Collective Intelligence: A not so secret path to peace

In July of 2000, Swanee Hunt, former ambassador to Austria and founder of the Institute for Inclusive Security, was hosting a dinner at her home in Cambridge, MA for the Democratic Congressional Caucus. President Clinton walked into the gathering, after failing 48 hours previously at Camp David, to negotiate a settlement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I said, ‘Hello, Mr. President’,” Swanee told me. “He didn’t even say ‘Hello.’ He just said, ‘If I’d had women at Camp David, I’d have had a peace agreement.’”  We needed women at the peace table then, and we need them even more now.

 As we watch the stunning unfolding of events from Egypt to the Ivory Coast, from Tunisia to Bahrain, we bear witness to a tectonic shift occurring in society, a shift of power. We have seen for generations societies based on domination, where an individual uses power over others to control them. Emerging now in nascent form is a different use of power, a collective power of and for the people that threatens to undermine established “power over” regimes.

 The transformation of power is complex work, requiring wisdom to come from many rather than a few. I wonder who is and will be sitting at the peace table? Who is negotiating the changes? Are women included and equally represented?

To navigate these uncertain waters of change requires many skills, not least of which is the art of collaboration. Effective collaboration requires the creation of an environment of mutuality. That is, mutual respect, mutual interest, mutual benefit, and mutual trust, open communication, and diversity. When these conditions exist, an opportunity presents itself for collective intelligence to emerge, something that is greater than any individual contribution or the sum of contributions. What emerges is almost magical; something greater than the sum of its parts—evolved thinking.

On the other hand, peace-making groups without these conditions of mutuality and a level playing field, diversity, and trust, can easily devolve into stalemates, with alpha males staring at each other, each daring the other to blink. The willingness to give ground is seen as a weakness in these high testosterone equations, and negotiations inevitably go nowhere, as we’ve seen so often, especially in the tortured Middle East. But a willingness to give ground allows light into negotiations, allows critical thinking and an openness to exploring not only common ground but also higher ground.

One thing is certain: the more critical, reflective thinking rather than reactive thinking we see at the peace table, the greater chance for a positive outcome.

Recently social scientists, such as Christopher Chabris at MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence, Anita Williams Woolley at Carnegie Mellon University, have begun to systematically examine what they call the collective intelligence of groups. Their paper, “Evidence for Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups”, was reported in Science Magazine in October 2010.

What they discovered in their research completely surprised them; it was not something they expected or were looking for. They learned that collective intelligence is not tied to either the smartest person on the team nor to the average intelligence of the members of the team. The one predictor for increasing collective intelligence is to have a good representation of women in the group. So if negotiators are serious about making progress, about finding new common ground, they will ensure that at least half the chairs around the table are occupied by women.

What do women bring to the table that catalyzes new thinking? According to Chabris and Woolley it is a superior social sensitivity in reading non-verbal cues and other people’s emotion, and a fairness in turn taking.

From my research on women in these situations, I would characterize their “secret” as the possession and use of what may fairly be called feminine skills: by this I mean relational intelligence, emotional intelligence, holistic perspective, inclusion, empathy, intuition. All those soft skills are really powerful for true collaborations to succeed and for facilitating the emergence of collective intelligence. Such skills are not exclusively held by women, of course. But on average they are more developed in women, and women are generally more willing to use them.

Merle Lefkoff, an international mediator, whose work has involved Ireland, Bosnia, and the Middle East, misses women’s voices when negotiating issues of peace, war, and conflict. She describes what women bring to the table in this way. “At the back of women’s minds are always the children.  It’s not just the geopolitics, it’s a whole life. Women have a more holistic view and really understand that we are all connected. Women really believe that there is a possibility for connection and will do whatever it takes to hold that thread that is holding them together and nurture it. Some men tend to say, ‘Leave me alone; let’s just act.’ They pull back, not wanting to go into that emotional realm, but that’s exactly where the connection is and women work to unearth it.”

 Most women in the peace-making business would agree with Merle. “We turn to men who plan wars and ask them to plan peace. It’s poor casting,” says Swanee Hunt. “Exceptions aside, women are often the most powerful voices for moderation in times of conflict. While most men come to the negotiating table directly from the war room and battlefield, women usually arrive straight out of civil activism and family care.”

 When the founding fathers of the United States looked for examples of effective government and human liberty upon which to model a Constitution to unite the thirteen colonies, they didn’t find the model in Europe but rather were influenced by the Iroquois Nation. Their Great Law of Peace reflected a profound understanding of the principles of peace and human freedom that allowed them to foster genuine, effective statesmanship.

 Women played an important role in peacemaking and in deciding the future of the Iroquois Nation. Clan Mothers, which became the symbol of women’s leadership, would lead the family clans and raise the chiefs who would come from a matrilineal descent. Women were given the right of holding the chief’s titles and the power to remove dissident chiefs. When men would want to fight, women knew the true price of war and would encourage the chiefs to seek a peaceful resolution.  It was the Counsel of Clan Mothers who would decide when and if the Iroquois went to war.  This was part of their Constitution we did not adopt. Imagine if we had.

