Somatics of Collaboration: reading for the Collaboration Clinic
Collaboration is defined as "one or more people or organizations working together to achieve a common goal." Initially, this seems straightforward. People who want to work toward a common goal get together and design the actions to get to the result. In reality, however, there are many times when "working together" does not go as well as we expect. In this article I will explore some of the necessary requirements of successful collaboration, focusing on the embodiment of these requirements and suggested practices for improving collaborative skills. The process of collaboration is what happens when people work together towards the accomplishment of a project, goal, or artistic endeavor. Why would we want to work this way, instead of doing it all ourselves? Advantages of working collaboratively include sharing knowledge, increased learning, obtaining greater resources, recognition, and reward. Structured methods of collaboration encourage introspection of behavior and communication, aiming to increase the success of teams as they engage in collaborative problem solving, innovation, and creative results. Even Darwin, who is known for his theory of survival of the fittest, argued that cooperation and collaboration evolved as an evolutionary advantage.
So what does successful collaboration require?
The first critical requirement is trust. Trust allows us to be open to others' suggestions and actions. What are we trusting? We trust that our colleagues are competent in the skills to perform the project we are working on together. We trust that they are reliable to deliver on time, and that they are also open to our contributions and helping with breakdowns. We trust them to tell us when our actions are not up to the standards of the team, i.e., giving constructive feedback. To grant trust requires that we have positive assessments of our team members in these areas, and we see them as open, available, and having enough self-esteem to be able to listen to others without falling into ego driven agendas of their own. How does this show up in someone's body? A body that can be trusted is grounded (literally, on the ground, connected to the earth and present to the current reality), standing tall in what's important to them, clear about what they care about, yet flexible (not stiff or rigid) and able to be moved emotionally and physically by someone else's passion, commitment and ideas.
Think of the analogy of ballroom dancing or boxing. Although the game the couples are playing are very different (one has the result of a graceful interpretation of rhythm and music, the other has the result of graceful rhythm and footwork to defeat an opponent), both are connected to each other in a way that is riveting to watch when done well. And the felt experience of a beautiful dance is exhilarating, as is an expert boxing match. The same happens with successful collaboration. The result is always more than one could have achieved alone.
In addition to sharing a common purpose and result for the project at hand, successful collaboration also requires establishing interdependencies, supporting other team members' success (including offering and asking for help, often skills that need development as well), clear communication, candid feedback (both acknowledgement and correction), smooth handoffs, and coaching where appropriate.
A team that collaborates well has a mood of ambition and optimism about accomplishing the team's mission. If one or more of the team members fall into a negative mood, it requires skill from the other team members, or team leader (depending on how mature the skills of the team members are) to explore the missing conversations that are in the background and unspoken. The automatic moods that we find ourselves in may come from our history, or from the environment that we are working in. And moods have a shape that shows up in our bodies. For example, think of a time that you were resentful. How were you sitting or standing? Now think of a time you felt completely optimistic and ambitious. What was the shape or posture of your body in that mood? Observing these differences and accepting what we observe is the first step to helping others and ourselves improve our collaborative skills.
Our ability to be skillful with all the moves of successful collaboration lies in the structure of our bodies, since it is through our body that we express our beliefs, move towards or away from conversations that are difficult or missing, take action or not, open to opportunities, or close down to others. Once we can objectively observe and recognize the limitations we find ourselves in, it is possible to design practices to shift the inhibiting structures, to give us the freedom to make the moves that lead us to success.
Our bodies are shaped by our life experience. In our formative early years, much of this shaping takes place in response to our parents and other family members or close friends who may have an influence on the family dynamic. In addition, the environment we grow up in, the organizational structures we've been part of, and our cultural backgrounds, in other words, our entire history, has shaped us to be who we are today.
