Communication Skills for Collaborative Leaders

By Rachel Davis

Why collaborate? While there are probably as many different responses to that question as there are people to answer it, one factor remains constant: we can’t separate collaboration from the “for what,” or the purpose of the endeavor. We collaborate for something bigger than what we can accomplish alone - a better world, a better environment, a better product, a more enjoyable workplace, a shorter timeline to reach our goal, or just because it’s more fun than working alone. If we could accomplish the goal (the “for what”) by ourselves, and do so quickly and easily, then we probably wouldn’t collaborate.

Collaborating for a Specific Future or Goal

I have spent the better part of the past three decades facilitating people and groups as they work together toward some improved vision of the future, and I have learned that we, as human beings, tend to begin with an erroneous assumption. We often assume that everyone in the group is oriented around the same future. This is the first mistake to avoid, as it usually results in misunderstandings and, in some cases, wasted time, energy, and money by all parties.

One of the questions I like to start meetings with is, “what do we want to accomplish (by x date)?” If it is the first meeting of a new collaboration, it is worth taking even more time for everyone to communicate their individual visions of our goal. Until a clear articulation of the “for what” future that we want to reach is clearly communicated and everyone is aligned, we can’t be sure that we are all on the same page.

In a small collaboration of two to three people, we can take turns drawing “what I hear and see on a piece of paper or small whiteboard and asking “what are you seeing” - are you seeing the same goal or approach or do you see something different? This helps get us literally on the same page and oriented toward the same (desired) future.

With larger collaborations, this process of getting on the same page and aligned on a clearly articulated future or goal can take some time. In my experience, the time invested at the front end saves significant time and energy overall.

The bigger, more complex, and more challenging the desired future or goal, the more we need collaboration and input from diverse perspectives and talents. With diversity often come differences - in perspectives, opinions, and worldviews. It is in these rich and subtle differences that we will likely come up with the best solutions in the end; however, those same differences can slip into division and even active conflict without the type of communication that consistently connects.

Communication That Connects

I have had the good fortune of working with more than 100,000 people in many different countries and cultures. What I have learned is that, even when there are radical differences in our views, there are still many things we have in common that we can build upon. In fact, in my experience, we often have 90% in common in our human experience; it is the 10% in differences that can be problematic.

"Finding our common ground and using communication to highlight those things that we have in common allows us to build a solid foundation upon which to work out the differences."

Finding our common ground and using communication to highlight those things that we have in common allows us to build a solid foundation upon which to work out the differences. There are two places where we can generally find common ground:

1) Who we are as people - we all have family (parents, children, siblings, partners, grandparents, friends), life experiences, desires, ambitions, fears, etc.

2) What we each want - a common vision, future, purpose, or goal, even if it is as broad as “to be successful” or “to be understood, heard, or valued.”

Chances are good that if we find ourselves in the same location, we actually have quite a bit in common. If/when the conversation gets heated or challenging, step back from the immediate disagreement and highlight the common ground. Building a bridge or connection across a potential divide can happen quickly if we are listening for the ways that we are connected in our purpose or connected as people.

Listening Deeply For What Matters

When we talk about communication, the default is to think of only one part of communication (usually speaking). But communication has two parts - speaking and listening. By far the most powerful of the two is listening and, specifically, what we are listening to hear.

It doesn’t really matter what you and I actually say. It matters what others hear and how they hear it. In the same way, it is how we listen that determines what we hear. If we listen to understand and appreciate the other person’s world (their perspective and experience), we will gain understanding and appreciation. Perhaps each of you will hear what you have in common, or how what one of you said was misunderstood, allowing you to re-state it in a way that is clear for both of you.

Perhaps we will even hear and see the validity of how others perceive the challenge that is facing us in reaching our collaborative goal. In our willingness to hear another person’s point of view or perspective, perhaps our view will be clarified. Perhaps the inaccurate background assumptions that we both may have made will be brought to the light, allowing us to reach a better solution together.

To work successfully in collaboration requires listening in a way that maintains or expands our relationships with those with whom we are working. This often requires holding two or more (seemingly) conflicting points of view in mind at the same time.

Self-Awareness and Ongoing Growth

We can have the idea that it’s good to be able to hold multiple viewpoints simultaneously; we may have heard someone we respect proclaim this is valuable, but unfortunately, no theories or tips from others can really help us develop the capacity to hold multiple different viewpoints. To collaborate and communicate effectively requires that something else be more important than our individual point of view.

Collaborating with others is a now activity, which requires us to be present, open, aware, and conscious. While we can’t plan ahead for this, we can be well-prepared. We can expand our own individual consciousness through self-awareness and reflection practice. We can expand and deepen our embodied experience and wisdom through listening and practice. Like any other worthwhile skill, effective communication and collaboration are only mastered with continued practice, application, and internal growth.


Leadership Expert and Author, Rachel Davis, PhD.: Drawing from academic research and her extensive 30 years of practical experience, Rachel specializes in designing programs, curricula, and approaches that create high performance environments with accountability, balance, joy, and accomplishment. www.youatthecenter.com  www.racheldavis.biz

This article appeared in Issue 1 | Winter 2015

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