 The Iroquois nation knew intuitively what science of collective intelligence is just discovering. If we are serious about peace; if we as a society wish to evolve to greater unity and purpose rather than devolve into entropy and isolation; if we are to evolve to a more collaborative society because a domination-based society is unsustainable; it’s time for women to be a major presence at the peace table, opening our arms to collaboration rather than hold on to confrontation. As Indira Gandhi said, “You can’t shake hands with a clenched fist.”

 There are many skeptics who will call this Polly Anna-ish, hiding behind the assertion that humans became successful through the “strength” of aggression and competition, not the “weakness” of collaboration. Well, the Iroquois Nation once again knew intuitively what science is now discovering about what made humans human rather than apes. In the  March 11, 2011 issue of Science magazine, a team of anthropologists led by Kim Hill, of Arizona State University, and Robert Walker, of the University of Missouri, report that patterns of genetic relatedness among modern hunter-gatherer groups cogently imply a long history of collaboration and cooperation among them. This contrasts with the aggression that is so common among chimpanzee groups. We are human, not chimps, and collaboration is indelibly written in our genes, waiting for its power to be unleashed.

 So what to do next? Jody Williams, the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize laureate for her work on landmines, had this advice to anyone wishing to overturn an injustice in the world and replace it with a new wisdom: “Raise your voice in as many ways as you can …don’t be silent about it. …You must be clear and very conscious of the actions you decide to take to bring the change you seek. It isn’t magical and it isn’t mystical-–if you want to live in a better world, you have to decide to act to create that world.”

 Let’s stand together and get women at the peace table.


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22 Responses to “Collective Intelligence: A not so secret path to peace”

  1. Hazel U. says:

    Hmm, I’m not so sure. Our current Secreatry of State, Hilary Clinton, is resposnible for forign affairs and where has she gotten us?

    • Don’t you think it’s unfair to judge women’s influence when there is only one woman among many men? I think one point of collective intelligence is that feminine power has a better chance to manifest if there is more than one woman at the power table. Otherwise, it’s very tempting to follow the dominant mode of thinking.

  2. Claire Townsend says:

    I love Jody, read her account of pioneering the use of People Power: “Imagine trying to get hundreds of organizations – each one independent and working on many, many issues – to feel that each is a critical element of the development of a new movement. I wanted each to feel that what they had to say about campaign planning, thinking, programs, actions was important. So, instead of sending letters, I’d send everyone faxes. People got in the habit of faxing back. This served two purposes – people would really have to think about what they were committing to doing before writing it down, and we have a permanent, written record of almost everything in the development of the campaign from day one.” Amazing.

    • I love Jody and her work too! Thanks for the quote: it’s great. We can all be part of this new movement to create a new world of collaboration and cooperation.

  3. Jello Bear says:

    Men don’t plan wars, I think that is unfair. Women are the true controllers of this planet. Afterall, who can’t get their husband to do exactly what they want?

    • Hmm, what women have been at the war table? Condie? Hillary? I don’t think one woman among many men counts for much. It’s true that historically in the domestic domain women traditionally have been in control but in positions of political power? Women are just beginning to come into their own with a way to go.

      • Jello Bear says:

        I see where you are going with this Birute, but I’m not quite sure that a man of political power and a ‘domestic’ man are so different. Look at all of the men who listened to their wives throughout their entire professional career; artists, writers, kings, etc. Thoughts?

        • Women do 80% of consuming for the home, kids, etc. We have only 13% women in Congress where Congress is refusing to cut back the trillions for defense in spite of the military say we need to cut back. Sorry, Jello Bear, but these are men deciding this use of resources while taking services away from the poor, elderly, and needy. So, would you stil say women’s domestic power is equal political power?

          • Jello Bear says:

            Our gender split in the U.S. is roughly 50/50. Both men and women have the right to vote, yet WOMEN continue to vote in men more than women. This is the fault of women in my opinion.

          • You’re right; we all have some consciousness raising to do, like becoming of aware of the unconscious assumption that men are perceived as more competent and as leaders, an assumption held by both men and women (see my genders schema blog) ; how our understanding of leadership is masculine infused; how some women leaders have adopted this male model, playing the game rather than changing the game, how we often don’t recognize leaders who also employ feminine values and skills.

  4. Jules says:

    Lefkoff makes an excellent point re the children. The mother in women may help with the process of negotiation.

    • I love Lefkoff’s work. I would add the inclusive, nurturing, collaborative nature of the mother archetype is in every person and it would help to evoke it when negotiating. I read once that at an African nations peace talk, they wouldn’t allow women because they were willing to negotiate!!!

  5. Victoria says:

    I really found your thoughts on the Iroquois Nation to be extremely insightful. Thanks Birute.

  6. Jeanne Lin says:

    I totally agree with you Birute. The world would be a different place.

  7. Geraldine Rice says:

    Indira Gandhi is not very well known. I think she deserves much more credit.

  8. Janice Bowden77 says:

    Women are notoriously mean to one another in highschool and wonderful at playing games/mental abuse. I’m not sure the peace table is where they should be. Kepp it to the simple men. Just my opinion

    • That’s true, women have been very competitive which each other but that’s largely due to cultural reasons: fighting for resources and men. After all, it is just over a hundred years ago that women could actually own property in the US! But as women’s economic power increases I think that’s changing. As to keeping it to the simple men, we have (and not so simple) and where has that gotten us?