When Collaboration Gets Hard

by Miki Kashtan

Collaboration, like empathy, is something we hear about more and more as a general abstract good, and yet are given so little by way of the how. What happens as a result is that we try to collaborate without knowing how, or we don’t even try because we are too consumed with fear, overwhelm, or outright judgment.

Collaboration is the purest antidote to either/or thinking because it rests on the faith that, in addition to a solution that works for all involved being possible, it is also potentially better. The biggest obstacle to collaboration is whatever commitment we continue to maintain to seeing our own needs as separate or even opposed to what someone else wants, even if we philosophically believe in collaboration. This is part of why I am so often suspicious when parents talk about “cooperation” as a need – it’s too easy for that to mean “getting my child to do what I want.”

When collaboration is challenging, often enough the form that this residual commitment takes shows up as speaking in the name of fairness. Two stories will hopefully illustrate this profound challenge.

The Supplier who Didn’t Provide

A manager in a company somewhere in Europe, let’s call her Agnes, paid a supplier to prepare a detailed proposal for a complex project. It took him much longer than he had estimated, and, when the proposal arrived, it didn’t have anywhere near as much information as Agnes needed. When confronted, all the supplier said was that he was really sorry, and wasn’t going to be available for another month. Meanwhile, the project was on schedule to start, decisions were waiting for this proposal, and Agnes was beside herself with frustration.

In our habitual ways of thinking, this supplier is at fault, and the “fair” solution is to coerce him, one way or another, to provide the necessary information. Before talking with me, Agnes had tried this path. Her emails to the provider remained unanswered. What could she do instead, she wondered?

Collaboration is not a moral imperative; it’s a practical reality, and often enough it’s the moral corner we paint ourselves into that interferes. In this case, Agnes harbored a host of judgments of the supplier, all of which buttressed her opinion that it was only fair that he should correct the error immediately. As tempting as such notions are, as common and overpowering, they only point to coercion as a solution. If we have the power, we then impose the results we want, almost invariably at cost to the other person. If we don’t, we feel helpless and resentful. This rarely attends to the issues at hand in a truly satisfying way. Agnes saw that, and committed to doing the inner work necessary to transform her judgments into deep self-connection based on understanding and embracing her own needs. Initially, her primary needs in her relationship with this supplier that came to her mind were those for support, reliable flow, and clarity, though she knew there was more to it, and that she would need to take some time and care to make full contact with those needs, not only name them. Moreover, full self-connection would also require her to open her heart to what might be the needs of the supplier that might have led him to provide such a different proposal from what she had expected: perhaps his needs might have been for ease, for receiving clearer instructions, for respect of his expertise, or for something quite different.

Collaboration is a very exacting discipline, and rests on only one uncompromising commitment: to attend to both parties’ needs. In very short order we learned what the obstacle was for Agnes, as is true for many others: collaboration appeared to her to mean giving up on her needs. Like most of us, she didn’t grow up with viable models of such a commitment. Instead, the either/or framework meant that taking on his needs could only spell giving up on her own. Given that she didn’t want to give up on her own needs, she struggled mightily to accept the commitment to making it work for both of them, to even see what it would truly look like to do so.

The practical application of collaboration, especially the shift from tug of war to aiming for mutually beneficial solutions, invariably involves dialogue. Dialogue, in this case, would mean that she would invite the supplier into a conversation about how to address the impasse (see Holding Dilemmas Together in the Workplace) instead of still, somehow, assuming that the only possible outcome is that he would do something different. As is often the case, this is all I heard of this story. People talk with me when issues arise, and I walk them through embracing a different approach. I rarely then hear back to know what the outcome was. When I did the work with Agnes I didn’t think I would write about it, and now I don’t know any longer how I could find her to ask her about it. I can only hope that Agnes found a way to the supplier’s heart, because it’s the only way that he would be open to working with her. Dialogue is about trusting our own and the other person’s generosity to finally prevail, and what that looks like cannot be pre-defined.

The Ex-Husband who Didn’t Pay Child Support

The intensity of what’s needed when we lack the illusion that we can create the outcome we want for ourselves through force came home even more strongly when I talked with Peter, who is in a relationship with a woman who now has close to full custody of her children, for whose support the ex-husband is not paying.

I confess to having some delight in choosing two stories where I can pretty much count on those reading this blog immediately taking the side of the person I spoke with. Who would not be automatically outraged at the ex-husband? Who would manage to fully release any belief that it is simply the only viable, fair, solution for him to just pay? Who would not understand Peter’s anguish? The delight is because such an intense identification provides a great opportunity to see the depth of our ways of thinking, and to move towards more freedom and more love.

For myself, I might not choose to be friends with the man who is not paying child support in this case, and it might be challenging for me if he were in my life because of the entanglement I would have with him. Nonetheless, in actual meetings with people, in mediations and when I facilitate groups and watch very challenging behaviors, I have no difficulty finding compassion for and interest in the well being of all who are there. This ex-husband is no exception.

Peter, profoundly committed to the path of nonviolence, persisted in wanting to know just what he could do to move toward a different solution. How could he come to a place of letting go of his attachment to the one and only one outcome that he could see? Such attachment, as he clearly saw, was another obstacle on the way to dialogue and collaboration. How to overcome it? The most direct and difficult path, which he took it upon himself to pursue before approaching the ex-husband, is to concretely imagine that the situation he is so desperate to change will never change. We are amazingly masterful at denying that possibility. We engage in magical thinking that somehow imagines that our unwillingness to accept a certain possible outcome is the same as that outcome not happening. Although I don’t know the specifics of the situation, I understood from the conversation that either there was no legal way of forcing the ex-husband to pay child support, or that Peter or the mother didn’t want to pursue it. Based on this, it was clear that, if there is going to be any money coming from this man, it would only come through connection that will tap into his heart and unleash his goodwill.

The invitation to dialogue could start with Peter acknowledging to the ex-husband that he has been harboring some judgment and keeping distance, and that he is now believing himself to be ready to be in true conversation to see what is a way to make things work for all of them and the children. Of course this can only happen after Peter has done the work of letting go of the attachment to outcome, so that he can make himself open to being affected by the dialogue, so that he can come to the conversation in willingness to embrace the true unknown, remaining open to the possibility that he would willingly accept a different outcome from any that he can now see based on connecting with everyone’s needs.

And why would the ex-husband want to join the dialogue, was Peter’s last obstacle. He still believed that somehow the situation was working for the ex-husband, and that he would therefore lack motivation for participation. This is often the case when someone has certain powers in relation to us: we cannot force them to the table. In certain circumstances, we can find others to be in community and action with, and engage in nonviolent resistance. Along with many other things that nonviolent resistance aims at accomplishing, such as changing laws or expelling a foreign occupier, it is, in part a complement to dialogue, a way to create the conditions that would make dialogue more appealing, rather than being divorced from dialogue.

Often enough, we cannot generate sufficient resources to engage in nonviolent resistance, and then we can either let go of creating change, so we can genuinely accept the reality we don’t like, or we can invite the other person to dialogue, knowing full well that they may refuse. In doing so, Peter can remember that there is at least one powerful motivator for the ex-husband to choose dialogue: it’s, perhaps, his only way to find respite from the pervasive and uncomfortable energy of disapproval and hatred that he no doubt has been receiving from Peter for some time. My faith, one of the reasons I am often called naïve, is that it’s quite rare for a situation to truly work for someone when it’s at the expense of others, because the cost to the others becomes a cost to the person who appears to benefit, even if the dots are not fully connected.

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