A simple example of the phenomenon of shaping (or "armoring" in the model developed by Wilhelm Reich, a student of Freud's) occurs when an impulse is stopped at the muscular level. A child naturally cries when sad, however a child who is punished for crying will often find a way to inhibit the natural behavior. Through trial and error, the child my tense the muscles of the eyes and face, stop breathing, pull the chin into the neck, or whatever else might work to halt the tears. When a child is repeatedly admonished for crying, the inhibiting behavior becomes learned and integrated into the child's way of being. It becomes habitual and unconscious to contract the muscles that help stop the tears, and the child no longer notices they are doing anything different. After years of this inhibiting behavior, the body takes the shape of the constricted musculature, often at a cost of freedom of choice in later years when the grown person is sad or grieving.
For many of us growing up in Western I-can-do-it-myself culture, learning to learn alone, work alone, face challenges alone, collaboration is new and even uncomfortable. We have learned to be "lone rangers" with all the qualities that characterization implies: distrust of others, silence instead of open communication, need to know, etc.
So what can we do if we want to be better at collaborating? The first step is awareness of our skill level through an honest self-assessment. Here are some guidelines, developed in collaboration with Julie Ann McClain and Charlotte Maure:
Beginners have themselves as a priority
- to express their own opinion
- hold a view of win/lose in conflict
- not validate other views
- to state opinion as fact
- to dismiss or criticize others
- hold the belief that I can do it best myself/my way
- interrupt others to make a point
- automatic internal conversations diminish or demean others ("I'm right, they are wrong")
- listen to others without pre-judgment
- can stop themselves in the middle of "yeah-but" and listen
- voice differences with respect
- raise points/concerns without accusations
- take calm-down breaks when conversations get heated
- have the ability to observe own triggering and can self-correct by centering
- can identify differences in standards and values and re-frame discussions appropriately
- work to resolve breakdowns in collaboration consistent with own and team's values
- proactively resolve differences and difficulties when conflict arises, offering apologies for personal and group moves that are not skillful
- express opinions and participate regularly
- can adapt to diverse cultural, age, and gender backgrounds
- are inclusive when others are unskillful
- in stressful conditions, exemplify and model
o deep listening
o validation of others' views
o solution through shared values, standards, and mission
o yes, and...
Where do you see your competence level? Remember to observe yourself in situations where collaboration with others is an option, and could even lead to working collaboratively on a project. How does your body perform? Are you able to stay open to others' ideas and contributions? Are your commitments for the fulfillment of the project dependent on the work others are doing, and are your results going to others for their next steps? Can you hear and act on constructive feedback? And are you providing both acknowledgement and constructive feedback easily to your fellow team members?
Once you have some awareness of your or your team's capacity for collaboration, how can you measure your body's ability to move well with others? The "two-step" practice with a partner provides a way for you to feel and observe what happens when you are moving with another person. The four-person two-step reveals what happens with a more complex series of easy, but revealing moves when two pairs alternate doing the two-step, alternating which pair moves through the center of the pattern. This practice is more easily seen than explained, and can be viewed through a link I will be happy to send to you, if you email me. The two step and four-person two step are also demonstrated and practiced in the Collaborative Skills Clinic, developed by Julie Ann McClain and myself.
As you practice with your partner and your team, what does your body do naturally? Where do you pull back or move forward? Are there moments where you feel awkward, hesitate, or lose balance? As you observe yourself and your team, does your assessment about your expertise as a collaborator change? We may understand the concepts, but our competence to perform may not match our understanding. This is where somatic training can help us improve.
When you've completed your self-assessment and practiced to reveal even more about your ability to collaborate, you can identify the gap between where you (or your team) are on the scale, and where you want to be. From there, the actions are to practice, practice, practice, give feedback to each other, and practice some more.
In addition to the two-step practice with a partner, and in groups of 4, what are other basic practices to open one's body to greater trust and other competencies required for collaboration? Basic somatic practices of body scanning, full torso breathing, centering, dropping awareness into one's own body then extending to others, connecting to ground, grounded in what we as individuals and as a team care about and opening to connect from center before stepping into coordination/collaboration are all practices that will increase collaborative competence. These practices are described in detail in my book, Listening to Bodies Long Distance: A Somatic Primer for Coaches, Managers, and Executives, and will also be demonstrated and practiced in the Collaborative Skills Clinic.