The Secret of Collaboration

When we get angry, impatient, disappointed and generally maddened by those we work with, there is a fatally attractive explanation of our troubles always to hand: we are surrounded by unusually lax or incompetent people. But in fact it is – inescapably – difficult to work well with other people. And there are a few big, unavoidable reasons why that’s the case.


The central problem of colleagues is that they are not you. To grasp why this matters so much, we need to contemplate the condition of the baby who does not realise that its mother is in fact a separate being. only after a long and very difficult process of development (if ever) can a child realise that a parent is truly a distinct individual with an entire life and history outside their relationship to their child – and it may be the work of a lifetime to gradually accept that this is the case.


We largely persist in modelling our sense of what other people are like – and of what might be going on in their heads – on our experience of ourselves. We find it remarkably difficult to imagine clearly and calmly that others might not be very much like us at all. others have different skills, different weaknesses, different motives and fears. It is as if the human brain did not evolve with the need to address this particular problem. And it may have been that for most of the time that human beings have existed it has been sufficient – for individual and group survival – to operate with a very limited interest in how people might differ from us in terms of how their minds work.


In the office, other people are out of our control – and yet we need their assistance in performing delicate, complicated tasks. When we are doing things ourselves, we don’t actually give ourselves clear instructions. If we could listen in to the accompanying inner monologue as we undertake a project, it would be made up of (to anyone else) a baffling series of assertions and jumbled words: ‘Narr, yes. Come on! Ah, nearly, nononono, back … ok got it got it … No. Yes. That’s fine.’ This might be the inner set of instructions (accompanied by biting the lower lip and hunching slightly forward) for selecting identifying images to accompany a certain passage of text. But when we collaborate, we have to learn to turn the stream of consciousness (which only we can follow) into instructions, suggestions, commands and prompts that will be clear and effective for other people. Others can’t by instinct alone understand what you need: they don’t share your vision and their interests are not aligned. It’s an extremely difficult thing to transform our own inner convictions and attitudes and motives into material that makes sense to other people, and it’s not our fault if we’re not naturally good at it.


Collaboration is difficult, in addition, because everyone, beneath the surface, is quite weird, and hence it requires a lot of special abilities and development to actually get the best out of working alongside them. We get frustrated by collaboration not simply because it is difficult, but because it is much more difficult than we suppose it should be. Recognising the inner strangeness of others (and of oneself) provides an accurate basis for the assumption that, on the contrary, collaboration is obviously a very tricky thing to attempt; it is extremely likely to encounter a great many obstacles that will take plenty of time to resolve.


We need to continually feed our quickly depleted readiness to make allowances for other people, to accept that things that are easy for us are hard for them, that they need encouragement, that a blunt statement, however true, may have a catastrophic effect. We don’t habitually make accommodation for the complicated psychologies, odd scars and unexpected areas of fearsome vulnerability that others will inevitably have – but rarely look as if they do. It may take a great deal of thought and attention to work out how to manage a colleague on a particular matter. But we won’t invest this time and effort if we suppose that everyone is (and ought to be) straightforward. The calmer starting point is to assume that of course collaboration is very tricky, but that the task of working well with others is noble and interesting – it is deserving of much thought and care and the constant renewing of attempts to make it work in non-panicked moments.


This is an extract from our book ‘Calm’, which you can find in our online shop. Buy Now.

Many of its ideas are explored further in our workshop on Communication.

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