Finding Alignment is the Key to Collaboration

No matter where we live or what we do to make a living, all of us are required to collaborate with people and to manage conflict with people. From the global interdependencies governed by the fact that all people share one planet to the fight about whose turn it is to do the dishes, working with others is just a fact of life.

And even if a project starts with a sense of agreement, underlying

Resist, Retreat, Submit or Collaborate

There are 4 ways of dealing with conflict.

  1. Resist: fight against the other side until the weakest party loses.
  2. Retreat: avoid the conflict and disengage completely.
  3. Submit: agree without protest to the outcome, results, or action requested by the other side.
  4. Collaborate: find a way to work together in which both sides are moving forward with integrity.

I hope it is obvious that none of the first 3 are options that are sustainable for a community in the long-term. Both parties are going to continue to want what they wanted at the beginning.

Resisting and submitting both lead to a loser, and the typical impact of losing is resentment and desire for revenge. On a global scale, resistance and submission lead to intractable civil wars and violence: the longstanding violence in Ireland between Catholics and Protestants, the fighting between Israelis and Palestinians, the civil war in Syria. The same dynamic happens in a marriage: passive aggressive lashing out or constant squabbling easily overwhelm what might have started out well.

Retreat is slightly more complicated. If two parties can achieve their goals without intersecting with each other, retreat may be sustainable. However, when complete separation and progress toward important goals are incompatible, retreat leads to the same results as resistance and submission.

Collaboration is the Only Way to Join Forces and Avoid Escalating Conflict

Collaboration Done Wrong is Based on Agreement

A very common approach to collaboration is to find someone who agrees with you on what needs to be done and work with them to make it happen. This feels great at the beginning of a partnership, and often turns into an awful sense of betrayal later on. Why does this happen?

It happens because the surface agreement covered some important differences in motivation, goals, and values. The initial ease created a sense of safety and when conflict surfaced (as it inevitably does in on-going relationships), the underlying disagreements came to the surface. And, because these underlying disagreements contradict the assumption of sameness that made the relationship feel so good at the beginning, the people involved believe that the other people committed lies of omission and hid important information about who they were. Trust is eroded. This happens in business and personal relationships.

A second approach to collaboration occurs when people are forced to work together because of circumstances. They may be co-workers, leaders of neighbouring countries, family members, or the only people in a community interested in an issue. In this case, there is no option to walk away. The people involved look for what they can agree on and work on that.

The biggest problem with this approach is that when people disagree about important things, those things get left off the table completely or people assume they have to be approached from a winner takes all perspective. In addition, this approach has the same risk of later discovering disagreements based on differing motivations, goals, and values as collaborations based on agreements when walking away is a choice – only more so, because there is also a sense of being trapped in working with these people.

Collaboration done right is based on alignment.

To keep a collaboration from heading into betrayal territory, it is important to start with underlying motivations. This will identify things that might come to be important later.

In addition, starting with underlying motivations can allow collaboration even without agreement.

Here’s how it works.

The conversation starts with discussing the big picture concerns, not positions. And the people involved look for the places where they agree about the goals, aspirations, motivations, or values at play. They identify the parts of what each other believes that they can get behind. Once some places of alignment have been found, then the people involved can find actions that they can do together that emerge from the places of alignment. They can act together to make progress in these areas of alignment. And they can do this without having to agree with each other about the big picture or specific ideal outcomes. In addition, they do not need to understand each other to proceed. They can simply agree on the area of alignment and actions that emerge as a direct result of that alignment.

Because action is not dependent on agreement, disagreement can be met with curiosity and not merely with frustration. Disagreement is not a deal-breaker, so it becomes less threatening.

It may not be possible to take action on the heart of the most important challenges and areas of conflict, but finding the areas in which movement is possible starts to shift both the situation and the people involved.  Small progress may open up new opportunities.

In a world where the Us v. Them mentality has taken root, searching for alignment is the fastest way to start working together.


This post is part of the 2017 Blogging from A to Z Challenge.