We live in a volatile, uncertain and complex time. Advocating for the violent overthrow of an election and interfering in the work of Congress by armed insurrection is a criminal enterprise. Yet, the peaceful transition has occurred. This post does not address ways to engage in meaningful conversations while under duress, such as a hostage negotiation, or when someone is holding a gun to your head. This post is designed to take a quick deep dive into a concept call “stretch collaboration.”
In Collaborating with the Enemy, How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust, Adam Kahane sets out an understandable approach to meet the moment of today’s difficult conversations at the organizational, corporate, political, or geo-political level. He starts with the simple observation that we cannot keep calling everyone who doesn’t agree with us the “enemy.” We need to accept that other people are entitled to their opinions, and it is not our job or divine right to force other people to accept our world view or values.
What I gathered from this book is that when we create a safe, structured place to have a meaningful conversation, we can learn from each other and generate better options to move forward. This is still true even if we disagree on how to name the problem and even if we can’t yet see a workable resolution. The act of coming together to listen, without planning our retort or rebuttal, is a valuable experience.
It is an act of maturity to engage in a conversation without trying to convince anyone of the righteousness of their position, or worse, to make someone else feel as if their viewpoint is wrong, inferior or immoral.
Coming to a conversation with curiosity allows us to find the common thread of our humanity. We must find something to appreciate about each other, even when we disagree about important beliefs, perceptions or strategies
“Stretch Collaboration” creates an opportunity to listen to, and to learn from each other, without expectation of a particular outcome or resolution. It acknowledges that traditional “collaborations” often fail because they start with the implied assumption that we must agree on the vision, the goal, or the means to get there. This is too limiting a construct. The effort may fail as the process breaks down, people leave the conversation, or assert power over others to force a unilateral solution.
Stretch Collaboration requires three fundamental shifts when approaching conflict in complex situations:
- Shift the focus onto ourselves and how we are showing up. Embrace the complexity of holding both conflict and connection with the people we are working with. Broaden our vision beyond agreeing on “collective goals” or prioritizing the “harmony of the team”;
- Move toward experimenting with different perspectives and possibilities; allow space for disagreement about the problem, the solution or the plan so that a collective idea can emerge, or not.
- Move toward a willingness to fully engage in the conversation with new ways of listening; demonstrate a willingness to change ourselves; move away from attempting to persuade others to stop doing what they are doing or change to fit our needs, expectations or experience. Allow others the dignity of expressing their own thoughts, experiences and perceptions.
Kahane argues that in politics, at work, and at home, collaboration is both necessary and difficult. The challenge of collaboration is that in order to move forward we must work with others, including engaging with people we do not agree with or like or trust.
“Stretch collaboration is more than making a deal or an agreement. It is an ongoing and emergent process in which is it more important to act than to agree. What is crucial is to create the conditions under which participants can act freely and creatively, and in doing so create a path forward.
Success in collaborating does not mean that the participants agree with or like or trust one another: maybe they do and maybe they won’t. Success means that they are able to get unstuck and take a next step” (76).
In the Collaborative Divorce context, clients choose to engage in a process knowing that they will be heard. They put their faith into a process and their collaborative professionals (lawyers, mental health coach and financial neutral) at a time of deep inner turmoil. They cannot conceive of how their divorce will end up but they acknowledge they are stuck and need help taking the next step. They choose not to exert unilateral control because they understand that no one “wins” in a divorce. Clients choose a process that has the potential to feel more satisfying than simply adapting or going along to get along. Those days are usually over by the time a divorce arises.
When approaching a Collaborative Divorce, a stretch is to start with the assumption that there is more than one right answer. There may be multiple perspectives to consider, and maybe the only thing the clients agree on, is that their current reality is not working. That is enough.
Consider the phrase: “I’d rather be happy than right.” Kahane suggests that we often insist on being right because our identity is tied to being right. (33). This implies if we are wrong, we are of no value. Hence, we continue to argue for our positions, regardless of their merit, and regardless of whether someone else has a better idea. We need to let that kind of ego-attached thinking go; it is of no value in a Collaborative discussion about how to restructure a family in two homes.
There is no single truth, no single answer, and no single solution. We need to find a way forward where we are prepared to accept this lack of certainty, understand that our clients may not like or trust each other at this time, and create conditions where they can see a possibility of creating something different, new and workable.
The opportunity to stretch ourselves is here and now.
Can you think of a situation in which you might want to use these ideas? Are you willing to be vulnerable and try?