Communication for successful collaboration – much more than a platform...
Good communication is a core skill for working with others collaboratively. This is true whether you are a collaborator or whether you help others to collaborate. Simply put, it helps establish, build and sustain effective relationships and unlock the full potential of working in a collaborative way. So, what does 'good' communication for collaboration look like?
To work together well and achieve a more impactful outcome, there are four key areas of communication that will make the difference:
1. Be open
When looking for a collaborator it is common to believe that they will be more receptive to an idea that has already been fairly worked-up so that an approach does not appear too general or vague. Whether intended or not, this can have the effect of putting them off from exploring the idea further as it may look like there's no room to modify the core objectives, shape the approach or work with you to develop different ideas.
The potential collaborator has a huge amount to offer at all stages of a project, from inception, ideas generation, routes to funding, potential audiences etc. – not just implementation.
So, an open approach means speaking to potential collaborators early, showing that you value their input, that ideas are not fixed, but that you think they might want to collaborate around a given issue / to achieve a specific outcome because it's something you share. Remaining open to new ideas / ways of doing things will help sustain and grow the relationship throughout and beyond this collaboration.
2. Be transparent
Being transparent on a number of different levels is important. Sometimes there are specific constraints or drivers that limit what's possible. It's OK to frame an approach in that way, but you can do this whilst remaining open as the potential collaborator needs to know that they will have some influence.
Explaining your motivations and understanding the drivers of others is an important early step. If you are looking instead to build a team to achieve a specific outcome which is already fairly fixed, then that's fine too – but you should be clear.
Transparency is important throughout the process. Not just among the collaborators themselves, but with other stakeholders and enablers. It is useful to establish who these are and what level of involvement is appropriate for the project and would be welcomed by the stakeholder. In this way you manage expectations, build in opportunities for review / feedback, and increase the likelihood that intended outcomes will happen.
Challenging feels risky and potentially damaging to a relationship. But it needn't be. Being able to challenge and establishing permission to challenge are necessary for working in a collaborative way.
Collaboration is not about achieving consensus. It is about people who have a shared goal working together to finding solutions to issues using diverse perspectives. Inevitably there will be some differences of opinion. But when working collaboratively all are equal, so different points of view from alternative perspectives need to be able to be raised. Challenge need not be confrontational. By establishing and agreeing some clear principles at the outset, voicing challenge and working through the potential consequences of that enables the best outcomes to be achieved.
4. Be receptive
With openness, transparency and challenge, we all need to be prepared to to move from one idea to another, follow a different path, and accept and work through challenge to achieve the shared outcome. Reflective listening and inviting feedback will help in this.
'Reflective listening' is hearing and understanding someone then letting them know that they are being heard and understood. It is a powerful way to build a strong relationship and will encourage collaborators to share new ideas with you in the future as you have created a 'safe space' for exploration.
One way to make feedback part of the culture of collaboration is to model the behaviour by giving and asking for feedback regularly. Make sure that the occasions are meaningful, generally informal, and close in time to the subject of the feedback. This is not about waiting to give comments on a draft, it's about finding out what others think about aspects of the collaboration that can inform the next step, e.g. a new idea to test.
Collaboration means you're not in it alone. And good communication helps make working collaboratively easier and develops and strengthens relationships. The next blog looks at other ways to support collaboration and develop collaborative practice – by making the most of your networks.