Effective collaborators: Structural conditions vs. personal development

An exchange with a colleague leads me to note a contrasting “structural” approach on the issue of effective collaborators to the one presented in a recent series of posts, where I noted:

An effective collaborator draws on many skills and dispositions [listed in the posts].  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. 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.

In contrast, a facilitator could create the conditions (or rules or structure or process) for collaboration, which facilitates participants being more collaborative without asking them to change their behavior—or having to draw explicit attention to the cultivation of collaborators.  There is a “which comes first, chicken or egg?” aspect to this, given that rules or structure or process work better when there are at least some participants who already have developed the skills and dispositions I list.  At the same time, one way to cultivate those skills and dispositions is through well-facilitated demonstration or real-life activities.

Nevertheless, people who write books on group process and facilitation, e.g., Senge et al. 5th Discipline Fieldbook, do not give much emphasis to the cultivation of collaborators.  Most weight is put on creating the conditions for collaboration among whoever signs up for or is roped into the group process a facilitator is leading.  (Readers should point me to works that disturb this assertion of mine.)  If a facilitator has confidence in handling all-comers, then it is simpler to set a small set of guiding themes, such as balance advocacy with inquiry, or start from concrete observables and don’t climb quickly up the ladder of inference.  My longer listing of skills and dispositions of effective collaborators would then seem unnecessarily complicated.  Let me just say, however, that I want some more eggs with my chickens.


Effective collaborators: Skills and dispositions (Re-engagement)

Re-engagement— 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.)
[See Introduction to this series of posts.]

Effective collaborators: Skills and dispositions (Revelation)

Revelation—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.
  • 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.

[See Introduction to this series of posts.]

Effective collaborators: Skills and dispositions (Risk)

Risk—Respect creates a space with enough safety for participants to take risks of various kinds. In particular, we:

  • speak personally.
  • 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.)

[See Introduction to this series of posts.]

Effective collaborators: Skills and dispositions (Respect)

Respect—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 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.
  • bring to the surface and into play knowledge we already have about the topic of any meeting or session.
  • 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.

[See Introduction to this series of posts.]

Effective collaborators: Skills and dispositions

An effective collaborator draws on many skills and dispositions, such as the qualities listed in the posts to follow. 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. 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 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.

[These posts arose after teaching a two-day workshop on “Cultivating Collaboration” as part of a graduate course on “Creative Thinking, Collaboration, and Organizational Change.  A colleague asked me to make explicit the skills of a collaborator that the students were supposed to be cultivating.  In future years I plan not only to provide students with my list of skills and dispositions, but also make clear the following:  The activities of the workshop lead 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 students should:

  • 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;
  • 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.]

Journeying to develop critical thinking 2: Critical thinking as journeying

A few years ago I taught for the first time a general course on critical thinking. The students were mostly mid-career teachers and other professionals. This was also the occasion of my first telling the place in space story and running the re-seeing activity. Some of the students construed the story as a science lesson; evidently, I had to clarify the delivery and message. Later in the semester I had a chance to do this when we revisited the activity to practice lesson-plan remodeling. What emerged from the class discussion was that it mattered little to me whether students understood my weightlessness explanation. I only wanted them to puzzle over the general conundrum of how questions that retrospectively seem obvious ever occured to them and to consider their susceptibility to recurrent reconceptualizations. During this clarification process the image occurred to me that when one’s development as a critical thinker is like a personal journey into unfamiliar or unknown areas. Both involve risk, open up questions, create more experiences than can be integrated at first sight, require support, yields personal change, and so on. This journeying metaphor differs markedly from the conventional philosophical view of critical thinking as scrutinizing the reasoning, assumptions, and evidence behind claims (Ennis 1987, Anon, n.d.). Instead of the usual connotations of “critical” with judgement and finding fault according to some standards (Williams 1983, 84ff), journeying draws attention to the inter- and intra-personal dimensions of people developing their thinking.

In retrospect, the immediate impetus for my re-seeing critical thinking as journeying seemed to have been the “life-course” of students during that fifteen-week semester. Early in the course many students expressed dependency on my co-instructor and me: “Aren’t small group discussions an exercise in ‘mutually shared ignorance’?” “Could the class be smaller?—we want more direct interaction with you.” “I was never taught this at college—I’m not a critical thinking kind of person.” Some students were uncomfortable with dialogues their two instructors would have in front of the class in order to expose tensions among different perspectives. They asked for clear definitions of and procedures for critical thinking and for particular assignments and activities. Their anxieties were most evident when they looked ahead to a new end-of-semester “manifesto” assignment, in which we asked for “a synthesis of elements from the course selected and organized so as to inspire and inform your efforts in extending critical thinking beyond the course.” We responded to students’ concerns with some mini-lectures, handouts, and a sample manifesto. Yet we also persisted in conducting activities, promoting journaling, and assigning thought-pieces through which students might develop their own working approaches to critical thinking. By mid-semester students who had been quiet or lacked confidence in their critical-thinking abilities started to articulate connections with their work as teachers and professionals.

We had reassured those who worried about the manifesto assignment that they would have something to say, but we were surprised by how true that turned out to be. For example, the student who was not the “critical thinking kind” began her manifesto with perceptive advice:

“If there is one basic rule to critical thinking that I, as a novice, have learned it is
She continued: “Don’t be afraid to ask questions and test ideas, ponder and wonder… Don’t be afraid to have a voice and use it!… Don’t be afraid to consider other perspectives… Don’t be afraid to utilize help…” She finished, “Above all, approach life as an explorer looking to capture all the information possible about the well known, little known and unknown and keep an open mind to what you uncover.” Another student wrote a long letter to her seven year old: “To give you a few words of advice, yes, but mostly to remind me of what I believe I should practice in order to assist you with your growth.” These manifestos displayed admirable self-awareness. To arrive there the students had taken risks and opened up questions, had experienced more than they were able at first to integrate and had sought support, and ended up seeing themselves differently (Taylor 2001a).

In retrospect, the students’ confidence had begun to rise during classes involving various approaches to empathy and listening (Elbow 1986, Gallo 1994, Ross 1994, Stanfield 1997). I suspect that listening well helps students tease out alternative views. Without alternatives in mind, it is difficult to motivate and undertake scrutiny of one’s own evidence, assumptions, and logic, or of those of others. Being listened to seems to help students access their intelligence (in a broad sense of the term)—to bring to the surface, reevaluate, and articulate things they already know in some sense (Weissglass 1990). The resulting knowledge seems all the more powerful because it is not externally dictated (Friere 1970, Weissglass 1990). These are conjectures—I look forward to opportunities for more systematic exploration of the ways different people experience listening and being listened to in relation to their critical thinking.

(The third in a series of posts; see first post.)

%d bloggers like this: