Can You Challenge and Still Be Collaborative?

by Marcia Feola

Recently a client asked me a very interesting question, “Can you challenge someone and still be collaborative?” It’s an interesting question because it suggests these are two concepts that are mutually exclusive when in fact they can and often do, work well together. The better question might be “how?’

Collaboration usually refers to a group of people working towards a shared goal. Challenge implies confrontation, taking exception, or questioning. On the face of things these may appear to be in conflict, but in reality, they are both needed to reach good decisions or to reach a shared goal. If a leader or a group want to work well together they need to be able to have healthy dialogue which includes both collaboration and the ability to safely air differences and diverse ideas.

After working with groups and teams for many years we witnessed groups struggling with:

  1. Getting stuck
  2. Having circular conversations but not reaching a conclusion
  3. Going down rabbit holes and wasting time
  4. Revisiting decisions already made
  5. Not securing “buy in”
  6. And many more…

To assist these groups, we developed a model of a process which our clients have found helpful. The conversation model follows a natural pattern of human critical thinking. The model acts as a road map for groups to follow. It helps groups understand what the goal of the conversation is and where they are in the process.  Using the model allows participants to know where they are in any given conversation which helps them stay on track. It also has built places for challenges to be not only expressed but to be invited as a necessary component while doing it collaboratively.  Our clients have found using the model has improved their meetings and strengthened their decision-making processes.  One of our clients has even made posters of the model and has them in every conference room as a reference. Using the model has not only made meetings work better it has decreased the number of meetings!

Let’s take a look at the model which applies equally to the Organizational, Meeting and Individual level.


PowerfulWork Conversation Model

Tasks within each step:


  • The purpose of the thread/conversation is identified and confirmed with the group.
  • Time-line, process steps and roles are identified.
  • E.g. “The topic up for discussion is ‘the selection of a new recorder’”

Data/Information Gathering:

  • All facts and information relevant to the thread are shared with the entire group.
  • Presentations from outside experts and internal reports may be offered.
  • Individuals may present additional data of personal import – as long as it is thread related.
  • Opportunities to ask questions and discuss the quality and accuracy of the data.
  • E.g. “What do we know about the candidates”?


  • Surface individual responses to the data and the facts of the situation.
  • Open to feelings, thoughts and opinions.
  • Encourage individuals to speak for themselves.
  • E.g. “What do you each think and feel about the information we just heard”?


  • Group level discussion of the significance and meaning of the data and reactions for the group/organization.
  • E.g. “What significance or meaning does all this have for our organization”?


  • Brainstorm options
  • E.g. “What are the available pathways or solutions?


  • Decisions made by the group.
  • Next actions are established.
  • E.g. “Can we agree on the best candidate for the job”? Who will notify all the candidates of our decision by tomorrow”?


  • Thread and outcome are summarized.
  • Incomplete and connected relevant issues are identified and scheduled for future conversations, if necessary.
  • E.g. “After exploring all the relevant information and implications for our organization we have chosen Jane Doe as our recorder and we have identified clear next steps.  Are there any other conversations about this topic that we need to have before we leave today”?


Initially employing this or any other “new” model may slow the process down however as people become familiar with the model, the process will move faster. Be gentle with yourselves as you start to use the model. Accept that there will be bumps in the road which will smooth out with time. AND we love to hear what you have found using the model!

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