Feature Article: Holding Partnership Conversations

Riane Eisler and Lucy E. Garrick

Riane Eisler

Lucy GarrickA growing awareness that humankind is facing unprecedented challenges that are is making many of us uneasy. Our dis-ease stems from increasing awareness that humanity’s bill for our impact on the health of the planet is now coming due. How we choose to proceed may determine whether we are privileged to continue to adapt physically, psychically and spiritually. We find ourselves wondering how future generations will view our contributionto the inevitable shift toward a global community. For those of us still reluctant to acknowledge this reality, the news of terrorism, corporate scandals, climate change and emerging global economic, food and energy crises continue to gnaw at our consciousness.

Overwhelmed by complexity, we are beginning to question our institutions of government and business. We are aware that many are woefully inadequate to shape a future worthy of our descendants. We are at once, both fearful and hopeful.

What can we do?

Many people think that the job of cultural transformation is too big, that we can’t really make a difference. Yet every person can contribute to a new global culture of partnership and peace. In fact, we do so each time we choose:

  • Discernment instead of judgment
  • Compassion instead of judgment
  • Appreciation over criticism
  • Generosity in place of self-interest
  • Reconciliation over retaliation

A culture of partnership peace is a culture that supports our full humanity, one that helps us in favor of what it means to be fully human; to reach for our highest human potential. Whether we build this culture depends on ifIt is achieved by the choices we make, from the seemingly insignificant to the most exalted. The question that stands before us now is not who can take part in cultural transformation, but how shall we stand together for partnership and peace? Will we simply try to fix the problems we now face with the same mindsets that created those problems or will we learn to be together in new ways?

A simple way to contribute to a design for the future we desire comes from an old approach: conversation. Conversation costs nothing but time and can include everyone. Conversations are one of the cornerstones of civic engagement. For millennia they have served as a means to explore, defend, persuade, connect and heal us. Conversations become the threads of the social fabric in our lives, contributing to communal beliefs, expectations and judgments about the structures and relationships underlying our understandings of families, tribes, communities, institutions and nations. Conversations are so powerful that in an effort to control their subjects, despots and dictators often limit what topics can be discussedand how or if conversations are allowed.

Modern social science and psychological research has found that the what and how of conversations often leads to defining moments. The whatof conversations are the topics we choose to discuss, and the how includes ideas for holding conversations from which we can learn and grow, rather than persuade, coerce or intimidate.

Topics that lead us toward a culture of partnership and peace will cause allow us to re-examine history in light of its impact on groups that have been marginalized. Often these topics are hidden from view in conventional conversations.There will be topics in which the stakes are high. To have conversations in which the stakes are high will help us get closer to core issues rather than dealing only with symptoms. For example, recent opinion polls show that high stakes issues in the 2008 U.S. presidential elections are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the faltering economy. Further down the list is global warming. All are important issues. But only as we look. By looking for the underlying sources of these problems, we can become aware of the connections between wars, faltering economies and environmental sustainability. Each topic is complex in its own right and at the same time—interdependent. It is difficult to hold conversations about these topics that lead toward sustainable change. Conclusions we draw help for a short period and then seem to falter soon after. This is because all three issues are symptomatic of deeper underlying systemic issues about how societies are structured. To understand and heal our social systems it is important to engage in conversation about the underlying issues about the structures and patterns that confuse and divide us.

Deepening the Conversation

More than two decades of research conducted by one of the authors, Dr. Riane Eisler, found a spectrum, a continuum between two newly defined identified social categories of systems: the partnership system and the domination system. This research brought to light a new perspective on modern history. It revealed that underlying seemingly random events exists a tension between organized challenges to the traditions of domination and enormous dominator resistance. Additionally, the research reveals something of pivotal importance that has long remained hidden to us. To build cultures of peace we have to pay particular attention to how a culture structures the most fundamental human relations: the relations between the female and male halves of humanity and between them and between them and their daughters and sons. So it is that we suggest that conversations designed to contribute to the creation of a new global culture of partnership and peace begin with the topic of gender.

Eisler’s research showed a fundamental difference in how human societies co-evolved. She found a spectrum of social systems that continue today based on how human groups are valued and, therefore, ranked. She found that from the very beginning some cultures oriented more to the domination system and others to the partnership system—and that gender roles and relations are structured very differently in each. In most dominator systems, social ranking exists and is based on our most fundamental human difference—the difference between the female and male halves of humanity. While there have been some notable exceptions, most often these rankings are based on the notion that In these systems, the male and what is stereotypically considered masculine are valued over the female and the stereotypically feminine. This foundational ranking of one gender over the other sets in place a pattern of social rankings based on other differences, such as genetics, ethnicity, race, religion, economic, social and religious status and so on. Across cultures and over centuries, dominator values continue to influence the structures and patterns of societies.

