This 2011 think-piece teases out some thinking behind the claim that “group processes not only need skillful and effective facilitators; they also need participants or collaborators who are skilled and effective in contributing to the desired outcomes” (from the think-piece on Teaching and Learning for Reflective Practice.) It was composed by Peter as a response to a colleague skilled in facilitation and facilitation training being skeptical of the topic of a two-day workshop he was offering on “Cultivating Collaboration”—what, she asked, were the skills of a collaborator that the participants were supposed to be cultivating?
An effective collaborator draws on many skills and dispositions, such as the qualities listed later in this think-piece. A person can cultivate these skills and dispositions through participation in suitable activities and through creative habits, such as practicing what they have been introduced to, persisting even when they encounter resistance, taking stock of what they did (and did not do) and planning ways to improve. 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, at the very least that they can build a trust-full, generative group interested in personal, professional, and institutional change. Indeed, the lists provide 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 complain about the shortcomings of our team leaders and colleagues but, instead of fretting about dysfunctional groups, we can affirm the qualities in the list below in our personal sphere and (re)claim space for our own creative pursuits as preparation for a future opportunity to collaborate.
What are the skills and dispositions of a collaborator that need to be cultivated?
Another way to express this is to ask: “How do people become skilled and effective in contributing to collaborations? How do we lead others to develop their interest and skills in collaboration?” Implicit in these questions is the idea that being able to contribute to collaborations is not something that can be taken for granted. Instead, people need to learn, practice, and improve at it. “People” includes each of us. Once we get in the swing of cultivating ourselves as collaborators, we can help foster the interest of others in developing their skills.
“Cultivate” focuses attention on the process of improving as a collaborator, not on the endpoint. When we cultivate plants we know very well that there are many tasks between the end of winter and the harvest even though we have an endpoint in mind, say, a good yield of tasty tomatoes or a vibrant array of colors of zinnias.
Consider this story about playing and coaching soccer. As a player, you certainly know the goal: get the ball in the goal. You watch a number of wonderful soccer games and some woeful ones, so you know what it looks like to be a player in a good soccer team. Amazingly, the national team's coach happens to be best friends with one of your neighbors from college days and has agreed to coach a group of you in the off-season. Alas, this neighborhood team doesn't end up playing very well. It turns out that although you all know what a good team's play looks like and couldn’t ask for a better coach, you need to spend time developing your personal and interpersonal skills as soccer players. You need to get fit, to get over your fears from having been injured in the past, to practice 1-touch, 2-touch, and dribbling skills, to learn the ways that other team members tend to hold onto the ball or to slice it when passing, to get used to the various positions or zones on the field, to express your emotions with sympathetic friends after being balled out by the coach, and so on. Now, many of these skills you can practice by yourself or in small groups outside of the context of a soccer game. And, when you do get to implement them in a game, you can take stock of how it went and make plans for what to focus on in preparing for the next game.
So it is with collaborations. You may know what is supposed to happen in a good collaboration (or some person or book may tell you), but there is plenty of room to cultivate yourself as a collaborator without focusing on the specific collaborations—good or bad—you may be part of now or in the future. Moreover, just as there is plenty that soccer players can do to develop themselves without thinking about being the coach, there is plenty a collaborator can do to prepare for collaborating without imagining themselves in the role of the designated facilitator of the collaboration.
“Cultivate” is also meant to steer our thinking away from prescriptions to more individualized pathways. Just as each task in the garden could, in principle, be described and each preparation in the soccer training spelled out, we could lay out the skills to be cultivated as a collaborator. But that does not mean the end result should be the same or that we can say what path any particular person should best take. In this spirit, a workshop on “cultivating collaborators” might: get the participants acquainted with a range of tools and processes; try to make the experience one that stimulates the participants to practice and experiment with the tools and processes and to evaluate, reflect on, and learn from the experience; and convey the expectation participants build a tool kit relevant to their own personal and professional background and challenges (see think-piece on Slow Mode Co-Coaching).
List the qualities to be cultivated under four headings—Respect, Risk, Revelation, Re-engagement—of a 4Rs sequence for a workshop. (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.
To reinforce and extend the experiential learning of any workshop that aims to support the cultivating of ourselves as collaborators, participants should review each workshop 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. (As noted earlier, organizers and facilitators of any collaborative process can use these as a checklist of conditions to foster.)
Effective participants in a collaboration (or workshop, group process, etc.) draw on the skill or disposition to:
Acknowledge that participants at any session (ourselves included) always bring a lot of knowledge about the topic of the collaboration.
Bring to the surface and into play knowledge we already have about the topic.
Approach any participatory experience with a view that what we really learn is what we can integrate with our own concerns.
Listen attentively to others as commonalities and differences are brought to light.
Take an interest in points of view and work and life experiences that are distant from our own.
Suspend judgment and listen empathetically.
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).
Notice the experience of being listened to.
Hear ourselves better as a result of being heard.
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.
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:
Share knowledge we bring to the surface.
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.
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.
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.
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 from the think-piece on Journeying to Develop Critical Thinking 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.
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.
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.
Reflect on each phase—together or individually—leading to a tangible product to take into next phase.
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.
Ask for help to practice, take stock, and improve.
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 participants state in the end-of-collaboration evaluations cannot show that they will follow through on intentions to stay connected or to make shifts in their 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.)