Thursday, February 1, 2018

To Collaborate, Really Listen

To collaborate literally means to work (labor) together (co-). It presupposes a mutuality, a togetherness, camaraderie, even friendliness.

Such equality and mutual concern is far from automatically the case among people and animals. Among higher animals the pecking order of dominance and submission is more often the order of the day. Similarly with people: in a hierarchical structure to coöperate with the boss is to do her or his bidding — you submit to your "superior's" dominant behaviour. And similarly, in such a set-up, you can expect your subordinates to follow your commands. Kiss up; kick down.

But this is a terribly ineffective (and unsatisfying) way to do knowledge work. Creative work benefits hugely from collaboration — the jazz approach of bouncing ideas off each other — where my half-formed and impractical idea is sometimes exactly what is needed to trigger a key advance by a colleague. Where in an unsafe environment I wouldn't volunteer an unfinished idea for fear of ridicule and loss of reputation, in a collaborative environment the collective genius and emotional support of the group comes in to play, and it is a magnificent and powerful presence!

In today's (and perhaps tomorrow's) workplace we have a mixture of preferred individual approaches: while many people are keen to collaborate there are undeniably rewards for successful application of dominant behaviour. Also, in the presence of strong competition many will learn the virtues of alternative strategies: avoiding conflict, doing what they are told (accommodating), or treating interaction as negotiation (compromising). For the ambitious, the game becomes one of picking your battles, and judiciously applying the alternative strategies when the fight is too hard or not worth it.

People habituated to these alternative forms of interaction will typically find true collaboration very different, and challenging.

To be clear:
  • To dominate is to seek the win-loss (Fight)
  • To compromise is to aim for 50-50 (Negotiate)
  • To accommodate or submit is to take the loss and give up the win (Surrender)
  • To avoid is to walk away (Flee)
  • To truly collaborate is to go after the win-wins ("Let's Dance")

[This decomposition is based on the Thomas-Killman conflict modes.]

If you have a bunch of people who all genuinely want to collaborate, you're more than half-way there. But commonly, and increasingly so in larger groups, you will find that some will start to play another game. If suitably triggered, despite your noble intentions, you may also find that you are the one who seeks to dominate, or is intimidated enough to submit, or misses the relevance and walks away.

In short, before you can effectively collaborate, a group will need to be in a state where collaboration is feasible. Perhaps the group will need to traverse the Tuckman steps — forming, storming, norming, and finally performing (i.e effectively collaborating) — and that takes time.

A great first step is to listen. Where is everyone at? What are they saying? What does their body language tell you? How do they relate to you, and to each other? This is vital information that can help you chart your way towards a more collaborative atmosphere, rather than flying blind and getting frustrated when not everyone plays ball. A bonus aspect is that when people feel heard they will typically be more positively disposed to you.

What not to do: Predatory listening

Predatory listening is an evocative phrase describing behaviours that do not reflect the requisite mutuality for collaboration. The listener waits to pounce on the speaker when they slip up, appears nervous, or expresses any form of weakness or vulnerability. It is a means of establishing dominance, or at least undermining others.

Instead of engaging in predatory listening, those who truly seek to collaborate listen for understanding and empathy.

Even if you vehemently disagree with the speaker, try to understand and empathise. Then, instead of attacking, it becomes possible to respond by paraphrasing their position and discussing alternative viewpoints and trade-offs. If you've been prepared to really listen, reciprocity often kicks in spontaneously, and if not one can say words to the effect of, "I listened to you and did my best to understand your point of view. Could you please now extend me the same courtesy?"

Key points

  1. Collaboration involves working together to go for the win-win
  2. It can be undermined consciously or unconsciously by dominance (especially), but also submission, avoidance, and premature compromise.
  3. Listening, observing body language, and how potential collaborators relate will help you to steer a path towards effective collaboration.
  4. Predatory listening is a particularly destructive behaviour. Don't do it, watch out for it, and learn how to combat it without getting into a battle for dominance with the practitioner.


By paying close attention to the different non-collaborative forms of interaction that you and others engage in you can better prepare for collaboration and creating collaboration-friendly spaces. 

What's next?

In a future post I'll delve further into diffusing and re-directing inappropriate dominance.

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