It Takes a Big Pair of Questions to Collaborate

By Barry Pruitt

dateSun, Jul 19, 2015 @ 12:00 PM

Surveys indicate that 47% of people rate themselves as good collaborators during conflict, yet only rate Collaboration_Questions25-33% of counterparts as collaborative! This 14-22% gap clearly indicates that we feel we are collaborators but are not perceived by others to be that way. 

Collaboration involves willing and active participants, and admittedly, all situations aren’t conducive to collaboration. When the situation is right, it takes a big pair of questions to succeed. A pair of questions you should you ask yourself regarding the outcome desired and the relationship wanted when the conflict is over. When you value both the relationship and the outcome, collaboration is your ideal conflict-resolution style. 

Here is the big pair of questions:

  1. What outcome do you want? The outcome desired may be clear to you yet should be well thought out. Consider it from all views, whether it’s within reason, and whether you may help the other party get something they want at the same time.
  2. The moment you recognize you’re in conflict, ask yourself this question: "What do you want this relationship to be like long-term?" Imagine the difference in your answers for a car salesperson versus a business colleague, or an acquaintance versus a loved one. Your answer to this second question will guide your response in the middle of the conflict.

Once you have your big pair of answers clearly in mind, now you can work toward successful collaboration.

Here’s a framework for successful collaboration:

  • Confirm the other person's needs and objectives. Phrases may include:
    1. Tell me what would make this meeting SuperGreen for you?
    2. I’m curious as to what would make this a successful meeting for you?
    3. What do I need to make sure we cover in our time together?
    4. I’d like to hear what your objectives are for this meeting so I can consider all the data while we talk.
  • Stimulate information sharing and disarm their defensiveness. 
    1. I thought it would be helpful if you knew …
    2. The story I’m telling myself is _______. Help me out with the actual facts.
    3. When you go back and share our agreement with your team, what details would make them consider you successful?
  • Brainstorm alternatives.
    1. If we had no constraints, what might we do?
    2. Before we talk details, let’s list at least 10 ways to do this.
  • Reschedule interactions for a time when emotions are not elevated.
    1. Let’s take a break and get some coffee. When we come back we can pick up where we left off …
    2. I need to go to another meeting (join another call, get some information off to a colleague, etc.) and want to continue this. Can we reschedule at 3:15 pm?
  • Agreement on a collaborative process at the outset.
    1. I know that we both have opinions on this, and I’d like to be respectful and hear your thoughts. How about you go first and I’ll just take notes of any questions I have while listening?
    2. I see two ways we could approach this. One is for each of us to be inflexible, invest a lot of time, and really dislike the process. The other is that we approach with an open mind and hear each other out before we form opinions. I’m willing to try the open-mind approach – which do you prefer?

This mnemonic may help you remember the above:

Confirm Information and Alternatives while you Reschedule the Agreement. 

I have a good friend who correctly points out that with each additional finger, our grip gets stronger. But it’s the thumb that gives strength to each of the other fingers. Although it visibly appears to work against the other fingers, it actually solidifies one’s grip. Just like the thumb works in conjunction with other fingers, trust will give strength to your effort during conflict.  

According to Merriam-Webster, trust is the belief that someone or something is reliable, good, honest, effective, etc. In conflict situations, I would conclude that it is essentially a feeling (gut or intuitive) that there is nothing being hidden that could harm you during the conflict.

A successful collaboration then takes energy, trust, time, and often restraint. As a refining question, ask yourself, “Do I really understand my counterpart's viewpoint?” Heed Stephen Covey by "seeking first to understand; then be understood."

In summary, when conflict arises, don’t deal with it on the spot without giving thought to unintentional, or unintended consequences.

Follow this quick-check framework to help you be a good collaborator:

  1. Briefly outline the conflict, all parties involved, and what it’s about.
  2. Break out the big pair of questions:

       - What outcome do you want?

       - What do you want the relationship to be like long-term?

  1. Do you have feelings that may be getting in the way? What are they?
  2. Write out specifically what it is that the other person said or did that caused you to react. 

At a minimum, with the answers to your big pair of questions, you can be confident of no collaboration regrets. 


Photo Credit: Flickr User Andres Nieto Porras, CC license


Barry Pruitt


Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images