In partnership systems, societies valued both halves of humanity equally and recognized that humans are social animals with a unique wisdom and capacity to work and can live in partnership. Here stereotypically feminine traits and activities such as caring, nonviolence, and caregiving are highly valued—whether they reside in women or men. This profoundly affects the society’s guiding system of values in all institutions, including business, government and economics. For example, partnership conversations about gender using the lenses of these new social categories makes it possible to see that caring for people, starting in childhood and for our Mother Earth are not only important in human and environmental terms but are also much more cost effective.

Caring Pays—for Humans, Nature, and Business

This is one of the major themes in Eisler’s most recent book, The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating Caring Economics, which provides extensive evidence i of how caring business policies that result from partnership values are actually more profitable. It also shows that nations that invest in caring for children are building the “high quality human capital” economists tell us is essential for the postindustrial, knowledge economy—while those that do not will dearly pay for this failure. But a caring economics requires that we accelerate the movement toward the partnership side of the domination-partnership continuum, as. And so also does building a more peaceful world.

Underlying the many differences in societies, both cross-culturally and throughout history, are these two basic cultural configurations: the domination system and the partnership system. Toward the dominator end of the spectrum social systems organize relationships at all levels according to a hierarchy of power, control, status and privilege, and routinely extend rights and freedoms to those on top and deny them to those on the bottom. Such rankings lead to thinking limited to two dimensions: good or evil; superior or inferior; more or less dominating or being dominated. Since there is no awareness of the partnership alternative, both parties live in fear. Those on top fear loss of power and control while those on the bottom perpetually seek to gain it. This ranking structure then leads to conflicts, sometimes over trivial issues that escalate, often leading to cycles of violence, resentment and retaliation. Such conditions do not generally contribute to growth, learning or peace.

Social systems toward the partnership end of the spectrum are characterized by more egalitarian organizational structures in which both genders are seen as equal yet different, each capable of unique manifestations of value. There may exist a hierarchy of roles, but delegation tends to be based on competency, rather than rankings by gender or other arbitrary groupings. Each group is capable of appreciating the unique value of the other. Differences are seen as opportunities for learning. Both individuals and groups organize through consensual experimentation and decision-making, mutual accountability and individual responsibility. Empowerment stems from one’s unique contributions and connections are made at the level of values, rather than by gender, ethnicity and other social categories.

Dominator Systems Partnership SystemsContinuum
  • Only two options: superior or inferior, dominate or be dominated
  • Hierarchy of control
  • Motivated by fear
  • Differenced lead to conflict over trivial issues
  • Escalation of conflict leads to cycles of resentment, retaliation and violence
  • Empowered by control, status and privilege.
  • Equal but different
  • Unique manifestations of value
  • Organize through mutual accountability and individual responsibility
  • Hierarchy of roles, delegation based on competency
  • Differences serve as opportunities for growth and learning
  • Empowered by contribution and connect through values

Learning Conversations

In a global society we see all shades in the spectrum between dominator and partnership systems. The purpose of holding conversations about our fundamental differences is, therefore, not to blame or judge each other or ourselves. Conversations are held in order to learn what tacit knowledge still holds us captive in a trance of domination, and instead allows us to see each other and our world-selves more clearly.

Begin At The Beginning

To understand what divides us, we must look honestly and earnestly at our differences. We must make an effort to understand the other’s point of view and to share our own. The best way to have a powerful conversation about what divides us to is to simply listen, become aware of the meaning we may be making for ourselves from what we hear, and recognize accept that what the other person is saying is true for her or him.

At first, it may be difficult to hold neutral conversations due to the learned meanings we draw from words, phrases and even tone of voice. Even if you hold your heart for humanity deeply, you are likely to carry some biases based on the tacit meanings that come forom your experiences in life related to your own gender. To truly understand the other, you will want to consider what it is like to be in the other’s shoes, to have their beliefs, points of view and experiences. A self-leadership model, called the Learning Practice of Leadership may serve as a helpful reminder for how we can lead ourselves through the controversial waters of gender conversations.

learning conversations

Learning Practice of Leadership
© 2008 Copyright L.E. Garrick

Tips for Partnership Conversations

Below are a few tips for holding partnership conversations and some example questions to get you started. These tools will be particularly useful in dealing with emotionally charged issues.

