Effective collaborators: Skills and dispositions
An effective collaborator draws on many skills and dispositions, such as the qualities listed below. We can cultivate these skills and dispositions through participation in suitable activities and through creative habits, such as always taking stock of what we did (and did not do) and planning ways to improve.1
Participants who cultivate themselves as collaborators can bring their skills and dispositions to any collaboration (or workshop, group process, etc.) they get involved in. To the extent that participants in a collaboration have been cultivating themselves as collaborators, the people organizing or facilitating the collaboration can expect their efforts to be more fruitful.
(Indeed, the list below provides not only a checklist of qualities for cultivating collaborators, but also a checklist of conditions for organizers and facilitators to foster when running a collaborative process. Of course, we all find ourselves in some groups or teams where these conditions are not fostered. It is easy to fret over the shortcomings of our team leaders and colleagues. However, an antidote to fretting is for us to affirm the qualities below in our personal
sphere and, more generally, to (re)claim space for our own creative pursuits.)
The list groups the qualities under four headings—Respect, Risk, Revelation, Re-engagement. (Note: An item under one heading may well contribute to the other headings.) The thinking behind these headings is, in brief, that a well-facilitated collaborative process keeps us listening actively to each other, fostering mutual Respect that allows Risks to be taken, elicits more insights than any one person came in with (Revelation), and engages us in carrying out and carrying on the plans we develop (Re-engagement). What we come out with is very likely to be larger and more durable than what any one person came in with; the more so, the more voices that are brought out by the process.
—Effective participants in a collaboration (or workshop, groups process, etc.) draw on the skill or disposition to:
- listen attentively to others as commonalities and differences are brought to light2.
- take an interest in points of view and work and life experiences that are distant from our own.3
- suspend judgment and listen empathetically.4
- have repeated exchanges that are meaningful and generative with participants who differ from us (which is enhanced by small size and mixed composition of the collaboration).5
- notice the experience of being listened to.
- hear ourselves better as a result of being heard.6
- bring to the surface and into play knowledge we already have about the topic of any meeting or session.7
- recognize that there is insight in every response—there are no wrong answers.
- recognize that each participant, regardless of background or previous experience has something valuable to contribute to the process and outcomes—we need everyone's insight for the wisest result.8
- develop relationships that will enable us to keep getting help and support when the collaboration is over.
- find opportunities to affirm what is working well.
In all these ways, Respect is not simply stated as a ground rule, but is enacted.
Respect creates a space with enough safety for participants to take risks of various kinds. In particular, we:
- speak personally.9
- share knowledge we bring to the surface.10
- get to know more about each others' not-yet-stable aspects.
- share the experience of being unsure, but excitable and open to learn and to change.
- make use of opportunities to reveal and remark upon oneself.11
- view the collaboration as a journey into unknown areas or allowing us to see familiar areas in a fresh light. (A journey involves risk; requires support; creates more experiences than can be integrated at first sight; yields personal changes.)
- ask for help and support during the collaboration.12
- participate—perhaps quite playfully—during unfamiliar processes.
- are open to surprises and spontaneous insights emerging from interactions among people who were strangers beforehand.
- expose our ideas and questions in one-on-one interaction with participants who have more experience and formal status.13
- allow ourselves to probe conclusions we began with.
- accept uncertainty and instability—"What exactly is going to happen? What should I be doing?"—as the collaboration unfolds (even without an explicit agreement on where we are headed and without certainty about how to achieve desired outcomes).
- stay in there when the process seems rough—not stepping back into the role of critic or consumer.
(In all these aspects of risk-taking, collaborations benefit from the participation of "veterans" who have participated in collaborations conducted along similar lines.)
—A space is created by respect and risk in which participants bring thoughts and feelings to the surface so as to articulate, clarify and complicate our ideas, relationships, and aspirations—in short, our identities. (Recall the principle that we know more than we are, at first, prepared to acknowledge.) Our own self-understandings are extended when we are respectful partners with others in the risky business of self-exploration. In this spirit, we:
- do not fill up quiet spaces that occur.
- take time to reflect on and digest our experiences.
- gain insight into our present place and direction by hearing what we happen to mention and omit in telling our own stories.
- bring to the surface knowledge that we were not able, at first, to acknowledge.
- "re-mark" the various ways we understand ourselves, others, and the world, together with the understandings and expectations—some welcome, some not—that are pressed back upon us.
- integrate experience from the collaboration with our own concerns.
- make our entire thought process visible, including tacit assumptions.
- invite others to add new dimensions to what we are thinking.
- strive to find ways to make un(der)expressed voices articulate.
- examine decisions we had made in advance about what the other people are like, what they are and are not capable of.
- take notice of who exposes their ideas and questions in one-on-one interaction with us.14
- limit advocacy—making a statement—in favor of inquiry—seeking clarifications and deeper understanding; we do not impose our opinion or use questions to expose weakness.15
- generate new possibilities for knowing and being through activities that bring participants into revelatory relationships, that is, actively implicated us in one another's revelations.16
- reflect on each phase—together or individually—leading to a tangible product to take into next phase.17
Respect, risk, and revelation combine so that participants' gears are re-engaged (to use a machine metaphor), allowing us to mobilize and sustain quite a high level of energy during the collaboration. But re-engagement goes beyond an individual's enhanced enthusiasm. It is a collective or emergent result of the activities that bring people who have generative differences into meaningful interactions that can catalyze transformations. In other words, meaningful social engagement and opportunities for personal introspection contribute to participants discovering new possibilities for work with others on ideas they brought to the collaboration.
- inquire further on the issues that arise in our own projects.
- select and focus on a subset of the specific plans or knowledge generated during the collaboration in our subsequent work.
- engage actively with others.
- inquire further into how we can support the work of others.
- are reminded of our aspirations to work in supportive communities.
- make the experiences of the collaboration a basis for subsequent efforts to cultivate collaborators.
- arrange to assist or apprentice with the facilitator in a future collaboration.
(Of course, what we state in the end-of-collaboration evaluations cannot show that we will follow through on intentions to stay connected or to make shifts in our own projects and work relations. A need or desire for periodic re-charging of our ideas and intentions is evident when past participants return to subsequent collaborations.)
1. In this spirit, the activities of workshop 2 led participants into using some tools and processes, making connections with each other, and formulating contributions to the topic of cultivating ourselves as collaborators. To reinforce and extend this experiential learning
- review each activity to identify which of the listed collaborator skills and dispositions applied to the activity and to identify possibilities for further cultivation of these qualities. (Footnotes provide examples of activities that fostered the qualities in the list);
- read the supporting material on each tool or process so the design and goals of each activity could be appreciated and perhaps replicated;
- build on the two steps above to formulate more systematic plans for practice and evaluation with an eye to improvement.
2. Autobiographical introductions, Taking a turn responding to a common reading
3. Autobiographical introductions
4. Dialogue process
5. Go arounds
6. Dialogue process
7. Freewriting; Daily writing
8. Identifying of themes from Autobiographical introductions, Roles for small group work, Every person having the role of synthesizing in small group work
9. Initial hopes, Check-in, Autobiographical introductions
10. Taking a turn responding to a common reading
11. Dialogue process, Check-ins
12. Office Hours
13. Office Hours
14. Office hours
15. Dialogue process
16. Future Ideal Retrospective
17. Critical Incident Questionnaire, Closing circle plus-delta