s resistance to the truth instructs and moves us.

But even Shakespeare made Lear face facts in the end. And it’s the romanticizing of a movement—that “falling in love with love” dynamic—that I feel needs to be faced here in Montreal. The student strike is just not working –it seems to be running on sheer momentum and nothing else — and the cost/benefit ratio is speaking to us loud and clear. The city is already 1 billion dollars in debt at a time when we really can’t afford it.

That message is being lost, however, amid the righteous yearnings of a roaring crowd.