One of the observations that prompted me to write Collaborating with the Enemy was that the dynamics of collaboration in the large, extraordinary, political contexts I work in seem essentially the same as those in my small, ordinary, personal contexts—in the organisations and communities and families I am part of. In both realms I have observed (amongst other phenomena) painful and dangerous patterns of fragmentation, polarisation, and enemyfying, and frequent exclamations of “I could never work with those people.”
But what continues to surprise me in this similarity is that collaborating in our smaller contexts often feels more daunting than in larger ones. We think that we ought to be able to easily handle such challenges in our “normal” daily lives, and this assumption trips us up. In his delightful novel The Course of Love, Alain de Botton writes, “We allow for complexity, and therefore make accommodations for disagreement and its patient resolution, in most of the big areas of life: international trade, immigration, oncology. But when it comes to domestic existence, we tend to make a fateful presumption of ease.”
The good news about this similarity, however, is that the lessons we learn in our smaller contexts—often through difficult struggles—can also serve us in larger ones. The three “stretches” I suggest in my book, which contradict conventional professional thinking about how to collaborate to effect systemic change, map onto simple rules of thumb from daily life.
The first stretch, “engage with conflict as well as connection,” simply reminds us that differences among actors can be not only enormously frustrating but also infinitely valuable—and, in any event, cannot be avoided. We must therefore courageously work through these differences rather than vainly try to paper them over.
The second stretch, “experiment a way forward,” simply reminds us to take things one step at a time. Although it may be a helpful discipline to formulate a plan, we should expect that things will usually not go according to this plan. Living systems will always surprise us and so require us to feel our way forward.
The third stretch, “step into the game,” simply reminds us to focus our attention on what we ourselves are doing and need to do next. Focusing only on what we think others—our colleagues, relatives, leaders—ought to be doing is a diverting but fruitless pastime.
We know from our personal lives that these three stretches are simple but that they are not easy. If we can learn to stretch in one aspect of our life, however, we will be more able to do so everywhere.
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I am enjoying the opportunity this newsletter provides to continue to reflect on the challenges of collaboration. Please send me your thoughts and questions. Meanwhile I am still offering to give one free presentation or seminar per month for the next year, either in-person or on-line, to promote the practice of stretch collaboration. I welcome your proposals for presentations—to your organisation or project, or to public conferences or other events—that you think would be most useful for achieving this end.