Can You Challenge and Still Be Collaborative?? (Part 1)

Posted on | April 13, 2010 | No Comments

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Recently an esteemed colleague of mind asked me a very insightful question. Can you challenge someone and still be collaborative? (Hence the title of this post.)

There are a number of ways to answer this question. The short answer is yes! In this post I will give you some tips on what to do in a meeting. In another post I will help you create some context for these kinds of dilemmas and guide your thinking.

Here’s a recap of the situation my friend, Alan, encountered. Alan had been in a meeting with a colleague, Amy, who was proposing that one of their working teams could meet a particular goal with fewer resources than had been offered in the past. Alan was on board with the effort but felt that the resources needed to be higher to support the project’s success. He questioned Amy’s decision on resource allocation and cited several recent examples.

Amy eventually said that Alan wasn’t being collegial or collaborative anymore, because he was disagreeing with her. Alan was left wondering how to challenge without alienating someone.

Collaboration typically refers to the process of a group of people working together in the pursuit of a shared goal. The verb “challenging” often refers to an act of questioning or to taking exception to something. These two notions are not mutually exclusive. It’s important to explore issues thoroughly before making decisions; one process is to engage in divergent thinking before you converge or make a decision. Groups need to be able to disagree and have healthy conflict in order to work at their best. In a very real sense, to do good collaborative work together you must be able to exchange ideas, perspectives and differences in healthy ways.

In a meeting when you want to question someone and still be seen as collaborating, it’s helpful to:

1. Make your intentions clear. Before countering or questioning, especially if you feel some resistance, declare your intention. “I am in support of this (whatever it is) and I want to be sure we do this really well. My questioning or thoughts are an attempt to help us do this project really well.”
2. Make sure they see you as aiming for the same goal. Acknowledge where you agree with them or support them first. You want them to perceive you as on their team.
3. Focus on the problem or content and not the person. This is not personal. Keep the dialogue on the task or issue. Imagine it as something on the wall. “Let’s look at this question together.”
4. Ask for permission to ask questions or delve deeper. Getting another person’s verbal permission makes them responsible for engaging the conversation and makes them more open to listening.
5. Be sure you have thoroughly understood their position. Before you challenge or question, be sure they feel you have heard them. You might ask clarifying questions and then restate their position in order to be sure you are both on the same page.
6. Then ask if you might offer a different perspective in order to broaden the thinking and ensure that the project goes well. Using Alan’s example, you might say, “While I support your efforts at being more mindful of resources, I am wondering how this other data or experience might inform our decision?”

If the meeting still does not go well, you have another opportunity. You can go see the person after the meeting and ask them to debrief with you. In private, you might be able to explore the dynamics in a less threatening way. Tell the person that you are concerned about what occurred and ask when it would be a good time to talk. Many people are more comfortable with these kinds of conversations when they are in private and they have had time to reflect. In this conversation, you might ask them how they would like to be approached in the future when you have questions or concerns.

Remember, too, that you can only control how you are behaving. You can only make your intentions clear and offer to modify your approach if that would help. The other person has to take responsibility for how they receive you.

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