There isn’t one right way. There isn’t one right way to have a conversation, or resolve a dispute, or collaborate on solving a problem when people disagree about the solution.
So if your style of conversation, resolving a dispute, or collaborating with people when you disagree, is different from other people’s styles, that’s not necessarily a problem. If people have different styles, that might collaboration difficult, but that’s just a problem that you can solve.
There are some people who think there is one right way to collaborate. I read an article on the Heller Search blog by executive coach and former IT leader Doug Moran (“Don’t Mistake Cooperation for Collaboration”). In the article, Moran says that “for collaboration to occur, there needs to be conflict.”
First of all, let’s get rid of that passive voice. It’s people who act; states of being are the result of what people do, they don’t happen on their own. So, put in active voice, what Moran is saying is, “for people to collaborate, they need to conflict with each other.”
That simply isn’t true. Based on my experience as a mediator, helping people with a whole bunch of different cultural and communication styles, and my personal experience growing up in one culture and learning to embrace and being embraced by another culture, I know that there are lots of different styles of collaboration.
I’ve mediated with parties who sound, to me compared to how I grew up like they’re arguing nastily and unproductively. But I watch them talk, I listen to their tone of voice, and I resonate with their body language. If everyone’s at ease with the way they’re talking, and they’re making progress in the mediation, I let them continue.
I’ve mediated with parties at the other end of the scale, who seem to me to be so excruciatingly polite that they’re not addressing the real issues and they’ll never come to a resolution. But, again, as long as they’re at ease in making progress, I let them continue.
What makes collaboration difficult is when people have different cultural and communication styles and they’re not aware of it, or, if they are aware of it, they won’t do anything to deal with the problem. For example, when one person feels like the other person is always interrupting them or disrespecting them. Or when one person sees the other person as being passive aggressive. Or when one person thinks the other person is behaving like a child.
Here’s a simple way to make collaboration easier among people who have different communication styles. That’s to verify with the other person whether their intent is actually what you think it is. For example, “You’re starting to talk before I finish talking, which to me is an interruption. Is that what you mean?” Or, “I have no idea what you’re trying to say. I feel like you want me to do all the work in communicating here, am I missing something?” Or, “What you’re saying sounds like an attack. Are you attacking me, or am I misinterpreting something here?”
When you say one of those three things, or something like them that works for your culture, you do a couple of things. First of all, you let the other person know what their communication style is like for you. They may not be aware that you have different styles, and would be willing to change if they were aware.
Second, you describe their behavior, which they may not be aware of. Once they are, they may change their style.
Third, you make a conversational opening for you to tell the other person about your style, and how you’d like to collaborate.
I’ll give you an example from my own life. I was in a meeting with a man who had a conversational style was on the… blunt end of the spectrum, and who expected people to interrupt each other. But I didn’t like how he was interrupting me. It was driving me nuts. So after a minute or two, I told him plainly, “I value being able to communicate everything I have to say all at once. I would appreciate it if you did not start talking until I’m finished, but just listen.”
The man was startled, but he did sit there and listen until I was finished with what I had to say. Everyone in the meeting collaborated more productively after that, not because we were in conflict, but in fact the opposite. I made it clear to that teammate that we had different styles and that I wanted to speak without interruption. The plan that the group was collaborating on that day was more specific, with better defined action steps, and ultimately accepted by upper management without changes, because we had found a way to collaborate effectively – and we didn’t need to be in conflict to do it.
As I said at the beginning, there’s no one right way to have a conversation, or to resolve a dispute, or to collaborate on solving a problem when people disagree about the solution. The way that any group of people collaborates is the way that works best for them.
For people to collaborate, they must collaborate. That’s all.