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Conflict Is Part of Collaboration

Apr 18, 2013 11:28:22 AM

I just returned from speaking last week at the Lone Star College Women’s Leadership Conference in Houston.  I spoke about the value of collaboration.  It was the first time I spoke publicly about growing up in an environment that was high on dysfunction, low on trust, and often emotionally or physically violent.  One can’t talk about collaboration without making room for conflict.  Conflict is one ingredient that offers us the opportunity to take the best of what we each have to offer, and stir it together to create something unique and new, and more than the sum of the parts.  Conflict often gets a bad rap, and I understand why.  When I made the decision that I wanted to change the world by changing the quality of our conversations, I discovered I also had to change my relationship with conflict. 

Conflict can be frightening for people like me who grew up around folks with low impulse control and who operated from a place of win-lose.  I spent many years trying to diffuse and manage, or at the very least not get caught in the cross-fire of this unhealthy version of conflict.  While the risk is often different in a work setting, the emotions that conflict can evoke trigger all those old fears.  With practice I was able to improve my capacity for dealing with conflict without running for cover, but that also brought a whole new set of problems.  I soon discovered I was still trying to control it by being attached to the outcome.

Someone asked me recently, “Deb, what you’re saying is that theoretically I can learn to become more conflict competent, and even apply techniques that improve my ability to collaborate, right?”  Yes, I responded.  “But what if my business partner doesn’t follow the same guidelines or refuses to play with the same set of rules?  What then?”  This question is important on several fronts.  What I’ve learned is that collaboration is a stance we take in the world.  I made the decision to live co-actively many years ago.  I practiced building authentic trust in my relationships with others. I did my work, took the class, got the certificate, went to therapy, and in the process of all that I learned how to be more collaborative and to become conflict competent.

But trust is a two-way street, and (sadly) I’ve also learned that I only have control over the car I’m driving (by the way, even though I’ve accepted this truth I’m still practicing living in to it).

We prefer to do business with people we trust.  Dr. Dwayne Tway, who wrote his dissertation on the Constructs of Trust, cites several components of trust.  First, we each have a capacity for trusting others based on our experiences.  We can increase that capacity by not allowing ourselves to be held hostage by the past.  We can create capacity by being present to what is true now, not the old version of what used to be.  Secondly, we have to learn to trust our own capabilities and the capabilities of others.  If I doubt myself, I must be willing to challenge my thinking but also be realistic and take stock of my capabilities. I can choose at any time to lean into my own possibilities and/or rely on others to close the gap.  The last of the three constructs is our perception of others as either self-serving or able to set-aside personal agendas for the greater good.  If I suspect that someone is only self-serving, I will naturally question his or her motives differently than someone that I perceive cares about my needs.

Each of us chooses to engage in the dance with trust. We can do our part to increase authentic trust in our relationships.  We cannot do more than our part.  Some people are not trustworthy, and unless you have been living in total isolation you too have discovered this reality.  While this does not come as a surprise, I must confess that I am often disappointed and even still somewhat disillusioned by this fact. The best one can do is, “to thy own self be true.”

I decided to take the stance of being collaborative.  That is who I choose to be.  I will do my best to listen and value others perspectives, even when I disagree with them.  By being a partner who believes in reciprocity and mutual respect, I am living in accordance with my values.  I can (and I will) do my part.

I’ve found it frustrating at times that no matter how pure my intentions, or how masterfully and skillfully I respond, I cannot force others to choose my version of authentic trust, but I guess we all have our own work to do.  I remind myself that I don’t collaborate for the outcome.  I collaborate because that is who I am.

And while you can lead a horse to water, you can’t make him collaborate.

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Deb Siverson

Deb Siverson is the owner and founder of Xponents. She completed her Masters in Organizational Leadership from University of Colorado-Boulder. Deb is the author of the book, "The Cycle of Transformation: igniting organizational change through the leader coach."

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