Collaborating When We Don’t Like or Trust Each Other

| By Terence Brake

There are many types of collaboration, and multiple contexts in which collaboration is expected to take place.  Part of the conventional wisdom about successful collaboration is that it requires a congenial team with a common purpose, a shared understanding of the problem, as well as negotiated agreements on solutions, execution, and roles and responsibilities.  Without these can a group still make progress?

Yes, according to Adam Kahane, Director of Reos Partners, a social enterprise consultancy helping people move forward together on their most important and intractable issues.  I only discovered Mr. Kahane’s work recently when I found an article by him in my email (“How to Collaborate When You Don’t Have Consensus,” Strategy + Business, April 3, 2018).  

The clarity of the thinking in the article, along with Mr. Kahane’s stories of facilitating meetings between bitter enemies engaged in Columbia’s 52-year civil war was utterly compelling.  I spent hours afterwards checking out his talks on Ted and YouTube.

The situations requiring collaborative efforts in business might not be as extreme as those faced in civil wars, but there can still be significant challenges of low trust, high emotional tension, working at cross-purposes, disagreement on the ‘problem’, and sabotage of the team’s efforts.

The positive message of Adam Kahane is that, “You don’t have to give up when people don’t agree.”

His recommendation is to engage in stretch collaboration, and to apply three “stretch tools.”

1. Accept the plurality of the situation

You don’t have to agree on what the solution – or even the problem – is.  Different participants may support the same outcome for different reasons.  “In conventional collaboration”, Kahane says, “we focus on working harmoniously with our team members to achieve what is best for the whole team [or company, or country].”  In complex situations, this appeal to the whole is illegitimate and manipulative and really means ‘Let’s focus on the whole that’s meaningful to me’.”  In stretch collaboration, participants only need to agree that something needs to change; at no point are they asked to give up their own solutions or story of their position.  That would be counterproductive.  In one session, Kahane was asked by a guerilla leader (on the telephone from a secret location) “Do we have to agree to a cease fire to participate?”  Kahane answered “No.”  “The only thing you have to agree to is to participate – to talk and listen.” 

2. Experiment to find a way forward

You must keep trying things knowing that you cannot control the future, but that you can influence it.  “Success isn’t coming up with a solution – it’s working toward one.”  One technique Kahane used to great effect in Columbia was scenario-building.  Scenarios are not forecasts of what will happen or policy proposals of what should happen.  They are stories of what could happen.  The scenarios were not aimed at solving the problem, but of helping people get unstuck – changing the conversation, enabling new possibilities to emerge.  It is a form of learning together, experientially.

3. See yourself as part of the problem, not outside of it

Progress cannot be made until you realize you play a role as cocreator in the situation.  “If you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution.”  Kahane calls this stretch the biggest.  In conventional collaboration, we often give our attention to what other people are doing, and ask “How can I get them to ______?“  Being part of the problem is risky because it means being fully engaged in the situation with the possibility of being hurt by it; it means letting go of our familiar comfort zone.  To reinforce this point, he quips, “In a ham omelet the chicken is involved but the pig is committed.  Stretch collaboration requires us to be pigs rather than merely chickens.”

People who see themselves as part of the problem don’t waste time arguing about what other people should be doing, but focus on what they themselves can be doing differently.

 

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