“No man is an island,” the English poet John Donne once wrote. Nearly 400 years later, if you’re into creative, ambitious work, that sentiment is truer than ever—collaboration is often essential.
It also might not feel like your strong suit. Maybe you feel weird without your headphones in and would much rather work alone. But even then, chances are your efforts are part of a greater whole that hinges on your abilities as a collaborator to succeed—so you might as well speak up.
It’s an area where we can all stand to improve, and has you covered. Here are six tips to help you become a better collaborator.
What is collaboration, anyway?
Working in collaboration means everyone can contribute ideas—so it’s different from the kind of teamwork where a group marches in unified lockstep to realize one person’s plan or goal. Collaborating means hearing people out, melding different ideas together, and building toward a shared objective.
Put another way, if you’re not steadily communicating about what you’re trying to accomplish and how best to go about it, you’re not really collaborating.
Part of communicating is listening and understanding.
Collaboration doesn’t work if only one person does all the talking. Fostering a collaborative space means making room for other people to share their ideas—even the shy ones. (That said, making a point of giving a quiet person the floor doesn’t help much if they feel suddenly called on like a daydreamer who zoned out in algebra class.)
Part of getting people to open up and share valuable ideas is helping them feel like they’ll be heard. That means being patient and generous—a facilitator, not an autocrat.
Also, if you are one of the quieter ones present for a collaborative discussion, recognize that you’re in the room to participate, not just observe. That’s not always the case in life—and yes, people who think all meetings should be collaborative are insufferable—but in this case, it’s good to show you’re engaged by saying what you’re thinking.
Keep the conversation open ended.
One of the challenges of the collaborative process is getting past the blue sky stage where people throw out ideas, and onto distilling the results into an actionable plan with defined deliverables. When you’re trying to clarify what you’ll actually be doing, it helps to ask questions rather than issue decrees, like so:
A useful strategy to get people on the same page is to try repeating their points back in your own words. This helps crystallize the takeaways and can reveal any discrepancies or misunderstandings that need to be addressed early on. It can also be worthwhile to capture key ideas on a whiteboard, sticky notes, or a shared screen.
CONCISENESS, n. Expressing a lot in a few words
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— Bloggr (@Bloggr)
Know when to ask for help—and be delicate when offering it.
One of the joys of being a collaborator is you don’t have to have all the answers. A truly collaborative endeavor is one where it’s okay to take risks—and to go to your colleagues when you need guidance. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it shows that you’re interested in getting better at something, have recognized someone else’s skill, and feel secure enough to take some time out for your edification.
Likewise, you want other people to feel at ease getting help from you, not forced, as in this example:
Don’t make your collaboration messier than necessary.
Over the course of your project, you and your collaborators will likely find things to disagree about. It’s worth remembering there’s value in drawing from perspectives—even if only a fraction of the insights this process yields will be ???.
For the rest, be diplomatic. Know when to hold your tongue. Keep in mind that kindness, while not always effortless, is rarely a waste of energy.
At some point, someone will probably have to say “no,” or at least “not right now.” And someone else will have to live with that. This is part of what separates a collaborative process that sets and achieves its goals from an endless digression on things people wish would happen at some point. In other words, while it might not always feel like it, it’s often a good thing.
When you’re done, share credit—and say thank you.
There is no quicker way to exclude yourself from a group’s future collaborative endeavors than to claim all the credit and glory for yourself. It’s simply not a good look when you could instead be graciously acknowledging the contributions of your peers and bringing donuts.
Lastly, take a moment to reflect on what you learned and what you hope to improve going forward. Such lessons may come in handy the next time you’re called upon to collaborate.