  • Convene the conversation in a circle so that everyone holds an equal position.
  • Take time to allow people to get settled and leave their work and other concerns behind. Prepare a question that allows people to get introduced and learn a little about why they have joined this conversation.
  • Allow each person to speak when they are ready. There is no need to pressure anyone to talk. People will learn both from listening and speaking.
  • Allow each person who wishes to speak adequate time to speak without interruption.
  • Select a question to start the gender conversation. Several are included in the following bulleted list.
  • As you explore the conversation more deeply, use open questions. Open questions are questions to which there is no “yes” or “no” answer. They are not intended to lead to an specific outcome. Open questions come from a genuine place of curiosity. They often begin with words like “how”, “what”, “when, and “why.”
  • Be mindful of your intention when asking any question. If you have a judgment behind your question it will likely show through. “Why” questions are particularly tricky, as they sometimes sound accusatory, such as “Why do you believe that?”
  • Being transparent by stating your personal experiences in relating a position or asking a question may help clarify and engender trust.
  • Listen and try to put your judgments aside.
  • Resist the temptation to voice either your own affirmation or disagreement with another person’s point of view. Allow each speaker to be fully accountable for his or her own words.
  • If you find you are having a strong reaction to someone’s comment, good or bad, make a note for later reflection. Ask yourself, what is it about me that is creating this reaction?
  • In these conversations, it is not important to convince or draw conclusions. It is important to listen and learn. Have something to write on. Journal about what you notice. And when time allows, journal about what you notice about that. See where a deeper inquiry leads without trying to find one’s “right “the answer.””
  • When the conversation is concluded, take time to record some notes about whatever you have learned.
  • Reflect on new questions you may have as result of the conversation and new options for relating with others with which you might experiment.

Examples: Gender Topic Questions

  • What is the first memory you recall in which gender played an important role?
  • What happened?
  • Do you recall any conclusions you may have drawn as a result of this experience?
  • Did the experience make you feel more satisfied to be your gender or less? More empowered or less?
  • How do people in your church, work or community express gender equality and gender rankings?
  • What evidence do you find that men are more valued than women
  • What evidence do you find that women are more valued than men
  • Are gender value differences the same for children of all ages as adults?
  • What do you know believe about the evolution of gender in living species that influences your attitudes about gender differences in humans?
  • Think of a major historical event in your lifetime. If you were a different gender, how would your interpretation of that eventbe changed?
  • How do the perceptions we hold about gender influence our attitudes toward power and money?
  • What would be different if we were born with a different sex?
  • How would the sexes have to change to live more closely aligned with the partnership
  • What would be the impact to on government, business and other


Exploring the issues that divide us by examining how we are influenced by our experience of being the gender we are can be powerful. It may lead to further inquiry to uncover how gender differences impacted your family, community, work and institutional relationships. In turn, these explorations may give rise to questions about how culture and nations impact each other through our policies, markets and the impact on the planet.

In Eisler’s most recent book, The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economicsextensive evidence is provided of how caring business policies that result from partnership values are actually more profitable. It also shows that nations that invest in caring for children are building the “high quality human capital” economists tell us is essential for the postindustrial, knowledge economy.

Beginning with our most fundamental human difference, the difference between male and female gender, it is now time to understand deeply how our gender privileges, limitations, and experiences have shaped and continue to influence us, not only as individual women and men but as members of a world that has inherited a system of values that is heavily influenced by dominator valuations. One of the most interesting, and important, outcomes of open-ended conversations about gender is a new understanding of how what it means to be human for both women and men is different in a domination or partnership context—and that gender is not “just a women’s issue” but a key issue for whether we move to a more peaceful and equitable world.

  • As more of us talk openly about these matters, we become participants in the cultural transformation from domination to partnership—not only in gender relations but in all relations. We also help create more effective, humane, and sustainable business practices and government policies when we bring these unconscious impediments to forward movement out into the open.
Patterson, K. Grenny, J. McMillan, R, Switzler, A. (2002) Crucial Conversations. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Eisler, R. (1987). The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
Riane Eisler is a social scientist, attorney, consultant, and author best known for her bestseller The Chalice and The Blade: Our History, Our Future, now in 23 languages, including most European languages and Chinese, Russian, Korean, Hebrew, Japanese, and Arabic. Her newest book, The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics, hailed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu as “a template for the better world we have been so urgently seeking” and by Peter Senge as “desperately needed,” proposes a new paradigm for economic systems. Dr. Eisler keynotes conferences worldwide, teaches transformative leadership at CIIS, has received many honors, and is the only woman among twenty great thinkers including Hegel, Adam Smith, Marx, and Toynbee selected for inclusion in Macrohistory and Macrohistorians in recognition of the lasting importance of her work. Dr. Eisler is president of the Center for Partnership Studies and can be contacted Her website is
Lucy E. Garrick is the founder and president of Million Ideas for Peace, an organization focusing on global cultural change and redefining social activism based on the principles of positive psychology, and inclusiveness. She is also founder and principle consultant forNorthShore Group a consulting firm focusing on strategic planning, leadership development and organizational change. With William H. McGee, Ms. Garrick co-authored several books on the impact of new technologies on traditional broadcast media. She has spoken on at numerous industry conferences on topics related to technology and business strategy and been guest faculty at the University of Washington School of Business and the Oregon Graduate Institute. She brings a multi-disciplinary approach to her work. As a visual artist and emeritus member of the Point of Departure Studios in Portland, she often incorporates creative process into her workshops. Ms. Garrick holds degrees in Information Systems Management and Whole Systems Design/Organizational Systems Renewal with a focus on Leadership. She can be reached at Her websites are